Poverty seems to have decreased, but the Church was persecuted
The death of Hugo Chávez might mean the end of 14 years of increasing restrictions for the Church in Venezuela, but for now, the leaders of that Church are praying for the soul of the long-time socialist president.
According to Catholic News Agency, the secretary general of the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Jesús González de Zárate Salas, called for national unity in the wake of Chávez’s death yesterday.
Vice President Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s preferred successor, said the longtime Venezuelan leader died March 5 at the Caracas Military Hospital at the age of 58. His 14-year rule was one marked by much controversy and poor relations with the Church.
“At this moment, we speak to our highest feelings,” Bishop González said in an interview on the private television channel Globovisión.
CNA noted that on several occasions, the bishops of Venezuela had called for prayers for the President, who had been ailing with cancer for two years and had not been seen in public for the past few months. At the beginning of Lent, Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, Archbishop of Caracas, encouraged the faithful to pray for Chávez’s recovery.
Hugo Chávez rose from poverty and entered a military academy at age 17. Years later, in 1992, he led an unsuccessful coup as an army officer against free-market reformer Carlos Andrés Pérez.
Chávez led the United Socialist Party of Venezuela and successfully ran for President in 1998 on an anti-corruption platform.
According to the CIA World Factbook, Chávez aimed to implement what he called a “21st century socialism,” which “purports to alleviate social ills while at the same time attacking capitalist globalization and existing democratic institutions.” He made efforts to increase the government’s control of the economy by nationalizing firms in the agribusiness, financial, construction, oil and steel sectors, hurting the private investment environment, reducing productive capacity and slowing non-petroleum exports.
After his election, he drafted a new constitution that strengthened the presidency and introduced a unicameral National Assembly. Three times, the Assembly granted him the ability to enact laws by decree. In 2001, his decrees were controversial enough to provoke large street protests, and he survived a coup attempt in 2002. His career also survived a recall election by his launching urban health and literacy projects and increasing loyalists in the judiciary, electoral bodies, the media and other institutions.
He also won reelection in 2006, drawing on support from poorer Venezuelans who had benefited from his social programs. He then oversaw further implementation of his socialist revolution, including a series of nationalizations of private assets. A government-backed referendum in 2009 abolished presidential term limits.
The run-up to the 2012 re-election was marked by a mixture of uncertainty regarding Chávez’s health and a strengthening of the economy as a result of increased state spending and sustained high oil prices. The largest state spending went to higher wages for public employees and others, as well as a project that provided or promised new housing for over a million Venezuelans.
Chávez’s decisive victory was tempered by his announcement that his cancer had returned. Departing for Cuba for treatment, he anointed his Vice President and Foreign Minister, Nicolás Maduro, as his preferred successor. But elections must be held within 30 days of the President’s death.
At the time of his death, the CIA Factbook said, the country was characterized by a “weakening of democratic institutions, political polarization, and a politicized military.” It does note, however, that poverty during the Chávez era has dropped from 50% to 27%. There’s been increased school enrollment, a substantial reduction in infant and child mortality, and greater access to potable water and sanitation, the Factbook reports.
But, it says, Chávez’ rule has led to a brain drain in the country, with more than a million predominantly middle- and upper-class Venezuelans emigrating. “The brain drain is attributed to a repressive political system, lack of economic opportunities, steep inflation, a high crime rate, and corruption,” it says.
Venezuela has been on the “Watch List” of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom since 2009. The Commission said in its 2012 annual report that violations of freedom of religion or belief continue in the country.
“These violations include the government’s failure to investigate and hold accountable perpetrators of attacks on religious leaders and houses of worship, and virulent rhetoric from President Hugo Chávez, government officials, state media, and pro-Chávez media directed at the Venezuelan Jewish and Catholic communities.” This rhetoric, the group says, has been on the rise since 1998 and has created “an environment in which Jewish and Catholic religious leaders and institutions are vulnerable to attack.”
The country, with its population of 28 million, is 96% Catholic. There is a small minority of Jews. And while the Venezuelan constitution provides for freedom of religion, religious groups must register with a governmental office.
“National laws passed within the past few years allow for the creation of ruling-party-dominated ‘communal councils’ to oversee the curriculum, teachers and school administrators of all public and private schools, including religious schools, as well as the confiscation of Catholic Church property, including churches, schools, and other ecclesiastical buildings,” the report says.
Freedom House reports that the school curriculum emphasizes socialist concepts. The human rights organization issued a statement today calling on the government and the opposition to “commit themselves to ensuring a fair and democratic campaign and election and a peaceful presidential transition.”
Freedom House reported a number of problems with human rights in the country under Chávez, including the lack of ballot secrecy. It says that after the failed 2004 presidential recall referendum, “tens of thousands of people who had signed petitions in favor of the effort found that they could not get government jobs or contracts or qualify for public assistance programs.”
In addition, the Commission on International Religious Freedom reported that in January 2009, someone threw tear gas canisters into the Apostolic Nunciature in Caracas, but no investigations or arrests have been initiated by the government, even though a pro-government organization, ‘La Piedrita’, publicly took credit for the attack, as well as for earlier ones against the nunciature. Also, no arrests or prosecutions have occurred in response to the 2009 forcible entry and occupation of the residence of Cardinal Urosa by Chávez’s supporters.
The Commission also reported that the government has begun wire-tapping the telephones of some Catholic leaders, expropriated some Catholic schools and community centers and prohibited Church representatives from visiting prisoners for humanitarian or spiritual reasons.
Chávez’s legacy is one that combined a socialist political agenda with cultural sensibility, leaving a confused spirituality in its wake. According to Christine de Marcellus Vollmer, President of ProVive, a leading Venezuelan pro-life organization, “Hugo Chávez had a fine instinct for Venezuelan feelings, and although he often clashed financially and insulted Church officials, he was careful to ignore any calls for legalized abortion or same-sex ‘marriage’. His mixing of pagan rituals and belief with avowed Catholicism was confusing for many, and clearing that up should be a priority for the New Evangelization in Venezuela.”