Helpful Texts

Link zum Mandala von Bruder Klaus
Christian Frevel {*}

Latin America on Opposition Course

Bishops of Venezuela and Ecuador Criticize their Governments


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 1/2009, P. 43-47
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    When a few years ago in several Latin American countries "left" candidates won the elections, they were quite benevolently regarded by the Catholic Church. The initial benevolent waiting has meanwhile become a clear opposition to the populist "left" governments, particularly in Ecuador and Venezuela.


The criticism of the situation in Venezuela under President Hugo Chávez could hardly turn out sharper. In the final declaration of its recent General Assembly in mid-October 2008 the bishops of Venezuela criticized the "situation of growing insecurity" in the country: The criminality appeared "in the great number of murders, kidnappings, and in addition in the crimes against people and institutions". The government should - within the bounds of law and respecting the human rights - ensure that the fundamental rights of Venezuelans were guaranteed.

That criticism was no accident. Every day in Venezuela on average 44 people lose their life by murder or manslaughter. In addition to it there are a great number of robberies with injured, kidnappings, threats of violence and thefts. But in the bishops' opinion the new security laws enacted by the Chávez government in order to fight the escalating crime are not suitable for changing the situation but instead of this they undermine fundamental civil rights.


Against a Progressive "Cubanization" of Venezuela

For several years the Catholic Church has been worrying about President Chavez' term of office. Even though at the beginning of the populist leader's term of office there had been sympathy for his "Bolivarian policy" especially in the lower clergy, above all the bishops rejected the political line of the government from the beginning (see HK, in June 2007, 294 ff).

Already three years ago the Bishops' Conference had, also in view of Cuban "military advisers" in the country, spoken of an "increasing militarization of society". When in 2007 Chávez in a constitutional referendum aspired to the "continuous" re-election of the for seven years elected president and on that occasion also wanted to abolish the independence of the Venezuelan Central Bank and to allow the expropriation of private property, the bishops criticized the intended constitutional reform as "morally unacceptable". The referendum was rejected by the Venezuelans by a narrow majority - it was the first defeat in elections for Chávez since he had sworn his oath of office with the formula: "Fatherland, socialism or death".

"A powerful sign that prevented the progressive Cubanization of our country", the Archbishop of Barquisimeto, Antonio Lopez Castillo said. The "socialism of the 21st century" or the "Bolivarian revolution", as Hugo Chávez calls the changes in Venezuela, are in the opinion of the archbishop "nothing else but the Cuban model, the Marxist socialism. (...) Our population has seen what happened in Cuba. We do not want the same experience. We want democracy and real development."

Although Venezuela since Chavez' assumption of office in 1999 made growing profits out of the rising oil price, the money did not come to the people especially in the poor districts - and just they had been those who had elected him to the office. Instead of this the Venezuelan President made treaties with neighbouring states, which gave him, admittedly, a certain political influence but above all cost the Venezuelan government money. At the same time Venezuela on a grand scale bought weapons (alone with Russia contracts with a total value of almost 3 billion euro), sent an in China-built satellite into space (model Venesat-1, Name: Simón Bolivar), and agreed on building with Russian help a nuclear reactor. Furthermore, in November 2008 Venezuelan and Russian naval units went on joint manoeuvres in the Caribbean.

The case of a suitcase with 800 000 U.S. dollars at present negotiated in the USA shows that money of the Venezuelan government reaches also on dubious routes other Latin American states, in order to influence politics. A US-American of Venezuelan origin who lives in Miami had brought it in a private jet to Buenos Aires, in order financially to support the campaign of Cristina Kirchner, the current President of the Andean state.



According to the information of the man, who is meanwhile committed for trial, the money had come from Venezuelan government circles. In the airport of Buenos Aires the messenger was busted when he was to open his suitcase.

Especially Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador were provided with loans, oil supplies at reduced prices and other assistance. The "foreign policy of the peoples" announced by President Chávez is also directed at social movements. He was for instance guest of the last World Social Forum and worldwide enjoys some sympathy with anti-globalization opponents.

The Venezuelan president called the Church "opium for the people" and "cancer in society" - but in 2006 he swore the oath of office to "Jesus Christ, the greatest socialist of all times". For a long time Chávez has been abusing (inter alia in his Sunday television programme "Halo Presidente" in which he often speaks for hours) the bishops as "putschists", "devils in soutanes" and part of the corrupt oligarchy that had kept its distance to the people. At the same time he tried to approach Christian sects, inter alia with the promise to establish a pastor in every military barracks. The number of followers of sects is still comparatively low: About 85 percent of the Venezuelans are Roman Catholics.

In June 2008 a group of former Catholic priests, Lutheran and Anglican pastors jointly founded as an alternative model the "Reformed Catholic Church", which regards itself as in line with the socialist revolution of the government. "We are on close terms with no party but support the social programmes of the government", declared one of the founders, the former Anglican Enrique Albornoz, who was ordained one of the first three bishops of the new church.

According to its information the Reformed Catholic Church has five churches and numbers about 2000 members, especially in the West of Venezuela.



Its founders see the idea of love of one's neighbour embodied in Chávez' socialist ideals and reproach the Catholic bishops of siding with the opposition. The reformists call themselves Bolivarian, anti-imperialist and "Church of the poor." The founders of the Church obviously wanted to take advantage of the broad sympathy with Chávez prevailing also in Venezuelan church circles. But the initial sympathy among broad sections of priests and members of religious orders, but also of a committed laity has for the most part apparently evaporated, since the hoped-for reforms for the poor failed to materialize and corruption and mismanagement spread.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference (as well as the Anglican Church) criticized the new church for trying to split the Catholic Church. That church was little concerned with the Christian faith, because the true church of Christ brought Christ's message to the people, notwithstanding of their political views, Cardinal Jorge Urosa, archbishop of Caracas said. But that group primarily pursued political goals. According to statements of the Archbishop of Coro, Roberto Lückert, the new church is financed by the government. Its leaders were crooks and men with bad manners, who had to leave the official church because of dubious behaviour.

Bishop Roberto Lückert, Vice President of the Venezuelan Bishops' Conference, is regarded as the sharpest critic of the government within the conference. "The worst is not that they marry, the worst of it is that it is financed by the government. While these people come and baptize, confirm and dress as priests - all this paid by the government, people continue to go hungry and the problem of insecurity remains. What the government wants to achieve is the end of the Catholic Church, but that they'll never manage."


Climate of Violence and Oppression

An open conflict with the church came about when in the past year the Vatican granted a Venezuelan opposition student leader asylum in its Nunciature in Caracas. The government accuses the young man of having raped a policewoman during a demonstration.

When in October 2008 in Maracaibo a young student leader was murdered by twenty shots the Archbishop of Maracaibo, Archbishop Ubaldo Santana wrote an open letter of condolence and demanded the immediate clearing up of the crime against the young dissident. "I am very worried because of this escalation of violence", also Baltazar Porras, Archbishop of Mérida said, when a few hours later a student in his city was shot dead. "The two deaths show the climate that by now prevails in this country", Porras, who is also vice president of the Latin American Episcopal Council CELAM, gave his opinion. "That is not exactly the best climate for an election."

Only a few days later the bishops met for their annual General Assembly, which with regard to time took place immediately before the important regional elections in Venezuela. In the run-up the government Chávez had tried to prevent major opponents from taking part in the election. For 300 members of the opposition it was impossible to take up their candidature because they were involved in "ongoing legal proceedings". On part of Chávez' party they were accused to be involved in corruption. That was sufficient for crossing the candidates off the lists.

In the elections 623 positions were to be assigned: 22 governors, 233 deputies, 328 mayors and 40 town councillors. For the first time the opposition had been able to agree on common candidates, with internal security and the garbage problem it had chosen issues that met with response in the population and it had withstood the attempt of the government camp to build up the regional elections to a vote on the president. And there had been violence in the streets. The opposition had accused the followers of Chávez to provoke that violence.

Both camps have won in the regional elections. The government boast about keeping the majority (17 of the 22 governor posts remained in the government camp), the opposition could point to successful outcomes in key states and in the capital Caracas (inter alia it maintained the Governor posts in the oil region of Zulia and won the mayoralty in Caracas). Also the Venezuelan people are a winner. With a 65 per cent turn-out it had largely as seldom before exercised its democratic right.


Critics are Exiled

In September the international human rights organization "Human Rights Watch" had published a report of 236 pages ("A decade under Chávez") on the situation in Venezuela and had made serious allegations against the government of the former officer and amnestied putschist: Critics of the government would be discriminated for political reasons, the separation of powers openly ignored, and the fundamental rights gradually eroded.

The answer was not long in coming. When after the presentation of the report to the press the director of Human Rights Watch, the Chilean Jose Miguel Vivanco and his American assistant Daniel Wilkinson wanted to go back into their hotel in Caracas, a police unit received them and led them to the airport. There their suitcases waited, which had already been packed by the Venezuelan security forces. The mobile phones were immediately taken away from the two human rights activists, so that they were unable to make phone calls to the embassies of their home countries. Only a few hours later they landed in São Paulo.

Whereas Hugo Chávez in foreign policy behaves open and friendly, he uses severity and confrontation in matters of domestic policy.



With the sharp decline in oil prices, however, the foreign-policy activities of the President will in future be more restricted; in the country itself the situation of the poor will get worse. Already now there are always supply shortages in the food sector; in Caracas it was therefore scarcely possible to get milk, for example. Chávez continues to show himself as populist and knows how to use the media for himself. In the election campaign also state funds were used for the media work of Chávez' party.


Vote on Ecuador's New Constitution

In Venezuela the bishops are unanimously against Chávez and his "revolution of the 21st century", whereas in Ecuador primarily the chairman of the Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Antonio Arregui of Guayaquil chose an opposition course against President Rafael Correa, who had started with the same slogan but had - unlike Chavez - won the referendum on the new constitution in Ecuador in September 2008.

After his election President Correa had enforced a Constituent Assembly for the "reestablishment" of the nation. In April 2007 the population voted for his proposal with a majority of 64 per cent. The 130 elected members of this Assembly for almost one year worked out a proposal for the new Magna Charta, which was to lead to more justice in the sense of a "social and solidary economy". On 28 September 2008 two thirds of the nearly ten million persons entitled to vote approved of the new body of laws.

In the new constitution (it is already the twentieth in Ecuador since the founding of the state) the "Free market economy" is replaced by a "social and solidary" economic system. For it the central bank was put under the President's directive. The constitution now guarantees free education and health care for all, it brings more rights for the indigenous population, and even takes up ancient traditions of the Quechua culture. The indigenous programme of "Sumak Kawsay" serves as model. This "harmonious" or "good life" means the sustainable use of natural and the good living together of people.

After the clear "Yes" to the Constitution Ecuador is now faced with a three-month transitional period. In January elections will take place at all levels of the state. From the mayor up to the president all posts are to be filled anew. Rafael Correa is striving for his re-election - he could, theoretically, hold the Office of the President until 2017.

The 444-pages-constitution was written relatively quickly and is therefore in some places not sufficiently precise. This allows leeway for interpretation. In future numerous laws are expected as executive regulations. The Constitution does not allow the abortion but only opens the possibility of liberalization (President Correa, who regards himself as an avowed Catholic, had always told this was not possible with him.)

There was nevertheless criticism of the Bishops' Conference. It was primarily directed against the liberalization of abortion and the practice of homosexuality, which seem to be made possible by the constitution, and against an education reform in which the church saw a restriction on religious freedom. "The existence of church schools is jeopardized by the new Constitution", Archbishop Arregui said. The Spanish-born priest of Opus Dei who is since 2003 Archbishop of Guayaquil has this year been elected president of the Bishops' Conference by the bishops of Ecuador. Already in April 2008 Archbishop Arregui had emphasized in a message to the Catholics in the country that practising homosexuality was incompatible with the Christian life. His criticism was mainly directed against the fact that the Constitution provides the possibility of legally equating homosexual long-term relationships with marriage. Shortly afterwards in a joint statement the bishops admittedly stated that the Constitution contained good and important statements on matters of economy, education and health, especially with regard to the promotion of the poor in the country. But one would not agree with the statements on fighting poverty and corruption in the country.

It was especially Archbishop Arregui who was publicly presented as opponent of the constitutional project and who also repeatedly took accordingly a stand to it. By the pro-government media he was then often presented as a "foreigner" who came from Spain (the former colonial power).

In this context it is significant that even the most important political opponent of Correa comes from the port Guayaquil. Jaime Nebot is mayor of the Ecuadorian commercial metropolis and even threatened with a regional autonomy for the region. But he withdrew that announcement when also in the province Guayas with the capital Guayaquil the majority of the population voted for the constitution.

The conflict between Bishop's Conference and the government in Ecuador escalated into insults. "Priests are no monsters dressed in black or lying perverts as your millions of printed advertising copies maintain", on 12 September 2008 it said in an open letter of the Deputy Secretary of the Bishops' Conference, Nicolás Dousdebés, to Rafael Correa, "We do not agree with all these things uttered by the government as if its voice was the only criterion for truth, especially in matters regarding questions of morality and life."

When shortly before the vote on the new constitution death threats against the president of the Bishops' Conference were launched the fronts hardened even more. "If the President is looking for war with us, we unfortunately are to give him war", said Bishop Nestor Herrera of Machala and Arregui's predecessor as chairman of the Bishops' Conference. "Even though the president is Catholic, we will not allow him that he is contemptuous of the Catholic hierarchy.



Still a year ago Bishop Herrera had complained about the politicians' "language ready for violence" in the conflict over the new constitution.

By now the public prosecutor's office has stopped the investigations against Archbishop Arregui, which it had started because he had infringed the ban on political activity imposed on the church by his public rejection of the new constitution. But further legal proceedings are taken against him. They deal with the archbishop's role during the bank crisis in Ecuador in 1999. Observers see it as an obvious attempt to bring further discredit on the chairman.

Both in Ecuador and in Venezuela the prospects for a dialogue between bishops and the government seem to be remote. Whereas in Venezuela the tablecloth seems to be cut, in Ecuador at least a part of the bishops and large parts of the priesthood maintain perfectly good contacts with the government. The conflict rather takes place between the Bishops' Conference and the President. Recently Benedict XVI gave certainly the bishops moral support, when in October 2008 they were in Rome for their 'Ad limina' visit. The pope said that the protection of life was indispensable. As universally applicable as that expression is, it was received by the media in Ecuador as another move of the church against the proposed Constitution.


    {*} Christian Frevel (born in 1960) is director of public relations and education in the Episcopal Action Adveniat. Previously he was editor and public speaker with various newspapers, magazines and institutions, from 1999 to 2002 deputy editor in chief of the mission magazine "continents" in Cologne.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'