TENERIFE, Canary Islands, MAY 14, 2003 (Zenit.org).- The Catholic Church under attack in Venezuela is not alone, the president of the Venezuelan episcopal conference says “there is a persecution of the whole of Venezuelan society.”
In the following interview with ZENIT, Archbishop Baltazar E. Porras of Merida spoke about the ways President Hugo Chavez’s government exerts pressure on the Church and trims democracy in the country.
Chavez, who staged an unsuccessful military coup in 1992, came to power in 1999. Among other things, he is noted for his harsh attacks against the country’s bishops, and for reducing the public funds allocated to the Church’s evangelizing and humanitarian work in the country.
Q: Perhaps the most acute moment of tension was lived a year ago, with the unsuccessful attempt to remove Chavez in April of 2002. You were with Chavez at that time.
Archbishop Porras: At that moment there was an explicit recognition of the role of the Church. Cardinal Ignacio A. Velasco, archbishop of Caracas, and I were among those being attacked the most.
However, when he was about to go under, the president of the Republic himself called me to see if I was prepared to defend his life and to help him leave the country. I told him: “Of course. Let me see what I can do.” As a priest, it is one of my first obligations. With the guarantee of my person, Chavez was prepared to confirm his resignation. But the military then did not accept this condition; they obliged him to stay in the country and then, as we know, he was able to return to his post.
What is interesting is that now, a year after the event, the president has tried to change the version. He has said: there were a few “little bishops” who were with the coup participants. He knows very well, as I told him on one occasion, that “I appeared on the scene because you called me.” I think all this has to be seen in the context that any institution which can cast a shadow on him has to be erased, impaired, or divided.
Q: Has he succeeded?
Archbishop Porras: The government has always tried to divide. As with other institutions, Chavez has said: the leaders are at the top, and the top is divorced from the base.
I think that given the characteristics of the Church in Venezuela, its configuration and presence, his plan has failed. This does not mean that there are not a few elements, priests and a few groups calling themselves Christians, who hope to relive in Venezuela the history of Guatemala’s Sandinismo. If there was to be in Venezuela a division between religious and the diocesan clergy, or between their presence in popular and other areas, it would have been different, but this situation does not exist.
Q: What is the situation in Venezuela?
Archbishop Porras: There is a populist, authoritarian, militarist government; it is no accident that a military coup leader is at the head. It is not accidental that the models proposed are Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba, Colonel Muammar Gadhafi’s in Libya, and Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq, although we don’t know where he is now.
Q: Aren’t you afraid to speak with such clarity?
Archbishop Porras: The best way to maintain the people’s hope in face of this situation is to keep the truth before them.
Q: Have their been bomb attacks against the Churches?
Archbishop Porras: Of course there are limits to situations that some of us Bishops have to live in a particular way. But there is a characteristic of this process that is being seen in Venezuela: the people are not afraid. It is very interesting, because it also denotes a series of values.
In my diocese of Merida, in the two weeks preceding Holy Week, there were 12 robberies. But they weren’t real robberies, because their objective was to destroy. Tabernacles were destroyed. If there had been sacred golden vessels, one might think it was robberies. But they were ordinary chalices of no value. In recent months, the Cathedral has been the object of robbery. They have stolen the chairs from the Presbytery and also pictures. The Cathedral always had normal police protection — that of the Square. It was removed, because the authorities said it was a privilege that the Catholic Church should not enjoy. The houses of some priests have been looted, but the delinquents are never identified, no one ever knows what happened.
This creates an atmosphere of fear, which is not exclusive to the Church. I want to highlight this. It would not be right to say that there is a persecution against the Church. There is a persecution against the whole of Venezuelan society. Efforts are being made to create fear so that people will get paralyzed. One should hear some of the speeches which state that no one will stop this Revolution, and that if it cannot be carried out by fair means it will be carried out by foul means, with violence.
Q: Has the government not promised you greater well-being if you give in to its demands?
Archbishop Porras: Yes, there have been cases. When this government was newly elected, in one of the first meetings that President Chavez had with the presidency of the Episcopal Conference, he said: I propose that you give me the name of two or three priests, of two or three Bishops, so that they can be ministers. And tell me what ministry you want them to have. It was up to me to answer him and I explained that we are not seeking any posts; that it is not our role. “Think about it,” he said. “We don’t have to think about it,” we replied.
Then he said: “as I am convoking a Constituent Assembly, I can create a Constituent Assembly with 60 military men and 40 priests. Give me the names of 40 priests and we will create the Constituent Assembly.”
I answered: “President, you think that with the 60 best military men, luminaries in all orders, and with 40 of the best priests, a Constitution can be drawn up? Whose representatives are the military men and the priests? With what right can we represent journalists, homemakers, businessmen, workers?”
It is somewhat indicative of the totalitarian mentality.
Q: What effect does the crisis in Venezuela have on the American continent and on the world?
Archbishop Porras: It is important to realize that it is not just a problem of Venezuela. A plan is underway in Venezuela for which Venezuela is too small. It is a plan that in the first instance has continental projections and then world ones.
Indeed, what OPEP has done in recent years follows along that line, or the contacts with the “Bloc of the 72.” The fact that it is called a Bolivarian Revolutionary Plan, is not just simply to exalt Simon Bolivar, but because this allows for an enclave with the Colombian guerrilla groups, who also call themselves Bolivarian, with certain native groups of Ecuador, of Bolivia … It is a plan designed as an alternative to the imperialism of the First World, of the United States and Europe.
It is a curious and explosive mixture, which includes populism, militarism, totalitarianism, outdated Marxism, and others “isms.” This is why it is important, from the point of view of our faith and of our religious role, that we believers have very clearly in mind the values we work for and serve, so as not to fall prey through naivete.