Vatican Blinded to Reality in Venezuela

Vatican Blinded to Reality in Venezuela
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Venezuela is sliding further and further into the abyss as the regime of Nicolas Maduro continues to try to run out the clock—keeping the opposition fractured, jailing political opponents, and hoping to forestall a recall election to ensure that Mr. Maduro’s cronies remain in power. None of this is particularly surprising given the corrupt and inhumane nature of the Maduro regime. Just yesterday, in New York, there began the trial of two of his own nephews for allegedly conspiring to take drugs from Venezuela to Honduras for export into the United States. 

It is surprising, therefor, to see the Vatican involve itself diplomatically to aid and abet Maduro’s stalling tactics.

During my time as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See for President George W. Bush, I saw firsthand the powerful role the Vatican played on the global stage in terms of protecting human rights, fostering peaceful dialogue, and charting a uniquely moral course of statecraft. Yet in seeking to pursue these goals in Venezuela, the Holy See has been led astray. It is about to provide a patina of legitimacy to a fundamentally flawed dialogue process which aims to keep the opposition divided and weak, and buy time for Mr. Maduro. When it was originally asked to intervene the Holy See demurred, seeing no objective to be accomplished, but it has now, surprisingly, changed course.

Dialogue in itself is one thing, a laudable diplomatic construct, but in joining dialogue with the regime now, the Vatican appears to be satisfied with talks that include only a rump sub-set of the range of opposition groups. Fifteen parties belonging to the umbrella opposition movement have understandably refused to participate in these talks while many of their leaders remain incarcerated in Venezuelan prisons. These include the most notable dissident leaders Leopoldo Lopez and Oswaldo Ledezma, the former mayor of Caracas.

Instead of calling for release of opposition leaders as a condition precedent to joining in the negotiations, the Vatican granted Mr. Maduro a meeting with Pope Francis in Rome. The meeting itself—absent entry into these negotiations at the same time—would be a typical diplomatic accommodation, as was granted his predecessor. However, the obvious linkage and symbolism of the Rome visit and simultaneous commencement of talks with only a fraction of the opposition has unduly ennobled the regime and placed one element of the opposition above the rest. What will be the result?  Distraction, division, and delay?

The meeting between the Pope and Mr. Maduro contrasts starkly with the public criticism many Catholic clerics have expressed against Maduro, and Hugo Chavez before him. Recently elevated to the rank of Cardinal, Venezuelan Bishop Balthazar Porras Cardozo has continued the work of his predecessors in publically criticizing the regime’s mismanagement of the country’s economy and the pervasive abridgments of freedom in Venezuela. Unfortunately, failing to heed the leadership of those leaders closest to the Venezuelan crisis, the Vatican’s recent diplomatic efforts may be counter-productive and actually serve to prolong the Venezuelan crisis and give the government more time to drive the country into the ground.

Maduro and his cronies will continue to cling to power despite the terrible suffering of the Venezuelan people. Vatican leaders have rightly warned that a failure of the current dialogue could lead to violence. They have failed to note, however, that the first shots fired are likely to come from the police, military, and national guard—not the political opposition.

The Vatican can bring to bear great power help to defuse the crisis in Venezuela. Instead of hosting Mr. Maduro in Rome and fracturing his opposition, the Vatican could use its unique convening authority and the moral influence of its “soft power” bring together leaders from around the region to discuss a multilateral response to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. As the crisis spirals out of control, Venezuela is in danger of becoming this hemisphere’s Syria. 

Venezuelan Archbishop Diego Padrón Sánchez said it best, “A government that…fails to provide food and medicine to the people, and… has refused to allow religious or social institutions to lend their support to alleviate hardship and diseases, lacks the moral authority to call for dialogue and peace.”

If the Holy See seeks to ensure the return of the rule of law in Venezuela and to truly safeguard the lives and freedoms of the Venezuelan people, it has a unique opportunity to help bring about the lawful resolution of this crisis: Mr. Maduro must be convinced to release unjustly imprisoned opposition leaders, recognize the legitimate power of the opposition-controlled legislature, and respect Venezuelan recall laws that reflect the will of the Venezuelan people.

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