ROME – With more than 5.5 million people fleeing Venezuela in recent years because of lack of opportunities, the Salesians in the South American country are warning that the people don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“We do not see effective responses against the coronavirus, although the situation was already very complicated before,” warned the religious order. “Moreover, the population is losing hope. They do not see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
An estimated 87 percent of the population of 28.5 million is currently living in poverty, and essential goods such as food and medicine are scarce.
“People are coping. If they feel unwell, they take something and carry on, because many do not have access to medical care,” warn Salesian missionaries working in Caracas, speaking about Venezuelan’s inability to address the COVID-19 pandemic or get treatment when symptoms arise.
“The salaries paid are ridiculous,” the letter adds, noting a pensioner receives less than one dollar a month in pension.
“The poorest people cannot afford food and health care,” they add.
The Salesian missionaries in Venezuela have been working for years alongside the most vulnerable population, focusing their efforts in offering education and training to children and young people, while working hand in hand with the bishops’ conference in their efforts of dialogue and national reconciliation.
“In Venezuela, we need to dialogue, we need to find an expression of the popular will,” they wrote in a statement released this week in Spanish news outlet Religion Digital. “Those who should have the last word are the people, the citizens … It is necessary to give security to choose, to speak.”
The warning from the religious community comes after talks between the government of Nicolas Maduro and the opposition were held in Mexico to try to reach an agreement that would allow the country to leave the economic, political and social crises behind.
Venezuelans are expected to elect governors and mayors in November, but opposition forces say the electoral conditions are grossly unfair and have yet to decide whether they will participate. During the conversations held in Mexico, the biggest demand from the opposition was for Maduro to guarantee its participation in a “free and transparent” election process. The government, on the other hand, was mostly focused on calling for sanctions to be lifted and seeking international legitimacy.
The opposition coalition headed by Juan Guaidó said that during the talks they aimed at promoting the importation of COVID-19 vaccines and a “National Salvation Agreement” that would involve negotiations with Maduro’s government and its local allies, opposition organizations and the international community.
Guaidó is recognized by the United States and most European countries as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, while Maduro has the support of Russia, China, Iran and Cuba.
According to Johns Hopkins University, less than 4 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
The Salesians also wrote that they need to find “a way that the aid that we receive reaches where it should go.”
“We receive a lot of solidarity, even from outside our country. There are many people who want to help… but it is useless if it remains on the way,” they warn.
Despite calling for dialogue among Venezuelans, the Salesians make no mention whatsoever of the government’s negotiation with the opposition.
In late June, Cardinal Baltazar Porras, apostolic administrator of Caracas and archbishop of Mérida, expressed the Church’s willingness to facilitate a negotiation between Maduro and Guaidó: “We are aware here and in the Vatican of the negotiation process. As always, our role is not to be a mediator but a facilitator.”
The cardinal said that the talks should not focus on the country’s problems, which are already known, but on encouraging the political will to define “what we want and where we want to go.”
“It can’t simply be with half-measures that don’t solve the problem,” instead, “there must be a series of fundamental freedoms so sanctions can also be negotiated and there can be access to so many things that we need,” Porras said.
Maduro has asked Pope Francis to foster dialogue in Venezuela more than once, requesting the Vatican to serve as mediator or as an impartial observer. For instance, one such letter was sent after Guaidó was widely recognized as the acting president of Venezuela in 2019, after national elections were considered fraudulent both by locals and the international community.
Yet in late July, after the pope’s right-hand man, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, sent a letter to a meeting of the local federation of chambers of commerce, where he said that the negotiations in Venezuela “requires political will on the part of those involved,” Maduro answered by labeling the cardinal’s letter a “compendium of hatred.”