EspañolThe already heated tensions between Chavismo and the Catholic Church shot up on Monday, January 12. The Venezuelan Episcopal Conference (CEV) released a document in which they condemned the government of Nicolás Maduro for taking the country down “a wrong path” and “imposing a socialist Marxist or communist political-economic system.”
“The current system is totalitarian and centralized, it puts under the control of the state all aspects of life, as well as public and private institutions. It also attacks the liberties and rights of individuals and associations, and has led to oppression and ruin in all countries where it has been attempted,” says the document, which has already been met with reactions from the Maduro administration.
The president is on tour of Asia and the Middle East, but the regime’s right-hand man and president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, has hit back. During a press conference on Tuesday, he invited the Church “to set up a political party, because they sound more like politicians than Catholics.”
The Catholic bishops have refrained from adding more fuel to the fire, but they have insisted on their official statement. It points out that the national government “pays no attention to suggestions besides its own” and that a totalitarian tendency can be observed in “a communication hegemony that blocks and limits independent media, in its attempt to control the unions, in the legal persecution of political dissidents, in the creation of multiple laws, regulations, and procedures that obstruct the private sector, even those nonprofit organizations that provide social relief.”
It equally criticizes the Maduro administration for the recent appointments of PSUV sympathizers on the National Electoral Council, Supreme Court, Comptroller General, and Ombudsman, “carried out with partisan interests that do not reflect the plurality of political forces in the country… Again we affirm: Marxist socialism is a wrong path, and should not be established in Venezuela.”
The document calls for openness between political actors and for incumbent officials to assume their responsibility “to avoid the crisis getting worse.” Opposition leaders, it reads, should “present a common project united beyond favoritism.”
According to the CEV, the country’s population currently “suffer from generalized distress due to the economic crisis, since they’ve been forced to face unseen hardships to obtain basic goods” and could slide into poverty.
The violence that comes with the economic problems “reveals an even deeper malaise: moral crisis — values, attitudes, inclinations, and behaviors that need to be corrected. We need to overcome the desire for easy money and corruption, political arrogance, high-handedness and lust for power, egoism, laziness, hatred, and violence. We need to rescue the principles of legality, legitimacy, and morality that make up the basis of social life.”
The Church’s Rising Tide of Disagreement
The strained relations began in 1998, when the late Hugo Chávez took office and has had peaks of conflict during times of power struggles within Chavismo.
As noted in the CEV document, the Church participated in a dialogue promoted last year by Vatican Archbishop Aldo Giordano. It was set up as a request by Pope Francis and Secretary of State Pietro Parolín, but Giordano has since changed roles and now occupies the second position in the Vatican. This dialogue, “unfortunately, did not go beyond the first meetings,” says the document.
In a particularly confrontational moment, the late Chávez called the bishops “devils with robes.” When Cardinal Ignacio Velasco died, the then president said in a public speech “see you in hell,” which aroused the indignation of Catholics.
Chávez believed Velasco was involved in the coup that briefly ousted him from the presidency in 2002.
The former head of state even tried to impose a Reformed “Chavista” Catholic Church which, although nominally in operation since 2008, has not caught on.
Nicolás Maduro hasn’t continued the insults towards the Church, but he has suffered setbacks with the country’s most popular religion. In September 2014, during a public ceremony, the PSUV leadership recited “Chávez Nuestro,” a version of the Lord’s Prayer about the late president.
Historically, the Church leadership has been at the center of Venezuelan public life, especially during the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez (1952-1958). A missive written by Monsignor Rafael Arias Blanco in May 1957 was decisive in the fall of the regime on January 23, 1958, a date that is about to be commemorated by the Venezuelan opposition with protests.
True to their confrontational style, the ruling PSUV have also announced counter demonstrations for that day.
Translation by Daniel Duarte. Edited by Fergus Hodgson.
Español In the wake of the scandal surrounding Brazil's state-run oil company Petrobras, we would do well to analyze the role of state enterprises in the Americas. Codenamed Lava Jato, or "car wash," the investigation into Petrobras operations by police and public prosecutors revealed a colossal corruption scheme involving former top executives, construction companies, and prominent politicians from the governing coalition dominated by the Workers' Party (PT). Evidence uncovered so far suggests the privileged club of racketeers pocketed billions of dollars under the cover of public contracts. Twenty-three of some of the richest and most powerful businessmen in Brazil have been arrested so far, among them current and past heads of the country's largest construction companies. Federal prosecutors allege that, in cahoots with senior Petrobras managers, they established a vast network of bribes and money laundering, funnelling US$3bn through the scheme between 2004 and 2012 alone. Augusto Ribeiro de Mendonça Neto, of the Toyo Setal engineering consortium executive, admitted that the misdealing goes back as far as 1990. For contractors, bribes to the Petrobras elite have been a common practice ever since. Renato Duque, former Services Director at the state-run firm, was apparently in charge of coordinating the scheme. It worked as follows: select contractors received special instructions as to how to win the bidding process, and in exchange they made political contributions through legal channels to the PT party, but also to its allies the Democratic Movement Brazilian Party (PMDB) and the Progressive Party (PP.) Many still believe the almighty state is what drives the economy, and not the laws of the market. In the months prior to 2014's disputed elections, in which President Dilma Rousseff won a second term, those companies currently under investigation donated US$49 million to the PT and incumbent allies PMDB and PP, making up 62 percent of all their campaign contributions. It doesn't require a huge amount of intelligence to realize who's benefiting from the kickbacks and corruption emanating from state companies in this case. But the Petrobras case isn't an isolated incident; it happens all over Latin America. But no matter how overwhelming the evidence is for the devastating effects of state-run enterprises, Latin Americans still love them. They distrust anything coming from the private sector and naively believe the government has their best economic interests at heart. Many still believe the almighty state is what drives the economy, and not the laws of the market. When a scandal like that involving Petrobras emerges, people react by demanding more "honest" administrators. They seem not to realize that the root of the problem lies not with individual politicians but in the system itself. As the apocryphal saying goes, "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." Private Sector Medicine The reason why the Petrobras scandal surfaced at all is because the private sector owns shares in the company — it's mostly owned by the Brazilian state but has several foreign investors. It was precisely that private participation which allowed for the investigation and punishment of the endemic corruption. For years, the Brazilian government misused the oil company as a financial and industrial resource at the expense of minority shareholders, who refused to tolerate this state of affairs any longer. Further proof of this is the fact that current Petrobras directors, under Graça Foster's administration, were well aware of all this years before the official investigations began. In 2008, a top manager warned Foster about irregularities she had stumbled upon — but instead of addressing the issue, Petrobras transferred her to a company office in Asia and eventually fired her. Newly-elected Vice President Raúl Sendic's handling of Uruguay's ANCAP was a big loss for the country, but not for him. Having to trade shares in the market and be accountable to shareholders is what will probably allow a way out for Petrobras, and offer some hope that those found guilty of misdoings, no matter how powerful, will be duly punished. The United States Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) is conducting a promising independent investigation. The SEC investigation has already led to consulting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) refusing to sign off on Petrobras' audited accounts until the investigation is over. If the Brazilian firm doesn't put PwC's fears at rest and release audited financial records by April 30, it could enter a technical default, estimated to be worth US$170 billion by credit rating agency Moody's. A Continental Concern Fully state-owned companies are a whole different story. For instance, the late Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro have abused Venezuela's PDVSA at will, for the political and economic gain of their crony friends at home and abroad. Chávez, an ambitious young politician who arrived to power by promising to fight the corruption that infested traditional parties, ended up taking it to whole new levels. As reported by Transparency International, Venezuela is the most corrupt country in Latin America and among the worst ranked in the world: it occupies the 161th position out of 175 countries surveyed. But in Venezuela, we're still a long way off from any form of investigation into state oil companies. Another government-run petroleum firm, Uruguay's ANCAP, went US$276 million into the red during President Raúl Sendic's administration (2008-2013) and incurred debts worth over $1.5 billion. A controversy also erupted with private consulting firm KPMG over the use of different criteria to record ANCAP's liabilities. As a result of this, and despite the high oil prices during that period, 2013 was the fourth consecutive year that ANCAP reported losses. Legislators from the opposition demanded an investigation, but the ruling party majority in Congress blocked it. In the last presidential elections, Sendic was the grand surprise. A high voter turnout during the primaries won him the vicepresident ticket for the ruling Broad Front coalition, and he was duly elected. So, his handling of ANCAP was a big loss for the country, but not for him. Despite his lousy administration, he received a prize at the polls. Is there any doubt left as to who really benefits? Edited by Laurie Blair.