David Smilde is the Charles A. and Leo M. Favrot Professor of Human Relations at Tulane University and senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. He is editor-in-chief of the journal Qualitative Sociology and moderates the blog Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.
Religious institutions often play an indispensable role in contexts of state crises. From the civil rights movement in the 1960s United States, to the struggle against communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, to the struggle against right wing dictatorships in Latin America, religious institutions have played an essential role. In the current Latin American context in which multi-faceted crime and violence stem simultaneously from low state capacity and high state complicity, religious institutions have become one of the main actors in protecting the human rights of average Latin Americans.
There is no recipe for how religious institutions can address such challenges. Evangelical groups often provide people with a safe space away from violence, in which they can reformulate themselves and develop new social networks. Catholic religious institutions more often provide religious institutions and professionals that can accompany, advocate, and directly confront abusive authorities.
There will always be complaints that religious institutions should restrict themselves to their spiritual vocation. The problem is that most every interpretation of the spiritual has implications for life in this world, and clear threats to basic human dignity frequently provoke religious responses. Of course, there is no clear model for just what those responses should be.
The Venezuelan hierarchy has been a critic of the Chavista project virtually since it started 20 years ago (see Chapter 12). It has done so from a pluralist perspective that valued Venezuela’s existing institutions and democratic tradition. The challenge they faced is that this position clearly mapped on to the long-term class conflict that undergirded the political conflict over the past 20 years. This is not by chance, despite some notable efforts to attend to the needs of Venezuela’s popular classes; the Church has long had a bias in the use of its resources towards the middle and upper classes. As a result, it was not terribly effective at counteracting or moderating the direction of the Chávez government.
In March 2013, this equilibrium was altered. On March 5, Hugo Chávez Frías passed away, leaving the government and movement to the leadership of Nicolás Maduro. Over the coming years, the latter would oversee a downward spiral in Venezuela’s economic, political, and social conditions that would leave his government unpopular and authoritarian, and the population immiserated and struggling to survive. On March 13, Argentinian Cardinal Joseph Bergolio was elected as Pope Francis. The first Latin American and first Jesuit pope, he brought to the papacy an entirely new progressive direction.
The Pope and the Vatican also slowly became more involved in the Venezuela conflict. While in early rounds of dialogue in Venezuela, the Vatican functioned as an observer, in 2016, on the request of both sides they decided to take a more robust role as “guarantors” of the dialogue between the Maduro government and the opposition. That dialogue actually brokered an impressive set of agreements. However, the Maduro government soon made clear that it had no intention of honoring them. As a result, the Vatican special representative announced he would be discontinuing his involvement and put forward a series of requirements for the Vatican to continue facilitating dialogue. None of these requirements were met, and the Vatican kept its distance as promised.
During the course of 2017, the Venezuelan hierarchy weighed in frequently with respect to the four-month cycle of protests and government repression which together took at least 120 lives. They consistently defended the right to protest, criticized the government’s repression, and called on the opposition to protest peacefully. They also were early critics of the Maduro government’s unconstitutional push for a constituent assembly. Most recently the Church suggested the May 20, 2018 presidential elections were illegitimate and should be repeated.
During the Venezuela crisis the Church so far has had an important but not a decisive role. This could change. In the current circumstances, the Church has the highest approval of any institution in Venezuela—the most recent polling shows it has an approval rating of 57 percent, more than 20 points higher than its closest competitor (the opposition-led National Assembly). This includes half of all those identifying with Chavismo. And the Pope is popular as well. The Church is perhaps in a better position than any other institution in Venezuela to play a role in a transition back to democracy.
One of the most important impediments for such a transition is the fear officials have that if they let go, they will be the objects of retribution and reprisals. The Church’s traditional focus on basic human dignity makes it one of the actors that could play an important role in finding a solution that could guarantee fair treatment and promote reconciliation.