SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Although Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro has promised that Venezuela will hold elections later in 2024, many of his critics, including Church officials, doubt that his regime will allow a free and transparent electoral process to take place and don’t expect concrete change anytime soon.

At the same time, some critics of the Church’s response believe that Venezuela’s bishops should be more outspoken in challenging the Maduro regime, and that they may be hobbled by fear of a Nicaragua-style crackdown.

Maduro’s March 1 declaration regarding elections, made to Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, came during the summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines last week.

It followed an agreement by the Venezuelan Congress with the opposition and members of civic organizations on Feb. 28 to present a list with 27 potential dates for the elections to be submitted to the electoral authority.

The political passions provoked by more than two decades of “Chavismo,”referring to the left-wing populist ideology associated with the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, have been intensified since last year when controversies around the upcoming elections began to grow.

The most important of them was the disqualification of candidate María Corina Machado, who won the primaries for the opposition in October. Machado is impeded to run for president due to her support for the sanctions imposed by the United States against Maduro and for having backed Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who proclaimed himself as the president of Venezuela in 2019.

A court ruling confirmed she is out of the process in January, but Machado declared she will not give up. Henrique Capriles, a major rival of Maduro, was also disqualified.

In February, Maduro’s regime gave worrisome signs of growing repression. On Feb. 9, activist Rocío San Miguel was detained and accused of conspiring to kill Maduro. A few days later, the government ordered the United Nations to shut down its Human Rights Office in Caracas, accusing its staff of taking part in conspiracies against the regime.

The political polarization among Venezuelans also includes the Church. While a few priests identify with the government’s ideology and have been defending the regime’s measures in the current crisis, other Catholic leaders have been fierce critics of Maduro for years and had to flee the South American country in order to avoid persecution.

From the exile, they keep denouncing the regime’s actions and even say that the Venezuelan episcopate should raise its voice against Chavismo.

That’s the case with Father José Palmar, a renowned activist against Chavismo currently living in the United States. Initially a supporter of the regime, Palmar grew gradually discontent with it and began to publish critical articles.

In 2018, he had to move to Mexico, which he decided to leave after the assassination of his friend with whom he was staying. He then crossed the Texan border and remained detained for more than a month till he was allowed to settle in the country.

“The Church has a giant educational association that gathers thousands of Catholic schools and receives money from the government. If it criticizes the regime, it loses the contract,” Palmar told Crux, adding that “the Church is afraid of taking any prophetic measure [against the regime] in Venezuela.”

Palmar said that only a few Catholic voices are heard on social media denouncing Maduro, something very different from “the heroic bishops who raised their voices in the past.”

At times, it has to be noted, the episcopate has made declarations about the regime’s problems. In January, for instance, during their annual assembly, the bishops stated that the Church would follow from close the electoral process and denounced several social problems.

They mentioned the “limitations on the exercise of personal and social freedom,” the “cases of administrative corruption that occurred in state institutions,” and the economic problems that have led millions of Venezuelans to immigrate.

On Feb. 15, in an interview to a radio station, Cardinal Baltazar Porras, the Archbishop of Caracas, affirmed that “it’s a right” of every citizen to know when the elections will happen. He also declared that “the rules must be the same for everyone, otherwise this inequality generates injustices and conflicts.”

Despite such manifestations, Venezuelan Catholics in the exile seem to feel that the Church is not doing enough to denounce the regime.

In the opinion of Aimara Sánchez, who heads Fraternidad Venezolana, a nongovernmental organization that assists immigrants, few bishops directly confront the government today.

“They fear that something like what is happening in Nicaragua can also occur in Venezuela too,” she told Crux.

Sánchez, who has lived in Colombia since 2017, said that “many bishops individually criticize the regime, but they don’t have a collective stance against it.”

Working with thousands of Venezuelan immigrants fleeing hunger and poverty and crossing the borders with neighboring countries over the past few years, Sánchez has seen with her own eyes some of the effects of the regime, as she described.

“As Catholics, we’re called to prophetically denounce injustice. When we see our people suffering so much, we think that it’s also our responsibility to deal with that,” she lamented.

But she said that the regime managed to erode even the opposition over the years.

“The Church has always looked for new strategies. But the hierarchy has always called the people to vote. People still believe that change can come with elections, even with such tyranny,” she said.

In the opinion of Palmar, the upcoming electoral process will be once more fraudulent and unable to bring transformation.

“That’s a totalitarian regime with dictatorial actions. Last year, the people decided that María Corina Machado should run for president. But they just won’t let her be a candidate,” Palmar said.