The missing voice in Venezuela's tragedy

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A predominantly Catholic country is suffering from a shortage of food and medicine, and when the people take to the streets to protest against the government's mismanagement, corruption and abuse of power, they are increasingly met with bullets.

Yet the leader of the Catholic Church, who has called world hunger a scandal and decried the cancer of corruption in Latin America, has failed to speak up against Venezuela's humanitarian crisis and its main culprit, President Nicolás Maduro.

Support for Maduro and Chavismo in general dwindles each day in this nation of 30mn people, 73% of whom are Catholic. Posters of the late former president Hugo Chávez are being torn down, as people who once praised his so-called Bolivarian revolution are waking up to the harsh reality under his handpicked successor.

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Armando Cañizales, a 17-year-old violinist, was recently killed by a gunshot to the head while throwing rocks at the national guard in a Caracas protest. Cañizales was part of El Sistema, Venezuela's state-funded music education and youth orchestra system. The killing prompted Gustavo Dudamel, Venezuela's world-renowned orchestra conductor and leading symbol of El Sistema, to finally speak out, after years of calling for dialogue between the government and the opposition. "Enough is enough," he said in an open letter, in which he calls on Maduro to listen to the Venezuelan people.

The body of a young man killed in an anti-government protest is brought to a Caracas hospital on Wednesday (CREDIT: AFP). 

For Venezuela's church officials, the final straw came after Maduro announced a constituent assembly that would bypass the popular vote in reforming the constitution. 

The episcopal conference grouping of local bishops called on Venezuelans to raise their voice in protest, and accused the government of seeking to impose "a violent and repressive totalitarian, militaristic, police system." As retribution for siding with the people, Maduro unleashed government goons that entered churches to disrupt mass.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis – the voice that could perhaps put the most pressure on the government, the one Maduro cannot possibly silence with threats of retribution or violence – remains non-committal about coming down on the side of democracy.

During the short-lived, Vatican-led talks between the government and the opposition, the pope had to stay neutral in the hopes of brokering a deal between both sides. The talks quickly broke down last year after Maduro failed to release political prisoners and respect basic democratic norms that were part of the negotiations' conditions.  

Since then, Pope Francis has not taken a stance on the grave situation in the country, where nearly three-quarters of Venezuelans have lost an average of 8.7kg over the past year in what has been called the 'Maduro diet', amid the shortage of food and other basic goods.

(A recent Associated Press investigation discovered that shipments of food awaiting entry into Venezuela were going bad as the armed forces demanded bribes. Maduro has delegated control of several economic sectors to the military in order to stay on the good side of the generals who could kick him out at any moment.)  

Instead, the pontiff has called on Venezuelan bishops to once again build bridges between Maduro and the opposition in order to stop the violence that has claimed about 40 lives in over a month.

Protesters carry a man during Wednesday's demonstration (AFP).

Let's be clear: there can be no bridge building with a government that wanted the supreme court to assume the legislative powers of the opposition-controlled national assembly; that is trying to ban three opposition governors from holding office by accusing them of administrative irregularities; that has kept main opposition leader Leopoldo López in prison since 2014 under charges of rebellion; that called off last year's regional elections; that is using military courts to process civilian protesters; and that prevented three lawmakers from taking office after the opposition's resounding victory in the 2015 legislative elections to prevent a supermajority in congress that could have called for Maduro's removal.

There is no possible negotiation with an administration that flouts democracy. In this scenario, the opposition is like the 17-year-old violinist that can only wield rocks against the heavily armed national guard and the so-called Colectivos, community organizations created by Chávez that act as paramilitary groups, using violence to intimidate protesters, voters and the media.

In this scenario, everybody needs to take a stand. OAS secretary general Luis Almagro, who as Uruguay's foreign minister once praised Chávez, has called on Maduro to respect the voice of the people and to settle differences through elections. Argentina's President Mauricio Macri said "Venezuela is not a democracy." Maduro has accused both of being tools of US imperialism, the rote response to criticism.

But Venezuela's president would not have such an easy time dismissing criticism from Pope Francis, who has earned the respect of international leaders of all political stripes, including Cuba's Raúl Castro and Bolivia's Evo Morales.

The pope should not provide Maduro with the time and legitimacy afforded by further negotiations that will not prosper as long as he's in power. He should demand that Maduro listen to his people and call for elections immediately. 

A demonstrator shields himself from a police water cannon (AFP).