ROME — Newsflash: sometime in the last 15 minutes, someone died violently in Venezuela.
His or her name is unknown, but the statistics don’t lie:. Every 12 to 18 minutes, someone is killed in this Latin American country. Despite having one of the world’s biggest oil reserves, Venezuela is currently enduring a desperate humanitarian crisis that follows years of authoritarian rule and economic mismanagement.
Today, December 6, the government of Nicolás Maduro, successor to Hugo Chávez, will sit down with the opposition for Vatican-mediated talks. Some key figures of the opposition will be missing: among them Leopoldo López, one of the most popular politicians in the country, and Antonio Ledesma, mayor of Caracas, the capital city.
Their wives won’t be there either, because they’re currently in Rome, protesting at the Vatican’s door, asking the Catholic Church to take a stand: if the government doesn’t comply with the requests the opposition set to begin the peace talks, the wives of Maduro and Ledesma want the papal representative to stand up and walk out of the talks.
“We’re here asking, demanding, reminding [the Vatican] that international entities have asked for the freedom of the Venezuelan political prisoners,” Lilian Tintori, wife of López, said Monday. “And we will continue to be here because we feel like we have to say enough is enough.”
Once an athlete, television and radio host, Tintori has now become one of the international faces of the plight of what she calls Venezuela’s “ideological prisoners”. The opposition have named 107 of them, and are calling for their release.
Her husband happens to be the one with the highest profile.
“But we’re here for all of them,” says Tintori. “Tomorrow [for December 6] every one of them has to be freed. If not, there will be no dialogue, and we hope the Vatican will walk out of the talks if this is the case,” she said.
Tintori is in Rome with her mother-in-law, Antonieta Mendoza, and Mitzy Capriles, Ledesma’s wife. On Sunday night, the three chained themselves in front of St. Peter’s Square in an attempt to garner international attention for their cause.
At the same time, López, Ledesma and the others began a hunger strike demanding their freedom. “Unfortunately, we received information that they’ve been beaten up because of their legitimate right to go on strike,” Tintori said.
The women arrived in Rome on Sunday night and don’t have a planned return date. They intend to stay “until we deliver our message: The government has to comply with international treatises.”
López and Ledesma are currently political prisoners of the Maduro administration. The first was imprisoned in February 2014 after he led a peaceful protest against the government. The second was taken from his office last year, reportedly under charges of plotting to overthrow the president with the help of the United States government.
Several international human rights groups have demanded their freedom, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. But to no avail.
They are only two of the group of 107 — which includes politicians, activists and students — being held in military prisons by Maduro. Their release is top in the opposition’s list of demands even to engage in the peace talks. The other two are the opening of a humanitarian corridor in Venezuela and the re-establishing of the electoral calendar.
Mendoza, López’s mother, explained the need for the first.
“People are dying of hunger. Hospitals have no supplies nor medicines. People with cancer are dying because the government won’t allow for the medicines, stuck at the port, to enter Venezuela. Every 12 to 18 minutes a person is killed during an act of delinquency.”
“That’s why we’re here,” she told Crux.
The activist defined the government of Maduro as a dictatorship, and said her son was imprisoned merely for saying: “We will re-conquer democracy.”
The Vatican, she believes, is the only one of the actors sitting at the table with enough strength and credibility to force the government’s hand, by stepping out of the conversation if the three basic requests are not met.
Mendoza wants to see the Church walking out if her son isn’t freed, but she knows such an outcome would be a loss. “All we want is freedom for our children, freedom for Venezuela,” she says.
Currently, the peace talks include the government of Maduro, the opposition gathered under the umbrella of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), as well as former presidents José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain, Martín Torrijos of Panama and Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Republic and the Vatican.
The Vatican was requested by the opposition and accepted by Maduro’s government.
Beyond the Argentine pope’s obvious ties with the country, there’s another high-ranking Vatican figure who makes the Church a natural ally in the process: Cardinal Pietro Parolin, currently the Vatican’s Secretary of State.
From 2009 until 2013, when he was called by Francis, Parolin was the papal representative in Venezuela.
According to local media, Parolin recently sent a confidential letter to Maduro which led the Venezuelan leader to rant in a television show saying that there was a “maneuver to implode the dialogue.”
“I have the proof in my hand,” he said, brandishing the letter, signed on December 2. In it, the Holy See calls for the restitution of the constitutional powers of the National Assembly, suspended by the government to overrule the recall referendum, in addition to the three conditions mentioned above.
Cardinal Claudio Maria Celli, appointed by Francis as papal representative in the talks, told journalist Elisabetta Piqué, correspondent of the Argentine daily La Nación, that if the dialogue attempts fail, it wouldn’t be a failure for the pope, but for the Venezuelan people because the alternative path could be “that of blood.”
Celli said he’s currently praying that the mission he was given doesn’t become “an impossible one,” adding that everyone involved understands that the current situation can only end in one of two ways: dialogue or violence.
Celli is far from being the only one thinking these could be the outcomes of failed conversations.
Last November, United States’ Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon said if the talks failed, it could lead to both sides “putting people on the streets,” which would be “very dangerous.”
Dialogue, Shannon insisted, is the peaceful way out of the conflict.
“We’re fighting for freedom, for human rights,” Tintori said in St. Peter’s Square, as she held up a sign with the pictures of the 107 political prisoners.
“We’re here, at the Vatican, because we have faith. Because if His Holiness Pope Francis began the dialogue, it must produce concrete and real results.”
On Sunday, Venezuela’s new cardinal, Baltazar Enrique Porras Cardozo, celebrated his first public Mass in Venezuela since returning from Rome to receive his red hat. Among those present was Archbishop Aldo Giordano, the apostolic nuncio (papal representative) in Venezuela.
Addressing Giordano, Porras asked him to tell the pope that the Venezuelan people have the faith, the hope, the joy and the constancy needed to put peace and dialogue above hatred and violence.
Porras is known for being a strong voice against Maduro’s government. When he was in Rome in November, Porras told journalists that his country’s crisis was the reason he was made a cardinal.
Among several sources consulted by Crux regarding the peace process, few hold out much hope of success.
But as Pope Francis put it recently during his airborne press conference from Sweden, “dialogue that favors negotiation is the only path out of conflict. There is no other.”
And in Mendoza’s words, there’s no more time to lose. “How many more people will be killed in the meantime?”