Feline Freier is assistant professor in the department of social and political science at the Universidad del Pacífico, Peru. Her research interests include migration and refugee policies in Latin America, South-South migration, and migration and religion.
With the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela worsening by the day, it is important to reflect on the political involvement of religious institutions, and especially the Catholic Church, which remains one of the most trusted institutions in Latin America.
Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis is beyond comprehension and spiraling out of control so fast that the available data hardly reflects the people’s growing misery. According to El País, in early April, 80 percent of the population in Venezuela lived in severe poverty, and food insecurity affected a staggering 90 percent. According to Caritas there were already 280,000 malnourished children at risk of dying at the end of 2017, with five to six dying each week in Caracas alone. Ninety percent of households could not afford children’s daily meals, and 33 percent of children showed irreversible mental and physical developmental delays. Infant formula is scarce and unaffordable for most, which puts newborns and babies whose mothers cannot breastfeed at highest risk of starvation.
President Nicolas Maduro’s response to this state-caused suffering is saying that Venezuela is the target of economic warfare by the United States as it attempts to crash the Venezuelan economy, steal its oil, and end socialism in Latin America. At the same time, Maduro’s government has been repressing dissent through violent crackdowns, jailing opponents, and prosecuting civilians in military courts. While the cult around former president Hugo Chávez has elevated him to a de facto saint, with a rewritten version of “The Lord’s Prayer” that worships him being recited at many party meetings, Maduro’s response to the Catholic Church has been somewhat schizophrenic.
On the one hand, Maduro has turned to the Pope for help to make “the opposition end the violence.” But at the same time he vehemently rejects any political criticism from Rome. He believes that the “degeneration” of religious leadership in Venezuela has influenced the political position of the Vatican’s secretary of state, and sees the members of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference as militants of the opposition, accusing them of allowing churches to hold political events. There have been various incidences of attacks against Catholic clergy by chavistas, and in the weeks before the Easter holiday tensions between Maduro and the bishops further increased.
But should religious institutions take an active role in opposing or supporting state actors during such times of state crisis?
Secularism, the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions, stipulates that the state should be neutral on matters of belief. Nobody should be discriminated against based on his or her religious beliefs, and at the same time, religious beliefs or practices, or the interests of religious institutions or dignitaries, should not influence political activities and decisions. In Latin America, the violation of this principle in recent history still casts a long shadow. The political alignment of the Catholic Church with various authoritarian governments in the 1970s and 1980s was notorious. In Argentina and Chile, the Church’s support of dictators was successfully used in order to legitimize state violence.
Nevertheless, there are two arguments in favor for religious institutions to not only alleviate the people’s suffering through charitable deeds within and outside the country, but to take an active stance against Maduro’s regime.
Although Latin Americans are becoming less religious, and the Roman Catholic Church is losing ground to evangelical institutions such as Pentecostalism, it still remains an important moral compass in the region. In Venezuela, about 70 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, compared to a growing percentage (estimates range from 10 to 25 percent) who identify as evangelicals. It might thus be argued that although the Church is not authorized to get involved in politics, or to criticize socialism as a political system, it should clearly reproach the immoral conduct of members of Maduro’s regime. For example, Bishop Victor Hugo Basabe of San Felipe prayed for the liberation of Venezuela from the "corrupt plague" that sees citizens eating garbage (which led Maduro to ask the pro-government chief prosecutor and Supreme Court to investigate Basabe for having committed a hate crime).
The second argument is more political. If we assume that Venezuela is a secular state, as enshrined in its 1999 constitution, then religious institutions, including the Roman Catholic Church, should be conceived of as any other political interest group, which can and should voice its opinions and criticism of the country’s political regime, including in ideological and political terms. Following this argument, it would not be inappropriate for religious institutions to take a clear stance not only against the corrupt undermining of state institutions, but against the political system—whether it be socialism, communism, or right-wing authoritarianism—itself. Along these lines, the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference tweeted a prayer last July, asking the Blessed Virgin Mary to “free our homeland from the claws of communism and socialism.”
At the same time, it should be noted that any religious institution is not only motivated by its moral and political convictions but also by economic interests. The misery of the Venezuelan people can be capitalized on in religious terms. After all, times of hardship and crisis are the times in which people rediscover their faith or might be more easily recruited. As the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference put it in a recent Facebook post: “These are not times for religious indifference.”