Venezuelan Cleric’s Not so Hidden Agenda

Venezuelan Catholic Church Episcopal Conference misses many points in their asessment of the country´s political and socioeconomic situation.

On July 11, 2003, the Bishops and Archbishops of Caracas headed by Monsignor Baltazar Enrique Porras Cardozo of the Venezuelan Catholic Church Episcopal Conference, issued a signed pamphlet entitled “Blessed Those Working For Peace”. Among several points, the document provided the following concerns of the clergymen:

  • “…In our country (Venezuela), due to the critical socioeconomic and political situation, peace and togetherness have deteriorated. Reasons: increase in poverty, increase in unemployment, rigid money exchange controls which have paralyzed the economy. Corruption, violence, homicides, insecurity, lack of respect for life, kidnappings, invasions, and the presence and activities of subversive groups in the borders are in the increase…
  • …It is worrisome the violation of human rights, the inhumane condition of jails, intimidation, threats and aggressions against journalists, murders, lack of respect for the rights of oil workers recently fired…
  • …The political conflicts exceed the limits of tolerance…
  • …The quality of life of Venezuelans has notably diminished…
  • …There will not be social peace in Venezuela if the confidence is not restored about the branches of government. It is necessary to have the real participation of all citizens in taking big decisions that affect life and the future of our country…
  • …That is why, before antagonistic positions, it is imperative to have with urgency a popular consultation which reinstates trust and peace in the country, and the legitimacy of institutions must be reinforced. For that, there is a judicial instrument for a constitutional outcome: the revoking referendum.”

Looking at it superficially, most people in Venezuela and the reader would agree with the validity of the above statements almost without having much discussion. However, there seems to be an underlying message. To start talking about an underlying agenda, we have to recall the past criticism of President Hugo Chavez on the role of the Catholic Church in Venezuela.

It is not a secret for anybody in Venezuela, that President Hugo Chavez has criticized (and rightly so) members of the church for their active participation in the April 2002 coup d’etat and their silence when previous administrations ransacked the treasury, ignored the needs of poor population, and acted repressively against popular protests. Mr. Chavez recalls examples when, while working at the Government palace for other administrations as a military attaché, he witnessed the corrupt practice of government high ranking officials handing out cash to clergymen in return for their ignorance of the real problems in society. Due to this position by Mr. Chavez, Porras has been an active and outspoken adversary of the Chavez administration.

But, lets look at beneath the layers of Mr. Porras’ statements to reveal the real agenda that the clergy in Venezuela is after.

It is true that poverty, unemployment, corruption, violence, insecurity and some of the other qualifiers currently exist in the Venezuelan society. However, to voice these facts at this time by clergymen, when they have not done so in previous administrations is inexcusable. In Venezuela, these social ailments have existed for many years prior to Mr. Chavez taking control of the government. Invasions of land by poor people were allowed by administrations since the 1960’s as a result of lack of jobs in rural areas, to the point that major metropolitan areas are completely surrounded by shacks and poor neighborhoods. UNESCO rates Venezuela´s poverty rate at 80% of its population, but this figure was calculated prior to Mr. Chavez taking control of the government. Unemployment has risen in the current year due to four strikes in 2002, called for by the business elite. In total, the last strike produced losses in the order of 8 billion dollars to the economy and the subsequent closure of businesses brought the unemployment rate higher. What the pamphlet ignores is that many of these businesses closed after the strike, because the business owners who endorsed the strike wanted to retaliate against the government. By leaving people in the unemployment line, business owners maintained the pressure over the government leaving a large number of workers on a limb to find out new jobs which were no longer available. The implementation of currency exchange controls has precluded more money to leave the fragile economy, and this is a measure that has been applied by previous administrations as a measure to preclude economic chaos.

Mr. Porras brings up these social ailments as if they were new issues that no one else ever noticed before. Mr. Porras mixes the allegations about violence and corruption with an “increase in the presence and activities of subversive groups in the borders”, as if this was a problem that the Chavez administration created. In fact, guerrilla movements in the border with Colombia (which is the border that Mr. Porras is alluding to) has existed for as long as the FARC has been operating in Colombia (over 40 years). The opposition in Venezuela, however, has made up the idea that Mr. Chavez and the government are financing and providing sanctuary to the FARC in Venezuelan territory to discredit the Chavez government in an attempt to persuade the US government to take action against Mr. Chavez. However, Mr. Porras does not condemn the incursion of Colombian paramilitary groups into Venezuelan’s territory and the killings of some Venezuelan troops in violent clashes against this paramilitary.

With respect to human right abuses, the conditions of jails, murders, intimidation, etc., Mr. Porras again mixes issues to confuse the readers. Why is it a concern nowadays that the conditions of jails are inhumane in his opinion, when the conditions of these jails have been a problem for decades? Mr. Porras complains about the lack of respect for the rights of oil workers recently fired. What rights is he talking about? These are oil industry executives and middle class workers who walked out during the strike for two months, committed acts of sabotage, and now they expect to go back to their work places and continue to live in free housing provided by the government-owned oil company (PDVSA) like nothing ever happened? What about the rights of workers who were sent home by business owners, and when they returned to their jobs after the strike, the owners have closed their companies, and the workers did not even receive their forced layoff pay checks as required by law? What about the rights of poor people who have endured previous administrations without these ever providing adequate medical care, adequate education, or any opportunities to better themselves? What about the right of approximately 70 campesinos (land workers) who have been murdered by opposition death squads in the last two years just because they have been given land and financing by the Chavez government?

It is true that “the political conflicts exceed the limits of tolerance”. Mr. Chavez and Venezuelans who support him have tolerated in four years a military coup d’etat in April 2002 and the violent media campaign who supported in all its forms the coup d’etat; have tolerated the four strikes called for by business owners that almost cripple the economy; have tolerated the recent terrorist bombings at La Carlota air force base, Tiuna A.F.B., Miraflores government palace, the Spanish embassy, the Colombian embassy; and have tolerated with courage and determination the international organizations viciously and unfairly criticizing and sanctioning the Chavez administration.

It is also true that “the quality of life of Venezuelans has notably diminished”. How could it be any different after four major strikes initiated against the economy only because a minority is unhappy with the constitutionally elected president in two elections (1998 and 2000)? How could it be any different after a coup d’etat attempt and a media that is 24-hours a day conspiring against the government with anti-Chavez propaganda?

Mr. Porras calls for revoking Mr. Chavez presidency with a referendum, as the celestial answer to all the problems in Venezuela. Our country suffers from structural cancers. These cancers have been created, not in the last four years of Mr. Chavez’ administration. These cancers have been the result of many years of corruption, neglect, failed administrations that have worked to enrich themselves. Venezuelans have risen above those who want to continue enriching themselves and those foreign and domestic supporters of this corrupt elite, who do not know what to do for living other than taking and taking from the treasury. Mr. Porras is on the wrong side of the issue. This issue goes beyond Mr. Chavez. This is a river whose rampant waters have been allowed to rush by Mr. Chavez. The process of changes in Venezuela has started and will continue with or without Mr. Chavez. This is the reality that the opposition and Mr. Porras do not want to understand. The time is for those in the lower classes and the poor to take control of the future of this country. Mr. Porras is wrong when, writing this pamphlet during his comfortable plane ride to Rome as he stated in the pamphlet, he ignores the clamor of the poor people for changes, changes that will only bring hope for their future. Mr. Porras has forgotten the preaching by Jesus Christ when he walked on earth to do and work for the poor. Mr. Porras is on the wrong side of history, however, it is probably too late for him to understand this because his interests are not with the poor people of Venezuela. Mr. Porras’ agenda is to use the negative aspects of society to confuse people and persuade them to revoke Mr. Chavez’ government, and give back control of the government to the corrupt elite business class. Mr. Porras forgets that the people, the majority of Venezuelans do not want to turn back to the time when clergymen received pay checks in secret from government officials; the people do not want any more deals closed behind their backs, Venezuelans do not want to have their oil industry squandered and sold to foreign investors, and Venezuelans do not want any more repressive governments who use military power to kill people demanding their rights. Venezuelans want hope and a new future, where the poor can finally become somebody.