The social, political and economic situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate gravely, with shortages of food, medicines and the basic necessities of daily life. The Church is suffering the consequences of this crisis along with the people, and in many of the dioceses of the country the clergy and other pastoral workers, who are involved in the indispensable work of addressing the material and spiritual needs of the people, are themselves in need of aid in order to survive.
Cardinal Baltasar Porras, who is apostolic administrator of Caracas and at the same time Archbishop of Mérida, spoke recently with a delegation from the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) who were visiting the country to see the situation for themselves and observe how the aid projects of the charity are helping the Church in Venezuela in its pastoral and social outreach.
Venezuela is not actually at war, yet in reality it is living as though it were in a state of war. What would you say of this assessment?
We are living in an exceptional and unheard-of situation, which is not the result of war, nor of any armed conflict, or any natural catastrophe, and yet which is having similar consequences. The political regime that is running Venezuela has broken the country and has generated an atmosphere of social conflict that is steadily growing worse. On top of this there is the reality of so many Venezuelans living in exile – something that was unheard of before. People are leaving on account of their economic situation and because of their political ideas, while others are doing so on account of the harassment and repression in the country, whose economic system is now practically ruined. There is absolutely no security under the law. At the same time there is no work and no proper healthcare, there is no possibility for people of bringing home even the minimum to support their family. The experts describe this whole situation as a wartime economy.
We have heard about the negotiations in Oslo between the government and the opposition, but there is a great deal of scepticism in regard to them. Do you think that this could really be a way forward to improve the situation in the country?
We have to understand that over the past 20 years, when the government found itself in difficulties, it frequently called for dialogue. But these appeals were only made in order to “paper over the cracks”, because the government had no real desire to negotiate sincerely, or to concede anything at all. Given this situation, a large proportion of the population have lost all trust and belief in the idea of dialogue. But despite this, it is an opportunity to discover if there is any will to restore democracy, which has for now been totally sidelined in this country. We are deeply concerned at the fact that in the last year the number of people who have been arrested, tortured, murdered or “disappeared” has been growing and that those involved in these actions include not only high-ranking members of the military, but also some members of the pro-government popular classes. Some of the state organisations are looked on by people as “Nazi” police, and generate fear among the people. The government has lost the streets, and now the only way it can control the people is through fear, and by deliberately provoking fuel, food and energy shortages.
During our visit we were able to see how, wherever there is a parish or another Church institution, people flock to it and find help and leave somewhat comforted. Could one say that the Church in Venezuela is a Church of Hope?
The public and private institutions have been destroyed, and the only institution remaining is the Church. This is thanks to our closeness to the people and to our presence at every level of society. Besides, the Church has had the courage to point out the defects of this regime. Other social agencies have not spoken out about this crisis, for fear of the government, which has threatened and closed down the communications media and attacked private enterprises.
As a result of its clear and firm stance the Church too is suffering from threats and pressure. Can it be said that the Church in Venezuela is being persecuted?
I would say, we cannot say that it is not persecuted. For example, in the field of education there are restrictions on the Catholic centres; it seems as though they are looking to place obstacles, so that it is the Church itself who has to close her own schools. For years we have been suffering subtle forms of pressure, including verbal threats and harassment against our social institutions such as Caritas, for example. The parishes are attacked by the government, by the communal councils and the so-called “colectivos”, pro-government popular groups. For example, in Caracas, the members of these groups stand at the church doors and listen to what the priest says in his homilies, and if they don’t like it, then the threats begin.
What would happen in Venezuela if it weren’t for the presence of the Catholic Church?
The situation would be worse, and worsening for many people. It hurts us to see our people like this. Given the phenomenon of emigration, those of us who have been left behind are “orphans of affection”, because the family and the whole environment in which we used to live have disappeared. We feel the lack of companionship and we also suffer because many of those who have emigrated are not doing well either. Venezuela is turning into a geopolitical problem that affects other countries also. There are already 4 million Venezuelans outside the country – 1.5 million in Colombia, 700,000 in Peru, 400,000 in Chile, 500,000 in Florida – half of them without papers, we are told. And there are many more in other countries of the Americas and in Europe. It is terribly sad.
What has Pope Francis said to you in the meetings you have had with him?
The Pope knows the situation in Venezuela very well, since long before he was appointed Pope. And in addition, his closest collaborators, such as the Vatican Secretary of State, have had direct connections with Venezuela and are very much involved. The Pope is trusting in the local bodies. In the last meeting that we had between the entire Venezuelan episcopate and the Holy Father he said to us “I endorse everything you are doing”. Some people wonder why he doesn’t say more about Venezuela. Things are being done, but discreetly, partly so as not to endanger the organisations which are helping the Church in Venezuela.
Have you a final message for those in ACN who are working together with the Church in Venezuela?
The support of many institutions, and not only Catholic ones, is a great source of consolation for us. In particular we are profoundly grateful to ACN, not only for your material support, but for the spiritual closeness expressed by you, above all through prayer. And there is one thing in particular we must acknowledge, namely that thanks to the support we receive from ACN in the form of Mass intentions, you are helping enormously to alleviate the needs in the parishes, and in this way we can devote other resources to support our social outreach. You are helping us to continue to be present and support the people who need us most.