ROME – As Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro prepares to begin a second term, the country’s bishops have called the controversial move “illegitimate and morally unacceptable” due to the serious humanitarian crisis unfolding under the government’s watch.
In a statement at Monday’s opening session for the Venezuelan bishops’ general assembly, which will close on Friday, Archbishop José Luis Azuaje, president of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference, said Maduro’s Jan. 11 swearing-in is framed in doubt.
Questioning its legitimacy, he said “history, when the time comes, through the actors who led such a dubious election in the framework of opportunism, will give its verdict.”
“It’s regrettable that those who have led the government during these recent years are determined to follow the same card, without meaningful changes in the economy and in the betterment of living conditions for Venezuelans,” he said, adding that the Maduro government has caused “a human and social deterioration in the people and in the wealth of the nation.”
Because of this, Luis Azuaje said a new mandate for the Maduro government “has become illegitimate and morally unacceptable.”
On Thursday Maduro will be sworn in for a second 6-year term as Venezuela’s president after his first, which began when he stepped in after the death of dictator Hugo Chavez in 2013, led to an economic meltdown that caused a humanitarian crisis so severe it has prompted around 3 million people, nearly 10 percent of the population, to flee the country since 2014, according to the United Nations.
Though according to Datanálisis, Venezuela’s leading pollster, nearly 72 percent of people wanted Maduro to resign, and a third of the population was in favor of external military intervention, he still managed to come out on top during a discredited election last May, considered by many citizens and international leaders as illegitimate.
Maduro’s swearing-in follows the Jan. 5 swearing-in of Juan Guaidó as the new president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, which Luis Azuaje in his comments said was the “only democratic body in force” in the country, and voiced hope that Guaidó, would “wisely lead this legislative body to reactivate the credibility of Venezuelans in politics and in the search for democratic solutions to this grave humanitarian and material crisis that the country is experiencing.”
In a statement on Guaidó’s swearing in, the U.S. Department of State echoed Luis Azuaje’s sentiment, calling the National Assembly “the only legitimate and last remaining democratically elected institution that truly represents the will of the Venezuelan people.”
“This democratic transition is a powerful confirmation of the National Assembly’s unity and commitment to the Venezuelan people above all personal and political concerns,” the statement said.
Both the United States and the European Union have sanctioned the Maduro government over the crisis the country is undergoing, and it is expected that more sanctions could be issued following Maduro’s swearing-in on Thursday.
The U.S. and the E.U. have also given some $150 million in humanitarian aid to Venezuela and they have appealed for an additional $738 million to assist refugees who have fled to neighboring countries such as Brazil, Colombia and Peru, and who are unable to return in the short or medium-term future.
In his statement, Luis Azuaje spoke of the growing humanitarian crisis, saying the bishops “regret that there is not an iota of human and social sensitivity, which implies a resounding change in the conduct of the country. It is a shared criterion which, until the policies that are consequences of ideological deviations overcome in history are changed, the national panorama will remain bleak.”
He asked the opposition to “consolidate political unity and leave partisan and personal interests aside in order to enter into a social interest, of the people.”
The situation in Venezuela is something Pope Francis has followed closely, especially since tensions escalated last year around the time of the election.
Not only was the Vatican’s position on Maduro a key talking point during the bishops’ ad limina visit in September 2018, but the leadership of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference has met with Francis to discuss the country’s crisis on multiple occasions, including a visit to the Vatican in June and a similar September 2017 meeting during the pope’s 5-day trip to Colombia.
However, despite the pope’s attention to Venezuela and his frequent meetings with the nation’s bishops, not everyone in Latin America is happy with his approach to the situation.
In an open Jan. 5 letter to Francis, some 20 former presidents of Latin America wrote to the pontiff criticizing his call for “harmony” in Venezuela and “reconciliation” in Nicaragua, both of which are suffering not only economic crisis, but human rights violations.
The letter was a reaction to the pope’s Dec. 25 Christmas message in which he referred to Venezuela and Nicaragua and prayed that the season would “allow Venezuela once more to recover social harmony and enable all the members of society to work fraternally for the country’s development and to aid the most vulnerable sectors of the population.”
He also prayed for Nicaragua, that citizens would “see themselves once more as brothers and sisters, so that divisions and discord will not prevail, but all may work to promote reconciliation and to build together the future of the country.”
Led by Nobel Prize-winner and former president of Costa Rica Oscar Arias, the letter said that while the leaders understand the pope’s concern “for the suffering that today, without distinction, all Venezuelans and now Nicaraguans face,” they are concerned that given the current political climate, the call for harmony “can be understood by the victimized nations that they should come to agreement with their victimizers.”
Though well intended, they said the term is being interpreted negatively by majority populations in Venezuela and Nicaragua, where there is currently “a political dispute that demands understanding, tolerance between conflicting forces with different narratives within a normal or deficient democracy that today unfortunately does not exist there.”
In a televised New Year’s Day message, Maduro issued an upbeat statement, saying “Victory awaits us! The future awaits us! And everything will be better!” He declared 2019 “the year of fresh starts,” however, with millions fleeing and others who stay risking starvation, and in the face of possible increases in international sanctions against his government, what exactly happens after Maduro’s swearing-in remains to be seen.