Wenski: Venezuela could be the Syria of Latin America

Wenski: Venezuela could be the Syria of Latin America

Wenski: Venezuela could be the Syria of Latin America

Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski speaks July 2 during the "Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America" in Orlando, Florida. Leaders from dioceses and various Catholic organizations gathered for the July 1-4 convocation. (Credit: Bob Roller/CNS.)

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami warns that Venezuela is teetering on the edge of a civil war, and if that happens, it could become the Syria of Latin America. He also said the rising generation of Cuban-Americans largely doesn't want President Trump to roll back the opening under Obama, that Pope Francis's looming trip to Colombia could be the "exclamation point" on its peace process, and that in Haiti, the Catholic Church is there to stay.

ORLANDO, Florida – In terms of political and diplomatic activity, no Vatican gig other than the papacy itself is more important than being the Cardinal Secretary of State. Over the centuries it’s been largely an Italian stronghold – the last non-Italian was French Cardinal Jean Villot, from 1969 to 1979, and before that you have to go back to British-born Spanish Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val under Pope Pius X.

No American has ever held the post, but if you had to choose someone from among the current crop of residential American bishops, you could do a lot worse than 66-year-old Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, Florida.

Born to Polish immigrants in Detroit who relocated to Florida, Wenski has an obvious personal affinity for Eastern Europe. Yet coming of age in Miami, often dubbed the “capital of Latin America,” he’s also forged deep bonds with churches and cultures south of the U.S. border, including a particular bond with Haiti.

Wenski not only has personal ties in a wide variety of places, he’s also politically wired and astute, with a special gift for putting complex realities into a punchy soundbite. Of the current crisis in Venezuela, for instance, he says: “The Venezuelan situation is very dire right now, teetering on the edge of a civil war. If that happens, Venezuela will be the Syria of Latin America.”

For bonus points, he’s also a media godsend: A ramrod-straight figure with a military buzzcut who looks like a Hollywood central casting division idea of a Pentagon general, but who’s also a Harley Davidson-riding and cigar-chomping destroyer of stereotypes.

Wenski spoke to Crux July 3, during the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders” in Orlando, Florida, where he once served as bishop. It was a gathering of almost 3,500 bishops, clergy, religious and laity, representing more than 80 percent of the dioceses in America and all 50 states.

Other points Wenski addressed include:

  • He applauded the convocation, among other reasons because “it allows us to synchronize ourselves with our brothers and sisters in the south [of our hemisphere].” He pointed to similarities with the 2007 ‘Aparecida document’ of the Latin American bishops, “which was certainly very forward-looking and very inspired. One of the authors was Cardinal [Jorge Mario] Bergoglio of Argentina.”
  • Wenski voiced strong support for immigration reform, saying he’s “sometimes shocked when I see Catholics who, in a different century, would have been called ‘Know-Nothings.’ Those guys were anti-immigrant, but they were anti-immigrant because they were also anti-Catholic. I think a lot of this anti-immigrant feeling is a veneer that covers up an anti-Catholicism that’s still out there, and has always been part of our American bloodstream.”
  • He said he hopes Trump does not actually roll back the diplomatic and cultural opening to Cuba that was adopted under the Obama administration, and that’s seen as one of Pope Francis’s signature geopolitical breakthroughs. “I think many people have realized that the hard-line rhetoric of the past, that a sudden regime change in Cuba before we could engage at all, would bring about a hard landing and that’s not going to be good for anybody.”
  • The fact that Pope Francis isn’t necessarily repeating all the critical points being made by the Venezuelan bishops about Socialist President Nicolas Maduro, Wenski said, doesn’t necessarily mean there’s any rupture. “I think that if the pope is keeping his powder dry, it’s probably because that’s what the local bishops have advised him to do,” he said.
  • On Haiti and its ongoing recovery from a devastating 2010 earthquake, Wenski said: “The Church has been there from the beginning, and I think the Church will stay there.”

The following are excerpts from Wenski’s conversation with Crux in Orlando.

Crux: The idea for this convocation has been around for a long time, so tell us how it came about.

Wenski: About nine years ago, it came up in the plans and priorities of the conference. There was a bishops’ working group assigned to kind of midwife the idea. But, the working group was composed of the chairs of various committees, such as immigration, domestic justice and peace, international justice and peace, pro-life, family, and so on, and in the conference those chairs change every three years. SO, this process has had a number of midwives!

It was a complicated delivery?

It was a complicated delivery, but seeing the crowds here today I think, to mix a metaphor, ‘Houston, we’ve landed!’

The convocation is basically unprecedented, so what is this meeting a response to and what are you hoping to get out of it?

In one sense, we’re presenting it as a response to the challenge Pope Francis gave us in “The Joy of the Gospel,” the call to missionary discipleship. If we can heighten awareness of our call to be missionary disciples, and if we can make that awareness pervasive throughout the Church, then we would have accomplished a great deal of what we’re trying to do in this convocation.

The other thing, I think, is that it’s an invitation for us to embrace “The Joy of the Gospel” and to do so with a sense of confidence. The church in the United States has encountered some very rough seas in recent years, with the sexual abuse scandals, the defections from the church, and we’re very concerned with the increasing secularism of society and the culture wars. In the north and the Rust Belt areas, churches are closing and schools are closing. All that could cause some pessimism, but that’s not what the Gospel is about. The Gospel is a message of hope, and a missionary disciple is an apostle of hope. Pope Francis in that apostolic exhortation really laid down the gauntlet for us.

It also allows us to synchronize ourselves with our brothers and sisters in the south [of our hemisphere]. In 2007, the bishops of CELAM [The Latin American Episcopal Conference] met in Aparecida [Brazil] and came out with their ‘Aparecida document,’ which was certainly very forward-looking and very inspired. One of the authors was Cardinal [Jorge Mario] Bergoglio of Argentina.

It was sort of a rough draft for Evangelii Gaudium.

It was a rough draft for it. I remember that after 2007, I was quoting from the Aparecida document often in my columns and my homilies, and then Bergoglio becomes Francis and now …

It all seems eerily familiar?

Yes, it all seems very familiar. It think this event is very important. It’s the old saw, you can’t do the same thing the same way and expect different results. We have to look at the challenge before us with some creativity, which is what St. John Paul II said about the New Evangelization – not a new message, but new ardor, methods and enthusiasm.

Let’s talk about some challenges facing the church in the United States. We live in a moment in America in which their future seems particularly up for grabs. What do you see as the church’s response to this moment?

First of all, I think the church is accompanying the immigrants. For over fifteen years, we’ve been trying to promote a comprehensive immigration reform. We’ve not been successful at it, but the bishops have been front and center advocating for this.

Remember, there’s probably no Catholic in America who’s more than two generations removed from the immigrant experience. We Catholics understand this, and that’s why I’m sometimes shocked when I see Catholics who, in a different century, would have been called “Know-Nothings.” Those guys were anti-immigrant, but they were anti-immigrant because they were also anti-Catholic. I think a lot of this anti-immigrant feeling is a veneer that covers up an anti-Catholicism that’s still out there, and has always been part of our American bloodstream.

The church is trying to accompany the immigrant, we’re trying to serve them in our parishes and our institutions such as Catholic Charities. In Miami, I’ve got Catholic Legal Services. We’ve got over 35 lawyers who see over 3,000 people a month with immigration problems …

I bet they’re busy …

They are busy.

What do you pick up pastorally from your immigrant population right now in Miami?

Certainly, some people have experienced greater fear in these days. Right after the inauguration there were some urban legends that quickly spread of INS or ICE buses bearing down on neighborhoods. They were all not true, but the climate of fear fed on those rumors. In reality, you look at the risk that these undocumented people face, it’s about the same as it was five or ten years ago. Maybe ten years ago, maybe there was an even higher number of people being rounded up and deported than right now. But, because of the rhetoric and the optics, the fears have escalated, and people are anxious.

For instance, take the Haitians after the earthquake in 2010. The U.S. government gave the Haitians Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Well, seven years have gone by, and I was talking to somebody in Homeland Security last month, lobbying to extend TPS. This gentleman said, ‘The problem with TPS is that it’s not temporary,’ and I said, ‘You’re exactly right.’ I said, ‘you’re absolutely right. If we didn’t send them back after the first 100 days, how can you think about sending them back after seven years?’ For the Hondurans and Salvadorians, it’s almost 20 years. These people have kids here, they’ve got jobs, they’ve got families. In addition, where are you going to send them back to? Whatever they had is no longer there.

It’s a real puzzle, because when you look at certain polling it seems that most people are open to some type of immigration reform. Hopefully, something will happen. With this Trump administration, he’s a great disrupter. Maybe with that disruption, some alchemy will happen that will allow some immigration reform to take place.

Given your setting in Miami, you’re extremely sensitive to developments regarding Cuba. President Trump has said he’s going to reconsider the opening to Cuba under the Obama administration, which was widely considered one of the signature diplomatic accomplishments of Pope Francis, with both Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro crediting his role.

Actually, he’s announced some changes in the policy but nothing really substantial. Diplomatic relations continue, still at the level of ambassadorship. The flights continue, the cruise ships continue. What’s different is that Americans will be held to a higher standard. When they go to Cuba, they can’t go as individuals as a tourist. If they go with a group, they have to document that the group is people-to-people. That’s what’s in the statutes right now, and when Obama eased up on the travel restrictions, he didn’t change the statutes, he just said we’re not going to enforce them. In that sense, Trump hasn’t done a whole lot at all, and I’m happy that he hasn’t done a whole lot.

What was interesting is that in the aftermath of his press conference in Miami, there seemed to be a lot of bluster, some of it aimed to satisfy some of the more hard-liners in the Cuban-American community. Some of those hard-liners who were there, such as Marco Rubio, applauded Trump but they came away with a whole lot less than they would have wanted.

What are you picking up from the Cubans in Miami in terms of reaction?

The Cuban population in Miami has changed considerably over the years, because there’s a transition happening here in Miami just like in Cuba itself. It’s a transition of biology. The hard-liners that defined the rift between Cuba and United States in almost Manichean terms, that generation is dying off. They’re about the same age as Fidel and Raul, in their 80s and 90s. It’s been 56 years since the revolution happened.

In that time, we’ve had succeeding waves of Cubans that have come to Miami. In the 1980s, it was the Mariels. In the 1990s, it was the rafters. Now, in the 2000s, people have come over on the waiver program, about 20,000 a year, as well as those who have come across the Mexican border or arrived on rafts in Miami under the ‘wet foot/dry foot’ policy. These people have a whole different perspective than that first wave of immigrants. Now, for that first wave, their pain is real, and it’s not to be belittled or what they were running away from.

Still, last year almost 400,000 Cuban-Americans traveled to Cuba. That’s a significant part of the Cuban-American population.

If I went into your Cuban parishes in Miami and held a free and fair secret ballot, asking, ‘Are you for or against better relations between the United States and Cuba as it exists right now?’, what would the result be?

I would say the plurality, the majority, would be for better relations.

They would have been supportive of the move under Obama?

Yes. In fact, there were many Cuban-American leaders who went down there for Obama’s trip, and some of those people were practicing Catholics. Right now, there’s no monolithic Cuban voice. It’s very diverse, and represents the whole spectrum.

That doesn’t mean, if they’re in favor of better relations with the United States, it’s because they’re sympathetic to the Castros or Communist rule. I think everybody is pretty much against the dictatorship down here in Miami. There are very few fellow travelers or sympathizers in south Florida. The divisions or arguments are over tactics rather than the goal. Everybody would like to see a future of hope for Cuba, a free democratic Cuba, the question is how do we get there, in a way that there’s a soft landing rather than a hard one?

I think many people have realized that the hard-line rhetoric of the past, that a sudden regime change in Cuba before we could engage at all, would bring about a hard landing and that’s not going to be good for anybody.

By that logic, is some of the rhetoric from the Trump people on Cuba unhelpful?

Well, it’s not helpful, but it’s been interesting that the Cuban government has responded quite moderately. They haven’t decided to break relations or anything, so everybody is proceeding very carefully.

This is three-dimensional chess, so there’s also the whole issue of Venezuela. Cuba is very present in Venezuela and Venezuelan politics, because Chavez was a close ally of the Castros and Maduro still depends on Cuban support. Cuba sends doctors and teachers and also security personnel into Venezuela, and Venezuela sends oil to Cuba. The Venezuelan situation is very dire right now, teetering on the edge of a civil war. If that happens, Venezuela will be the Syria of Latin America.

Some complain that Pope Francis has not been tough enough on Maduro in Venezuela, and that he’s not backing the local bishops sufficiently. Do you agree the pope has not been tough enough, and if he did go stronger, would it help?

I read your report on that with interest, because the bishops of Venezuela went to Rome very quickly to meet with the pope, and the effort there was to try to make sure everybody was on the same page. There is something to be said even within the Church, even though it’s a principle of Catholic social teaching for governments and things like that, for subsidiarity. The people who are closest to a situation are the ones who should make the decisions and direct the policy. I think that if the pope is keeping his powder dry, it’s probably because that’s what the local bishops have advised him to do.

In other words, if Pope Francis isn’t echoing everything the Venezuelan bishops say, that’s not necessarily a rift – it could be a plan?

Right, it could be a plan. I would say that the Holy See has to be pretty well-informed about what’s happening in Venezuela because the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was the nuncio in Venezuela in his previous job.

Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino recently told us the only reason there may not be a civil war in Venezuela is because the opposition doesn’t have guns. Do you agree?

Right now they’re talking about Congress declaring the Maduro government defunct, and that could mean a civil war. If parts of the army went with the Congress, and Maduro has these groups with guns, so it could go south pretty quickly. The only reason why it may not is because there’s no medicine and no food, so there may not be much energy for it all.

Pope Francis is going to Colombia, hopefully to cement the peace deal. What are your hopes and expectations for that trip?

I hope it will be the exclamation point on the peace process. Part of the thing is that for the peace process to endure, as in so many other places, is that it requires some confidence and social trust among the people. If the pope’s visit can help strengthen the confidence that peace is possible, that it’s arrived, it will be very good.

The Colombian church is a strong church. It’s been involved over the years in peace-building. Catholic Relief Services also played a role in previous years in Colombia, supporting some of those initiatives.

What’s your read on the situation in Haiti?

I was down there earlier this week. I went down there to preach for the feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, who’s the patroness of Haiti.

The recovery is moving slowly. There are several churches on the point of being completed now that were constructed with funds that came from the special collection that was taken up in the United States in 2010. Unfortunately, the damages exceeded the resources we had to rebuild, but some things have happened.

It was interesting that they finally have now a functioning parliament, more or less functioning. They’ve got a full compliment. They had elections both for the presidency and now for parliament, which they didn’t have for four or five years. The United Nations are withdrawing their troops, so some normality is slowly coming back. However, economically it’s still not showing growth and it really needs to. This is a country of nine million people, about half of them under the age of 20.

What’s the situation with the cathedral in Port au Prince?

The cathedral is still in ruins. They built a provision cathedral on the site of a colonial cathedral that had been burned down around the time of the Aristide controversies. This provisional cathedral is not a building that’s going to last a long time, but it’s open and they’re having Mass there on Sunday. I stayed in the rectory of the cathedral, and then I went to where we celebrated the feast on the site of the traditional shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. That church also collapsed during the earthquake. It hasn’t been reopened, but they put a carport type of construction.

Going back to the cathedral, isn’t there something metaphorical about the fact that the provisional one now stands on the site of a church that was burned down under Aristide? Something along the lines of, ‘Political movements will come and go, but the Church in Haiti is forever?’

That’s true. The Church has been there from the beginning, and I think the Church will stay there. I did two Masses there for the feast day, one in that shelter and another at the intersection outside, and thousands of people were there. As the pastor was talking to the people after Mass, he said, ‘Some people say we pray and nothing changes. But what would it be like if we hadn’t prayed at all?’ Everybody clapped and said, ‘That’s right.’

You ever consider throwing your hat in the ring to be the first American Secretary of State in the Vatican?

No, I’m happy in Miami!

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