e Venezuelan gamble
In Venezuela today 87 per cent of people can’t afford enough food for their families. They are on the socalled Maduro Diet, named after the country’s unloved president, Nicolás Maduro, whom many blame for the shortages. Some are so hungry that they are surviving on wild animals such as flamingos and giant anteaters. Economists expect inflation to reach 1,000 per cent this year, setting an unenviable world record. Meanwhile, the nation has the highest violence levels in South America, with a murder rate of 120 per 100,000 people in the capital, Caracas.
Given these abysmal statistics, it’s not surprising that Pope Francis decided to make an unusual intervention there last year. He dispatched a Vatican mediator to resolve the country’s deepening political crisis. The move underlined the bond between the Church and Venezuela. According to the CIA Factbook, 96 per cent of the 30 million population is Catholic (at least nominally). The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, served as nuncio to Caracas, and the new superior general of the Jesuits, Fr Arturo Sosa, is Venezuelan.
But the Vatican mission has not gone smoothly, despite being led by the flinty Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli. The government has made few concessions to the opposition. Indeed, Maduro has tightened his stranglehold on Venezuelan society, while projecting a newly pious image.
Last week a Pulitzer Prize-winning Argentine journalist declared Vatican mediation efforts a disaster. Andrés Oppenheimer argued that the intervention had legitimised Maduro, “throwing him a lifeline when millions of protesters
Pope Francis knew that intervening in such a volatile country was risky were demanding his resignation on the streets in October 2016”. The only way to restore democracy now, Oppenheimer said, would be for the Vatican to declare the talks a failure and for the members of the Organisation of American States (including the United States) to punish Venezuela with sanctions.
There are signs that the Vatican is coming to a similar conclusion about its mediation. Last month Archbishop Celli declined to attend talks between the government and opposition, sending
Archbishop Aldo Giordano, the apostolic nuncio to Venezuela, instead. This was a clear sign of displeasure.
But it might not be as easy for the Vatican to abandon talks as Oppenheimer implies. It is certainly unpleasant for the Holy See to be accused of aiding one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes. But if the Vatican were to pull out now, it might be blamed for something even worse: sparking a civil war that claims hundreds of thousands of lives.
Pope Francis knew that intervening in one of the world’s most volatile countries was risky. There was a high probability that the Vatican would be sucked into domestic political disputes, tarnishing its diplomatic reputation. There was a slim chance that the Holy See could persuade Maduro to depart peacefully. Despite these poor odds, the Pope bet on Venezuela, convinced that he should do everything in his power to alleviate the people’s suffering.
Maduro once suggested that his predecessor, the messianic Hugo Chávez, had secured the election of the world’s first Latin American pope from heaven. It is not too late to hope that Pope Francis will be the man who consigns Maduro and his destructive Chavismo ideology to history.
A dark anniversary
The 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917 presents the Catholic Church with something of a quandary. There were two revolutions that year. The first, which took place in March, saw the largely peaceful overthrow of the Tsar and the establishment of a provisional government which was meant to oversee the transition to democracy. The provisional government was then overthrown in the October Revolution by a Bolshevik coup d’état, which crushed democracy and imposed a brutal dictatorship. If Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government had survived, Russian history might have been very different. However, we all know that history is not made up of ‘‘ifs’’.
The legacy of Bolshevism is 21 million deaths. From this horror, Russia is still recovering. For the Catholic Church, Bolshevism meant the closure of all but two of the Church’s 1,240 places of worship, and the violent deaths of 422 Catholic priests, as well as 962 monks, nuns and lay people.
Compared with the overall statistics of those who perished, this is a tiny amount, but no one should doubt that the Church faced the full force of communist oppression, particularly in the historically Catholic region of western Ukraine. Wisely, the Church has decided to stay neutral in the forthcoming celebrations of the Revolution. It is planning no events to mark the centenary, but will be urging the faithful to reflect and pray, as an encouragement to personal conversion. The Church will, however, mark the centenary of the Fatima apparitions, which also falls this year. In the face of the Revolution, and the disappointed hopes that it represents, prayer – and with it the hope for a better future and the re-establishment of Christian values – is the only response.
CATHOLIC HERALD, FEBRUARY 17 2017 3