After a last-minute meeting with Pope Francis Thursday to discuss the dire situation of their country, Venezuela’s bishops said they have his full support in facing the trials of a regime they say oppresses its people to maintain power.
“The government has as a goal to maintain power at the cost of the life of any person at all costs,” Archbishop Diego Padrón Sanchez of Cumana told journalists June 8.
Not only this, but the government “has the desire, the will, the scope, to have a submissive, silent people that doesn’t protest,” he said. And to ensure that this happens, society must be made up of a people who have “no food, no medicine (and) which spends every moment trying to resolve daily problems.”
“A people that is oppressed, suffering and sick doesn’t have the strength to raise itself in revolt against anyone,” he said.
Archbishop Padrón spoke to a group of journalists after the leadership of the Venezuelan bishops conference met with Pope Francis and other Vatican officials earlier that morning.
The meeting was not planned in advance, and was not included in the weekly schedule sent out by the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications. Announced just days before, the conversation was squeezed into the Pope’s agenda before his meeting with the Panamanian bishops, who are in Rome for their ad limina visit, and a meeting with Nigeria’s bishops.
During the meeting, Archbishop Padrón said they discussed the ongoing crisis in the country, and that the conversation was very “cordial, very simple, fraternal” and relaxed. The Pope asked questions, and the bishops were able to answer freely.
The Pope is “very well informed” on the situation, the archbishop said, explaining that Francis himself said he receives a daily update on what is going on.
Francis voiced his closeness to the bishops and the “people who are suffering,” the archbishop said, recalling that Francis was “very moved” by the description of some of the cases they’ve witnessed in recent days.
Venezuela is currently undergoing a humanitarian emergency in which fundamental necessities are inaccessible and many, including children, die due to the lack of basic foods and medicines.
The country has been ruled by a socialist government since 1999. In the wake of Nicolas Maduro succeeding Hugo Chavez as president in 2013, Venezuela has been marred by violence and social and economic upheaval. Poor economic policies, including strict price controls, coupled with high inflation rates, have resulted in a severe lack of basic necessities such as toilet paper, milk, flour, diapers and medicines.
The socialist government is widely blamed for the crisis. Since 2003, price controls on some 160 products, including cooking oil, soap and flour, have meant that while they are affordable, they fly off store shelves only to be resold on the black market at much higher rates.
The Venezuelan government is known to be among the most corrupt in Latin America, and violent crime in the country has spiked since Maduro took office.
The regime is known to have committed gross abuses, including violence, against those who don’t share their political ideologies, and are accused of taking many political prisoners.
Archbishop Padrón said that for the bishops, their “Magna Carta” on how to move forward in the crisis is the letter Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin sent them in December, in which he indicated the conditions under which dialogue with the Maduro regime ought to be carried out.
The four conditions listed by Cardinal Parolin are: the assurance of a humanitarian corridor for food and medicine; respect for and the re-establishment of the National Assembly; the release of political prisoners; and the guarantee of elections.
While Venezuelans had been protesting many of Maduro’s moves for some time, the final straw for many was when in late March the president announced his decision to call a constitutional assembly and and to revoke the power of the National Assembly, which had been in the hands of the opposition since 2015.
Part of Maduro’s guarantee was that after the constitutional assembly takes place July 30, elections will finally be held in December.
However, Archbishop Padrón said he doesn’t have faith in the regime, and believes the deal is “a trap” for the people, because during the July assembly “you can easily vote to annul or not the elections in December. So the December date is just an imaginary figure for the people.”
But even though they have very real problems with Maduro, Archbishop Padrón said this doesn’t mean that the bishops are on the side of the opposition.
“We don’t represent any party, and we don’t want to be on the side of the government or the opposition,” he said. “We want to help the people.”
The bishops came “to present to the Holy Father the situation of the Venezuelan people, whether they are those people who are close to the government, or those who feel far from the government. We don’t have any preference in this sense.”
During the meeting, the prelates gave the Pope two dossiers, the first containing a list of some 70 people, mostly youth, who have been killed during protests in Caracas and other cities throughout Venezuela. The second document was a detailed outline of the work the bishops conference has done so far to help alleviate the crisis.
After meeting with the Pope, who gave the bishops his “full support” and “total confidence” in their efforts, the six prelates present for the encounter then met with Cardinal Parolin, who before becoming Secretary of State was the apostolic nuncio to Venezuela for four years.
They later met with officials of the Vatican’s charitable organization Caritas Internationalis, which is offering concrete support to needy families on the ground in Venezuela.
Pope Francis specifically told the bishops to “reinforce” the work that Caritas does, not only for the Venezuela branch, but the international organization as a whole, because they are “ready to help” in acquiring and distributing food and mostly medicines to the people.
However, the bishops conference still faces issues when it comes to getting medicines to the people, Archbishop Padrón said. Even though the government technically gave them permission to distribute medication a few weeks ago, the conditions outlined in the fine print make it nearly impossible to do.
The government does this, he said, because they don’t want to appear “insensitive” or as “a needy country.”
“The international image of the government must be maintained,” he observed.
By Elise Harris