Reasons to believe that gov't-bishop talks will not come to anything
In private, many prelates are skeptical vis-à-vis this new rapprochement
On July 10, Quinta Monseñor Ibarra, the seat of the Venezuelan Bishops' Conference (CEV) in Montalbán, a neighborhood southwest Caracas, was the stage for an event that had not taken place in Venezuela for more than five years. That day, Vice-President Elías Jaua and ministers of the Interior and Youth, Tareck El Aissami and Maripili Hernández, respectively, had a meeting with bishops, at which, Vice-President Jaua pledged to "reestablish" an "institutional, political and personal dialogue between both institutions."
That same day, President Hugo Chávez phoned CEV president/Archbishop of Cumaná, Monsignor Diego Padrón, and told him that he would receive him soon. The next day, President Chávez, referring to these gestures, said: "I hope we can establish a good relation with the Catholic hierarchy and work together for the country (...) the Church can make a substantial contribution along with the government in the fight against poverty, misery, crime and all those evils we still have."
The development has been applauded by different sectors within the country. However, there are reasons to doubt that concrete results may be attained and that everything will not come down to a photo opportunity.
Looking through newspapers archives, it is found that the last time that the CEV leaders were received by the Head of State was on January 24, 2006. That year, like this, presidential elections were held.
At the end of the meeting, Monsignor Ubaldo Santana, the then CEV president, stated: "There is a positive stance (by the government), which leaves doors open for us to continue to talk and find new topics of mutual interest."
The meeting agreed to set up working tables with the Vice-President's Office and the Ministry of the Interior to "deal with issues like religious education at schools and cooperation by the Church in social projects."
Although those working tables were never established, relations with the Catholic hierarchy developed smoothly for months. Even in March 2006, president Chávez received, with honors reserved for Heads of State, Jorge Urosa Savino, the Archbishop of Caracas, when he returned from Rome (Italy), where Pope Benedict 16th had named him Cardinal.
President Chávez, together with Cardinal Urosa, insisted in maintaining "permanent" communication channels with bishops. President Chávez said: "To the good friends in the Catholic hierarchy: debate, public dialogue, based on good faith and without hidden agendas or manipulations of any kind and from any sector."
However, criticisms by prelates against Chávez's proposal to amend the Constitution to, among other things, allow him to run for reelection as many times as he would like and to establish a socialist model in the country, began to put relations under strain again.
In January 2007, the then Minister of the Interior, Pedro Carreño, attended the CEV assembly and presented the bishops with books on socialism and blamed them for crime indices, because "most criminals are Catholic; that shows that education is lacking."
But what demolished the truce were the criticisms by the Cardinal and Monsignor Santana against the president's decision not to renew the broadcasting license to the TV channel Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV).
"The Catholic hierarchy goes back to their old ways. Yesterday I heard once again the president of the Episcopal Conference saying atrocities. Now, he is defending what is indefensible (...) I believe they are exposed to condemnation by Jesus Christ," President Chávez said in January 2007.
Starting from that moment, the clash intensified and in 2010, President Chávez even threatened with breaking the Concordat that Venezuela had signed with the Vatican in 1964, due to an interview that Cardinal Urosa gave to this newspaper in which he stated that "we are walking on the road to a dictatorship and the ruin of the country."
Precisely, thanks to that treaty, the Head of State blocked for months the appointment of Urosa as Archbishop of Caracas, because the Concordat grants the President of the Republic the privilege of vetoing appointments made by the Pope.
Furthermore, Cardinal Urosa had to appear before the National Assembly to explain his opinions, something unprecedented.
As a result of these events, many within the episcopate are "skeptical" vis-à-vis this new rapprochement. Notwithstanding, prelates interviewed by El Universal made it clear that they will do their best effort for this dialogue not to fail, but without abandoning their principles or "keeping quiet."
Translated by Álix Hernández
José Vicente Rangel clearly said: "We are not conducting negotiations threatened with a gun in the head." He warned behind closed doors in the midst of the social upheaval occurred during the oil strike in 2002 and 2003. Dissenting Timoteo Zambrano answered back that no other option was available: "The thing is that otherwise, you do not negotiate."