State Department cables that WikiLeaks obtained and shared with McClatchy Newspapers and other news organizations indicate that church officials at the Vatican briefed U.S. diplomats on the pope's concerns but acknowledged that the country's Roman Catholic bishops were likely to ignore the orders.
Nearly a decade later, relations between Chavez and the church remain chilly, and the cables provide insight into how the antipathy became so deep: Catholic prelates not only were trying to unseat Chavez, but also were willing to defy directions from the pope to do so.
"The Holy See is concerned about the prospect of civil violence in Venezuela in the coming months, and the pope himself has urged the Venezuelan bishops to 'cool it' on political activism and instead to encourage dialogue," said a confidential cable that Jim Nicholson, who was then the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, sent Nov. 19, 2002, to the State Department.
The cable came months after an April 11 coup in which top military leaders captured Chavez and flew him out of Venezuela. Wealthy businessman Pedro Carmona declared himself president. In what became a major diplomatic controversy, the United States didn't denounce the coup, even though Chavez had been elected to the presidency. Spain and the Vatican also were silent.
In the document, Nicholson recounts meetings with the Holy See's director for Caribbean affairs, Giorgio Lingua. The Vatican diplomat confessed to fears that violence soon would come to Venezuela and said the pope had ordered bishops to seek dialogue with Chavez, who himself had escalated tensions by referring to the Catholic Church as a "cancer on Venezuelan society."
The pope's message, however, largely was ignored.
"Lingua, smiling, thought the message from the pope 'might not have sunk in,' the cable said. "He admitted that Cardinal Archbishop Antonio Ignacio Velasco Garcia of Caracas was perhaps too close to the coup plotters."
In a comment, the cable noted that "the continued activism of the Venezuelan clergy in the face of the pope's caution does not surprise us."
Cardinal Velasco was at Carmona's swearing-in ceremony in the presidential palace, Miraflores. Carmona was forced from office two days later, and Chavez returned to power.
For the Catholic Church, Velasco's effective blessing of the coup made hopes of a reconciliation with Chavez unlikely.
"The Holy See fears a negative reaction to the fact that the cardinal archbishop of Caracas, Velasco Garcia, had signed a document at the Saturday inauguration of presidential usurper Carmona," Nicholson wrote in a Nov. 22, 2002, cable recounting a meeting he'd had with Archbishop Jean Louis Tauran, the Vatican's equivalent of a foreign minister.
Relations between Chavez and the church continued to decline, even after Velasco died on July 6, 2003.
A confidential Oct. 19, 2004, cable underscored how deep those divisions had become, recounting an analysis of church-state relations from Cardinal Jose Castillo Lara, a Venezuelan who'd held numerous Vatican posts over 40 years and had recently retired and returned to his native land.
Castillo Lara thought Chavez enjoyed the upper hand and that the church would "be less confrontational with the GOV" - the government of Venezuela - "than in previous years." But he didn't think that all bishops would conform.
"He did not discount that certain bishops, working individually, might be more active with opposition groups," the embassy noted.
With the Venezuelan government having veto power over the naming of bishops under a 1964 agreement, the Vatican didn't name a successor to Velasco until 2006, after Pope John Paul II also had died.
Almost a decade after the failed coup, Chavez remains a thorn in the side of U.S. policymakers, cozying up to pariah states such as Iran and Syria. Relations with the church remain chilly.
"Chavez has taken some very strong views of the church. He's argued that the church has largely been part of the opposition," said Peter Hakim, the president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue, a research center on politics in the Americas. "I don't get a sense that there's ... any cease-fire with Chavez."