After speaking against alleged government misconduct, human rights abuses and delay of free elections, Catholic churches and clergy around Venezuela are facing a wave of protests from pro-government supporters.
A string of incidents began on the morning of Jan. 29, as supporters of the current government interrupted a Mass at San Pedro Claver Church in a poor neighborhood of Caracas, Reuters reported.
The crowd of around 20 people hurled insults at the clergy, calling them “Satan in a cassock!” and “Fascist!” The protesters also used the chant “Chavez lives!” – in honor of late president and former leader of the ruling Socialist party, Hugo Chavez.
After the death of the socialist leader from cancer in 2013 and his succession by current Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, the country has faced both increases in violence and a number of social and political challenges, including the delay of the country’s regional elections.
The bishops’ strong stance against the current Venezuelan government – and other opinions echoed by priests around the country– has prompted backlash not only in the capital of Caracas, but in around the country. The cathedral of Caracas was hit with rocks, and protestors went to the home of the Archbishop Antonio Lopez of Barquisimeto after he said in a speech that socialism has brought “misery” to the country.
The same day as the protests in the Caracas parish of San Pedro Claver, police interrupted Mass in the city of Maracaibo. In the last week of January, gun-toting robbers attacked, threatened monks and stole from a Trappist monastery in the state of Merida.
Current head of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, Archbishop Diego Padron, told Reuters that “this list, in my opinion, shows they are not isolated events.”
One of the most contentious issues the country faces is the economy, where the world’s highest inflation rates, price controls and failed economic policies have resulted in severe shortages of basic necessities like medicines, milk, flour, toilet paper and other essentials.
The shortages have their roots in policies enacted by Chavez in 2003 that control the price of nearly 160 products such as flour, milk, oil and soap. While these products are affordable at the government listed price, they are in short supply and fly off the shelves, ending up on the black market at much higher rates.
To complicate matters further, there have been numerous reports of the Venezuelan army’s use of their position in guarding food supply and distribution as a means of participating and making money off the black markets. The supply shortages and other opportunities for corruption have also allowed other government officials and businesspeople to profit off of the troubles facing the Venezuelan people.
Since Maduro took office, Venezuela has also experienced a spike in violent crime, with one of the world’s highest murder rates. Opponents of the Maduro regime also report that the government has used its power to jail protesters and circumvent elections – essentially becoming a dictatorship.
Some of these opponents include the Venezuelan Bishops.
In a Feb. 7 interview with the archdiocese, the Archbishop of Caracas, Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino criticized the suspension of regional elections and his displeasure with the government’s approach to political processes.
“Without a doubt, it’s not a modern democracy,” the cardinal said. “Democracy is respect for the people, observance of the constitution, division and functioning of public powers, enforcement of all the promises, absence of political prisoners, free elections.”
“It’s already a dictatorship.”
The regional elections – which were scheduled for late 2016 and then delayed by the government – will take place later this year. According to the government, the delays were put in place to allow time for the reorganization of political organizations.
Before the delay of the elections, the Church helped to facilitate talks between the Maduro government and the opposition coalition. However, the talks collapsed with tensions and accusations from both sides.
The former president of of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, Bishop Ovidio Pérez Morales has also criticized the government and assured that the Church cannot remain quiet in the face of the government’s human right abuses.
“Morally, I cannot accept the violation of human rights,” he said in a Feb. 1 interview with Union Radio. “I can’t accept that the state considers itself the owner of persons.”