ROME — One of Venezuela’s cardinals promised to give Pope Francis “a very direct, crude, realistic view of the situation we are going through” in a meeting with the pontiff today, saying the country’s socialist government has left its people “cruelly repressed.”
Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, Archbishop of Caracas, the country’s capital, spoke to Crux in advance of a special meeting of the leadership of Venezuela’s bishops’ conference with Francis. The Argentine pontiff has been an outspoken supporter of dialogue to end the crisis, and the Vatican’s position on the matter is clear: Elections need to happen.
“The situation is very, very grave,” Urosa told Crux on Tuesday afternoon.
“What we see is a people who are suffering, who are being humiliated, and who are being cruelly repressed,” he said. Some 70 people have been killed since massive protests began last April, and thousands have been wounded.
The country today has a failing political system, people starving to death, and little to no medical supplies.
Despite attempts made by Maduro to convince his country of the opposite, Urosa believes that the bishops and the pope are very much aligned, calling for dialogue and a solution to the current crisis, “which the government has caused.”
Those solutions, as Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State and former papal representative in Venezuela told Crux and La Nación in May, include calling for national elections.
Though he too wants elections to be held, Urosa puts it in somewhat different words: “The solution is that the government solves the problems it has caused, and does not insist on wanting to impose a socialist, communist, Marxist, totalitarian and militaristic system as a regime of government.”
This is not the first time that Francis will meet the heads of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference. He did so in September 2015, when he asked them to make “dialogue and reconciliation” pastoral priorities. However, the situation in the country has greatly deteriorated since then.
The pontiff is scheduled to welcome the bishops mid-morning on Thursday, before encountering the bishops of Panama, currently in Rome for their ad limina visit to the Vatican. The Venezuelan prelates requested the meeting, and — according to one of the prelates from Panama — the pontiff pushed their meeting to 11:00 AM instead of 10:00 so he could see the bishops of Venezuela.
Crux spoke with Urosa in Rome, ahead of the bishops’ meeting with Francis. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.
Crux: What brings you to Rome?
Urosa: The leadership of the episcopal conference wanted to share with the Holy Father our concern about the very serious situation that Venezuela is going through, as the pope has repeatedly, since his election to the papacy, expressed great interest and concern for our country.
And we would also like to express our gratitude for the concern the Holy Father has for the well-being of the Venezuelan people.
Could we have a preview of what you’re going to say to Pope Francis when you explain the situation of the country to him?
We’re going to give him a very direct, crude, realistic view of the situation we are going through. We, as bishops, live in different parts of the country, and each one has a vision and a lot of information, many contacts.
The situation is very, very grave. There’s a political crisis that has manifested itself since December 2015, when the government lost the parliamentary elections. The opposition won with more than 60 percent of the votes, and this showed that the Venezuelan people wanted a change, a change both in government and orientation.
But instead of taking this into consideration, the national government, in practice, overruled the National Assembly, ignoring the will of the people.
There is a very conflicted political situation that has worsened in the last months, particularly when the government, through the Supreme Court, tried officially to take the constitutional faculties from the national assembly, while at the same time giving the president a series of “super powers.”
This generated a reaction, a very strong indignation in the Venezuelan people, this popular rebellion that we have seen in the streets since the first days of April. The bishops’ conference has also spoken against these government measures.
In addition, there also an economic crisis: Venezuela has the world’s highest inflation rates. In the political element of the crisis, there’s also the fact that the electoral calendar hasn’t been upheld either. We should have had governors’ elections, but the national electoral council hasn’t called for them because the government knows that if they do, they will lose them.
Again, in addition to that, they haven’t released the political prisoners, nor have they resolved the very grave economic and social crisis generated by the lack of food, medicine and other essential goods. There’s a very grave social and humanitarian crisis in the country.
I must say that the pope himself has denounced this crisis on April 30, during his [weekly Sunday] Regina Coeli address, when he called for negotiated solutions to the crisis Venezuelan society is going through.
What is the solution?
The solution is that, in the first place, the government recognizes the assembly. Then, elections have to happen on their scheduled date. Political prisoners must be released.
The solution is that the government solve the problems it has caused, and does not insist on wanting to impose a socialist, communist, Marxist, totalitarian and militaristic system as a regime of government. It is against the freedom and the rights of the people.
There are some who believe Pope Francis is being naive in insisting on dialogue with Maduro, and would like for him to take a more hard-line attitude. How do you, the bishops, see his actions?
The bishops of Venezuela, just like the pope, since the first signs of crisis with this government arose, in April 2013, have been insisting on the need for dialogue. Two opposing sides, two political adversaries, to solve the problem, have to reach an agreement and for this they have to dialogue. That is a fundamental principle.
What happens is that the government has used the legitimate instrument of dialogue, plain and simple, to postpone solving problems, to avoid having to take action against their own intentions. And that, of course, is unacceptable.
So the [Vatican’s] Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, in a December 2, 2016, letter addressed to the government and the opposition, said that the results were not encouraging. That attempt to dialogue failed. It is dead and buried.
Although as a principle, we must try to dialogue, the efforts made in the last quarter of 2016 did not work, because the government did not fulfill its commitments. Agreements and negotiations will have to be reached, but taking into account very clear conditions and guarantees. This is, again, something the pope himself has said, this time during his press conference returning from Egypt.
And today we don’t have those conditions and guarantees. The government has wanted to run ahead of the problem, attempting to dismantle the question of elections planned by proposing an unnecessary, unjustified, absolutely useless constitutional assembly.
What they want is to change a number of things to completely take over all power.
On the other hand, the basis of the constitutional assembly, as proposed by the government, is unacceptable, and the majority of the country agrees with this, including the episcopal conference, which absolutely rejects it.
Can you negotiate with an authoritarian government?
The government will eventually have to negotiate because it cannot indefinitely maintain a situation marked by hunger, by the rebellion of the people and by popular rejection. This cannot be maintained. And they will have to sit down and negotiate to solve the problems that the government itself has caused.
Who caused the country’s ruin? The government.
You spoke of a rebellion of the people. Does it give you hope to see a Venezuela that is clearly suffering, but remains united?
It is a Venezuela united, determined, that is unwilling to endure more humiliation, more misery. It’s a Venezuela that refuses to have been reduced, brought to ruin by the bad economic policies of the government.
So [this rebellion] is a manifestation of dignity, and at the same time of union and hope.
You will meet with Pope Francis, with Parolin, and also with the charitable agency Caritas. What do you expect from these meetings?
First, we want to be able to present a very realistic view of what we think is happening. What we see is a people who are suffering, who are being humiliated, and who are being cruelly repressed. There have been 70 deaths caused by the repression of the demonstrations. There is only one, unfortunate and sad exception. A young man who was killed by demonstrators who confused him with an infiltrator, which is to be condemned absolutely. It has no justification, it is a crime.
But the dead have been caused by the repression, created by state forces and civilian groups armed by the government acting to strengthen government repression, which is something criminal.
In Latin America we have experienced, we know first-hand what these groups of armed civilians can do. Are you afraid that this will lead to a civil war?
In Venezuela today there is no chance of a civil war: For there to be one, there must be two sides with weapons, and in Venezuela only the government and illegally armed groups backed by the government have weapons.
The population goes to the demonstrations with flags and banners. Some respond to tear gas, bullets and pellets with stones. But there is no warlike capacity for civil war.
Not long ago, Maduro accused the bishops of Venezuela of contradicting Pope Francis …
No. He manipulates what the pope says. He presents himself as a great friend of the pope, as a pious, fervent man. What he is doing is manipulating the religious feelings of the Venezuelan people. We are fully united with the pope. He just sent us a beautiful letter, on May 5, in which he encourages us to continue working enthusiastically for the people and expresses his union with us as well.
So that is absolutely false, it is a manipulation that Maduro wants to do: Both of the pope and the religious feelings of the Venezuelan people.
Some have spoken about persecution of priests and bishops by the government, because many have openly spoken in favor of the people. Is it accurate to speak of this?
We must be careful with the terms we use. We cannot speak about persecution. We can speak of a certain hostility, harassment, mistreatment, and of some isolated cases of aggression like the one they did to me in the Basilica of Santa Teresa on Holy Wednesday.
A persecution, like the one that the Church has known and knows today in so many places, there is not.
But there is a hostility, a mistreatment of the church on the part of some people linked to the national government. But it’s not from all of them, because, thank God, the Church is one of the most respected institutions in the country.
What can the Catholics of the world do for Venezuela?
I hope they would accompany us with their prayer. We have to ask God to enlighten those in government so that they realize that the road they are on leads to total disaster, and that they must change. [Pray] at the same time to strengthen the people to fight for freedom. And so that the problems are solved.
But the governments of the world, and this is very important, must realize that the government of Venezuela is outside the law. The government of Venezuela is no longer a democratic government, it is a dictatorial government. And it does not deserve the backing and support of the democratic governments of the world.
On this issue, the administration of Donald Trump spoke of putting sanctions on Venezuela. Is not that even more problematic for society?
Sanctions should never be for the people or for the nation, but for those who misuse the role of rulers.