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Priests, Plots…and Hugo Chávez

Hugh O'Shaugnessy discusses latest wikileaks cables, which reveal that Catholic bishops played a key role in 2002's abortive military coup in Venezuela.

In 1997 Eamon Duffy, president of Magdalene College, Cambridge, brought out the best one-volume history of popes that has ever been written. He called it Saints & Sinners.

In the light of the latest news from Venezuela I would respectfully urge him to set about writing a companion volume about the leaders of the church in Latin America. I suggest that he calls it Saints, Traitors & Sinners.

The church in that region has of course produced some remarkable saints – some of them unrecognised in the upper reaches of the Vatican. Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador; the six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter slain by the western-supported Salvadorean army on the campus of the Central American University; the prelates and clergy killed by the repulsive military regime in Argentina and Cardinal Raúl Silva, archbishop of Santiago de Chile at the time of Pinochet’s putsch, were and are among the brightest stars in the church’s firmament.

Yet the clergy had – and still has – its villains.

Among the latest revelations to emerge from WikiLeaks is that, in 2002, as plotters in Venezuela’s capital Caracas were liaising with the US authorities about the conspiracy to topple President Hugo Chávez, the leaders of the Catholic church in that country were defying the instruction of Pope John Paul II to desist from having anything to do with the coup d’état. Instead they threw their lot in with Pedro Carmona, the extremist rightwing businessman, who took office for less than 48 hours during a brief military coup in April 2002.

The cables reveal that Cardinal Antonio Ignacio Velasco, the Salesian archbishop of Caracas, was on hand to sign papers purporting to legitimise the ridiculous Carmona as he dismissed the congress and the judges, and briefly sent Venezuelan politics back into the dark ages. Happily, the genuine popularity of the legitimate head of state was such that the Carmona gang and their military accomplices were routed and Chávez was restored to power.

In doing what he did, Velasco, who died in 2003, and the majority of his fellow bishops, betrayed not just the papacy but their compatriots at the instance of a foreign power – in this case, the United States. This added to the prelates’ marginalisation in Venezuelan life by the majority who, unsurprisingly, see them as firm upholders of the establishment in a major oil-producing country, where half of the population live below the poverty line.

Velasco and his successors are remembered now as part of the camarilla that opposed the reform programme of the Chávez government, which, in the 12 years it has been in power, raised a quarter of the country’s population out of poverty.

The US government’s – not to mention the western media’s – condemnation of Chávez has, for years, done much to blank out the successes of a government which is still not just legitimate but popular. Few in the west realise that extreme poverty has been cut drastically and unemployment has been halved so that no more than 7% of the population is out of work.

On 19 November 2002, several months after Velasco’s catastrophic mistake, the US envoy to the Vatican, James Nicholson, reported to his masters in Washington that the Holy See was alarmed at the outlook for further civil violence in the coming months. “The pope himself has insistently asked the Venezuelan bishops to cool their political activism and instead encourage dialogue,” he said.

But by that time it was too late. Despite the fact that a mass was reported to have been offered in Caracas on Wednesday for Chávez as he recovers from his emergency operation in Havana, leaders of Venezuela’s Catholics are seen to be on the wrong side, the side of the rich. But wasn’t there something in the gospels about rich people, camels and the eyes of needles?