Venezuela - One year after the elections
An interview with Archbishop Diego Rafael Padrón Sánchez of Cumaná, the president of the Venezuelan bishops' conference.
You were recently in Rome, together with other members of the Venezuelan Bishops' Conference, where you were received by the Holy Father. What did you say to him?
Our audience with Pope Francis on September 26 was an opportunity for us to reaffirm the filial loyalty of the Venezuelan episcopate to the person and magisterium of the Holy Father. We spoke to him of the importance and the plans of the Plenary Council of Venezuela, of our unity as Church and our concerns for the situation of the country.
The Holy Father asked the Church in Venezuela to be a Church close to and open to all, and to promote peace and reconciliation in the country. Is there anything new in that?
Indeed, that is the case, and the Pope insisted so much to us on the closeness to the people and the mediating role of the Church in promoting dialogue between the different sectors of the country, and specifically between the two factions labeled "officialist" and "opposition."
In order for there to be dialogue, there have to be two parties. The Church is ready for dialogue, but it has not always been easy to establish this, and where it has existed, it has often enough remained at the level of promises and words. Would you say that the situation is better today?
I would say that we have started the journey. That is to say, steps have been taken on both sides towards a meeting or meetings, and a door has been opened which a few months ago was closed. In this sense I would dare to say that the relations between the Church and Government have improved. The Government indeed recognises the Church as a party in the debate and, since our most recent meeting, also as a mediator between the parties you mentioned above.
And what about the opposition? Very often and in many countries the Church, in her role as mediator and conciliator, is criticized by members of both sides, who would like her to take sides with one party or the other…
We have also had a number of meetings and dialogues with leaders of the Opposition. Given that we are acting according to our own judgment, on behalf of the people in general and not of any one particular sector, I do not believe that we are being criticized by entering into dialogue with both sides. We would indeed be if we did not dialogue with anyone, or with one side only.
October 7 will mark exactly one year since the re-election of the late President Hugo Chavez. This last year has been a troubled one for the country. We saw the death of the president, following a lengthy illness, and his replacement by Maduro, not without protests from the opposition. How would you sum up this last year? Has anything changed?
Undoubtedly there have been changes, beginning with the fact that Maduro is not Chávez. And secondly because, even though President Maduro has been at pains to call himself "the son of Chávez" and to follow in his footsteps, his government is a new exercise. For him everything is new, and he is new in everything. So far, the balance is clearly negative. The plans of President Maduro are emergency plans, based perhaps on the Venezuelan saying: Como vaya viniendo, vamos viendo (take life as it comes / make it up as we go along). In other words, I think his plans are off-the-cuff reactions to each new situation.
We hear alarming news of a lack of products of all kinds, including basic necessities such as food, for example, and items of hygiene… Perhaps it was something of an anecdote that there was no altar wine, because there weren't enough bottles to store it in. But it appears to be the case that foodstuffs are indeed rationed in many parts of Venezuela, because they cannot be found. Maduro recently signed an agreement with Colombia to import $600 million worth of food. Is the situation as drastic as it is being painted?
It certainly is. It is drastic because we have gone from being an exporting country to a country that is importing everything. We have gone from being a country where there was everything to a country where the most basic products are lacking. But I cannot go on talking about shortages, because it is prohibited.
Venezuela used to be a wealthy country. Does it continue to be?
You did very well to say "used to be" a wealthy country. It continues to be so in the capacity of its people, in the wealth of its soil, in the abundance of its natural resources. But it is poor in the means and systems of production. Today Venezuela is producing practically nothing. I repeat, everything is being bought in from outside the country, often at very high prices. At the same time, our national currency has been greatly devalued. For this reason, even if there might be more money on the streets, the people are in fact poorer. People realize that the money is not enough.
Still more worrying is the news about the violence in the country. The Church herself has been affected by this problem. The premises of the episcopal conference in Caracas were attacked nine times in the space of just two weeks. It is a telling sign in a country where there are 19,000 deaths annually through violence. Are there words to describe this? Can anything be done to check this wave of violence?
Not just the Catholic Church, but other churches, too, have been affected. But this is not the most serious thing, but rather the fact that today there is practically no family that does not have to lament some act of violence. In this we are indeed all equal. The violence does not distinguish between "officialistas" and opposition, nor between capitalists and socialists. Nonetheless, I am convinced that this social situation can change and will change. The measures implemented by the government are inadequate. It is not enough to tackle the effects or the symptoms; we must tackle the causes.
To turn away now from the more unfortunate things, the World Youth Day in Brazil was full of young Venezuelans, who brought a noticeable wave of color to the proceedings, and in November, in Maracaibo we will witness the Latin American Missionary Congress. So there is indeed movement and life in the Church in Venezuela. What do you hope will be the fruit of the celebration of the Missionary Congress in Maracaibo?
Yes, not everything is black. In the midst of the pain and sadness of such a difficult situation, the young in general have not simply become resigned. In particular the young people of the Church have had the courage to confront the challenges facing them. Despite such an adverse economic situation, there were 6,000 young Venezuelans who took part in the World Youth Day. Such a high number is a sign of hope.
What the young people of the Church most convey is courage and hope. The Catholic people are proud of their young. The same thing will happen at the American Missionary Congress. With the help of God it will be an extraordinary event during the Year of Faith, which will motivate us all to bear witness to the coherence of life, solidarity and mission. This, in part, is what the legacy of the CAM will be for the Church and for the country.
With picture of the celebration of the traditional Candle fiesta in the Diocese of Merida, Venezuela (© ACN)