ROME — Venezuela’s political and economic deterioration has been years in the making, but it’s rapidly worsening. Thousands have been marching in the streets for weeks to protest President Nicolás Maduro, accusing him of trampling on the constitution and presiding over an economic and social free-fall.
Inflation, unemployment, curfews and violence against protesters, many of whom have been killed, combine to make life in Venezuela increasingly miserable and dangerous.
For a long time now, the bishops of Venezuela have been a strong voice against the government’s authoritarian attitudes, calling for dialogue, elections, and even civil disobedience.
Yet at least one of them insists the bishops are not in opposition to the government, but “in favor of the people.”
“If being with the people is called ‘opposition’, then we will be called members of the opposition,” said Bishop Jose Luis Azuaje Ayala of Barinas, a city on the border with Colombia. He also serves as the head of Caritas Latin America.
“The Church is always on the side of the rights of the people. If we see our children dying and malnourished,” then the bishops must speak, he told Crux.
Seeing the situation, he insisted, the bishops “can’t remain quiet,” even if what they have to say puts them at odds with the government.
The country is currently deeply divided. Civilians are being tried in military courts, violating international law. The government is arming pro-Maduro civilians to fight the crowds marching against his policies, so that the killings are not pinned on him nor the army.
In Caracas, the country’s capital, people are setting up barricades to protest the socialist president’s bid to rewrite the constitution amid a rapidly escalating political crisis.
Opposition leaders have rejected a planned constitutional assembly, called by Maduro earlier this month, as a ploy to put off regional elections scheduled for this year and a presidential election that was to be held in 2018.
Critics of Maduro abroad have called the move a coup.
The bishops are among those protesting the re-writing of the bill.
“The bishops’ conference has always maintained that the way to resolve conflicts is through the people, knowing what they want, within their vision of future,” Azuaje said. “The people might make mistakes, but we have to let the people speak, choose.”
As Azuaje reminded people during the interview, which took place on Friday at the Rome head-quarters of Caritas Internationalis, the government of Maduro had agreed to three preconditions for a dialogue with the opposition. These were calling for elections, allowing humanitarian aid to enter the country, and freeing political prisoners.
“These are the commitments the national government undertook, and so far, they haven’t been met,” Azuaje said.
Caritas Internationalis is an umbrella charitable agency that reunites the local branches of Caritas.
Regarding the need to call for elections, the bishops and the Vatican are aligned. Last week, during Francis’s trip to Fatima, the pope’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told Crux and Argentine paper La Nación that the only solution to the crisis was to call elections.
When Parolin speaks about Venezuela, he does so from first-hand knowledge: before being appointed as the Church’s top diplomat, he served in the Latin American country as papal representative.
Late last year in October and November, there was a dialogue process mediated by the Vatican. Seeing that the three pre-requisites for that process were ignored by Maduro, the initiative went nowhere fast, and observers believe the opposition, and even the Vatican, will be cautious about going back to the table until the conditions are met, something Parolin pointed out to the president in a Dec. 1 letter.
“They didn’t respect the agreement, so there no is motivation for dialogue,” Azuaje said. “They claim to be open to dialogue, but what dialogue?” For the bishop, Maduro’s calls to get everyone on the table are nothing more than a publicity stunt.
“As Francis says, to be able to dialogue one has to sit at the table with the truth, reach agreements, each setting some beliefs aside to make room for the other,” he said.
“Today, with so much repression, the gag the government has imposed on the media … The pope is certainly worried about this chain of violence in the country, where no real openness to honest and sincere dialogue is visible,” the bishop said.
Regarding the media, Azuaje insisted most people in Venezuela rely on foreign news agencies and social media to know what is happening, because local ones are not allowed to report honestly.
As a strong voice of alarm, the Catholic Church in the country has cried out many times. On May 16-18, the bishops held an extraordinary general assembly to talk about the crisis. In his opening remarks, Archbishop Diego Padrón, president of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference, had no qualms in calling the political system “illegitimate and intolerable,” and said the bishops have a civic and moral duty to intervene.
And in their own way they are doing so, particularly through the Catholic charitable agency Caritas.
According to Janeth Márquez, coordinator of Caritas Venezuela, the body has called for the government to acknowledge the humanitarian crisis four times in the past year. This would allow for humanitarian aid, mainly food and medicine, to enter the country, and Caritas Internationalis is one of the many agencies ready to provide it.
“Caritas has taken an initiative to monitor malnutrition because people are coming to our services with a lack of medicines, people who faint,” Márquez said on Friday. “People lose a lot of weight.”
Recent reports show that Venezuelans have lost, in average, 17 pounds in the past year.
A recent Caritas report, headed by Márquez, shows that over 11 percent of children under five are suffering either from moderate or severe acute malnutrition, one point higher than the threshold set by the World Health Organization. In some places, it reaches 13 percent for the general population, 48 percent for children under five.
The latter is the most worrying of them all, the expert said, because it’s during infancy that the brain is developed, and without proper nutrition, the person will suffer long-time growth and cognitive delays.
Adding to the long list of concerns, she said, is the fact that for the past six months, the percentage of people with severe malnutrition has been growing by one percent every two months.
The report, inspired by the many cases Caritas was seeing at a national level, surveyed child malnutrition across four states including Caracas. This is a long-term process, which began last November. The report released this week is the third of its kind.
Yet, despite the warnings, Maduro has refused to declare a humanitarian emergency, preferring instead to have his own citizens scavenging the garbage for food, seeing parents feed their children once a day, and having the extreme malnutrition rates grow by one percent every two months.
Azuaje and Márquez were in Rome for a Caritas meeting. He said the trip had a two-fold intention. On the one hand, the leaders of the seven regions-representing over 160 countries- of Caritas Internationalis gathered in the Eternal City to have their ordinary meeting.
The second intention was to let the other Caritas, and the Vatican, know about what is going on in the country, to try to look for some “paths of solidarity or fraternal cooperation, seeing the suffering of the Venezuelan people, who are lacking food, medicine and safety.”
Among those present were representatives of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.
The bishop didn’t request a meeting with Pope Francis or with Parolin because Cardinal Baltazar Enrique Porras, head of Caritas Venezuela, was in the Vatican updating the powers that be about the situation.