Venezuela: “The room to manoeuvre freely is getting smaller and smaller. At the moment, everything here is one-dimensional.” - Cardinal Baltazar Porras
By Maria Lozano
During a recent visit to the international head office of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the archbishop of Mérida, Cardinal Baltazar Enrique Porras, spoke with María Lozano about the exceedingly grave condition of the country. He emphasised the terrible situation in which the people find themselves because of a lack of medicine and food. At the same time, he asked all faithful to take part in the prayer day for peace in Venezuela being held on Sunday 21st May initiated by the Bishops’ Conference.
Over the last few weeks, the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference has released two statements on the grave events and the violent political conflicts currently taking place in the country. They are calling for Venezuelans to “repudiate each and every violent statement and to respect the rights of all citizens.” The Bishops’ Conference emphasised the duty of the state constitution to ensure that “civil and non-violent protest is possible”. In their last letter of 5th May, the bishops described the latest decisions of the Maduro government and the Supreme Tribunal of Justice as “misguided” and “unnecessary”. They asked that the “constitution not be changed, but followed”. The government should concentrate on the country’s current problems, such as the lack of “foods, medicine, freedom, personal and legal safety as well as peace.”
(Cardinal Porras at the interview with Maria Lozano © Aid to the Church in Need)
Cardinal Porras, one of the signatories of the letters and honorary chairman of the Bishops’ Conference, explained during his visit to the international pontifical foundation ACN the necessity of these declarations on the part of the Venezuelan church, which needs to take on a “responsible role”. He describes this role as “a kind of subsidiarity task that goes beyond that which would be necessary in other circumstances and says that, at the moment, “the people face reprisals when they do not agree with the official politics or if they hold a different opinion: threats, fines, prison sentences, deportation … The current social climate can scarcely be understood from the outside. The room to manoeuvre freely is getting smaller and smaller. At the moment, everything here is one-dimensional.”
In this context, the archbishop of Mérida considers the lack of respect for the right to pluralism to be especially serious. “It is all about pushing through a system in which nothing other than the official opinion counts. The others are not allowed. If, for example, a demonstration is planned, a parallel event is immediately organised on the same day and at the same time. It is all about showing who is more powerful.” Cardinal Porras deplores that “the discourse on class warfare” is still alive in Venezuela. “One person achieves something by using hatred against the other. This is the militaristic discourse of ‘anyone who is not with me, is against me’. Eliminating the enemy is the only important thing. This has torn social coexistence apart.”
The archbishop does not mention Nicolás Maduro by name. But the responsibility of the current government is assumed when the cardinal emphasises that the root of the problem can be traced back to much earlier times. “The 18 years of the Chávez government and then Maduro are also the result of the deterioration that occurred during the years preceding them. Venezuela was able to grow thanks to oil. The country grew both economically and in its infrastructure. But the accelerated growth also led the governing class to forget the people. After all, this is a gift of nature and not the result of personal hard work. The government did a lot of things, but they forgot the people. This is why the ‘Messianic’ discourse was later taken up with such enthusiasm.”
A native of Caracas, the 72-year-old cardinal openly criticises “the pooling of all government powers. This leads to impunity and corruption.” A key to the problem is also the desire to always make others responsible for the bad. “This is repeated over and over again. All bad things are ascribed to others. Or comparisons are made to the past. This is how teenagers act! For example, when the fact that there are political prisoners in Venezuela today is called into question, the response is that there were also political prisoners in the past. But the problems are here now, especially the lack of food and medicine as well as safety.”
These are the three problems that the archbishop worries about most. This is obvious just by looking at him. “I had to bury a 35-year-old priest who had had a cerebral haemorrhage. According to the physicians, he could have been saved had a certain drug been available to us, one that is not that unusual. But we did not have it. And so he died. This happens every day. Because we do not even have the basic supplies for surgical procedures, for accidents, for old people or babies, who usually need a more special kind of medication.”
Officially, “this is all disclaimed. It is not acceptable to talk about humanitarian aid. Because according to official reports, we have everything. But anyone who travels to Venezuela can see that this is not the case. And anyone who gives voice to this arouses the suspicion of standing for something else.” Cardinal Porras, who is also the director of Caritas Venezuela, thanks the international community for the support it has provided. However, inside the country, he comes up “against a wall. It is very difficult to build a bridge to ensure that the aid arrives. Because we come up against obstacles.” The media plays an equally important role in the internal conflict. The political disputes have been transformed into a media war. “If I say, ‘medicine is not available here’, a photograph of medicine immediately appears. It is then said: ‘that is not true, look at this’. And this happens with everything, with food, with domestic security, etc.”
When you talk about solutions, the question arises whether the Venezuelan people are not sick of dialogue yet. “Talking about the dialogue in Venezuela today is almost an insult because experiences have been terrible. Dialogue was merely used as a photo opportunity. The actual problems were not talked about, they have not been solved. In order for this to be possible, the other person has to accept you as a discussion partner.” This is why the archbishop insists that a second side is indispensable for achieving a real dialogue. “Holding to agreements. A real offer was made to keep agreements, but these were never kept. Cardinal Secretary of State Parolin addressed this in a letter from December 2016. He wrote that there can be no dialogue as long as not even the slightest attempt is made to keep agreements. This may be why the cardinal prefers to talk about consensus and pluralism instead of using the hackneyed and manipulated term “dialogue”. “Dispute is not a part of our culture. One example: people used to prefer to go to a baseball game – the most popular sport in our country – together with someone who was a fan of the other team. This was a lot more fun for them. This friendly disposition has been diluted. Now everything is about politics and you can only be for it or against it. Life is very rich and now everything is about politics. The family, diversity, and consensus are threatened. The church is trying to defend them.”
He asks the international community “to try to get real and timely information so as not to be taken in by lies.” He also asks for prayers and support. “It is all too understandable that everyone is busy with their own daily challenges, but we live in a globalised world. And this is even more the case for the Christians. In Venezuela, we need prayer as a source of inner strength that prevents us from being robbed of hope and joy. Difficulties are there to be overcome and not to make us cry.” This is why Cardinal Porras extends an invitation to take part in the prayer day for peace in Venezuela being held on Sunday, 21 May – “to end violence and state oppression as well as to search for ways of communication and reconciliation.” The prayer day was initiated by the Bishops’ Conference of Venezuela.
Contact to the world church – according to Cardinal Porras – lends courage. It “leads us to feel a growing desire to overcome the difficulties. They are an incentive to continue to do everything imaginable for our brothers and sisters. I would like to say one more thing. Among the medicine that we are allowed to receive in Mérida, there were also small boxes bearing labels written in Arabic and English. Puzzled, I asked where this medicine had come from. They had been sent to us from Christians in Egypt. When several days later an attack was carried out against Christians in this country, I was deeply moved and felt a profound connection to this country. Samaritan solidarity leads us to give our material and spiritual best.”
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