Positive Neutrality: Can the Vatican Be Effective in Venezuela?

Last week Nicolás Maduro told reporters that he had sent a letter to Pope Francis asking him “to put his best effort and will, so he can help us in the path to dialogue.” Juan Guaidó, the president designated by the National Assembly, also called “on all those who can help us, such as the Holy Father, all the diplomatic [missions], who could help to end the usurpation, to achieve a transition government to lead us to truly free election.”

The Vatican’s Secretary of State, Msgr. Pietro Parolin described the position of the Vatican on the Venezuelan crisis as one of “positive neutrality.” This, he explained “is not an attitude of someone siting on front of a window and observing indifferently; it is an attitude of being with the parts in order to overcome the conflict.”

Parolin’s seemingly ambiguous terms reaffirm the Vatican’s willingness to serve as a possible mediator, if the parts were to ask for such mediation. “For mediation, you need the will of both parts. The initial conditions are clear: the parts must ask, [and] they will always find us at hand,” declared Pope Francis. “The parts are the ones that need to make a move at this point, such as when the Holy See accepted being part of the dialogue.”

But previous mediation efforts by the Vatican mentioned by Parolin didn’t end well. The Vatican was asked to mediate by both sides in September 2016 and they did so in October-November of that year. But in December 2016 a confidential letter sent by the Vatican to both government and opposition complaining about the government’s failure to fulfill agreements, generated an angry public response by Chavista leader Diosdado Cabello and by President Maduro himself. David Smilde, wrote then that “given the lack of progress, the Vatican itself has diminished its public commitment to the dialogue.” Talk at the time of a possible meeting of the parts at the Vatican came to nothing.

The Vatican’s willingness to get involved also confronts deep doubts held by the Venezuelan Church hierarchy, represented by the local bishop’s conference (Conferencia Episcopal Venezolana CVE). “Mediation by Pope Francis is inviable,” declared Cardinal Baltazar Porras on February 6. In the past, “the Vatican and the pope were convened, in good faith, [the Pope] wanted to send someone, but all came to nothing, it was a joke, we have to call it as it is.”

He also squarely blamed the government for that dialogue failure and sided with the opposition argument that Maduro is unwilling to engage in sincere dialogue and instead only wants to buy time. However, he also assured that there is no difference in position between the local bishops and the Vatican and admonished the government not try to sideline the local Church: “we have told the government that addressing the Holy Father is very good, but that it should first go through us, because we are in complete agreement [with the Pope].”

These apparent differences of opinion between the Venezuelan Church and the Vatican also came to the fore back in December 2017, when tentative meetings brokered by the Dominican Republic were to be held between the government and the opposition. In November 2017, then president of the CEV, Msgr. Diego Padrón, made public his opinion about the possibilities of dialogue to a local radio station.

The declarations seemed to reveal his clear siding with the widespread skepticism by part of the opposition about dialogue attempts, although still remaining to dialogue as a general principle: “the problem is not dialogue per se, the problem is that in Venezuela dialogue has been devalued, precisely because the mistrust of the people in the actors of dialogue. Nobody believes in the government, but not everyone believes in the opposition either. [The opposition] also does not guarantee sincerity because of hidden agendas.”

Other bishops of the CEV also made strong declarations criticizing the dialogue effort. Although Msgr. Baltazar Porras, did at that time expressed some hope that the round of talks would “negotiate” solutions to health isesues suffered by Venezuelans, and the release of the political prisoners held by the government. On Christmas day, Pope Francis called for the return of a “serene dialogue” for “the good of the dear Venezuelan people.”

The Dominican Republic talks failed, especially after the pro-government Constituent Assembly on January 23, 2018 surprisingly called for presidential elections to be held on April 30, almost 9 months ahead of the end of the presidential term in January 2019. The CEV reacted stating that the Constituent Assembly was illegitimate and that its call for presidential elections was “human and ethical nonsense, a crime that truly calls out to heaven.” Msgr. Baltazar Porras blamed the government for the failure of dialogue and called for “mobilizations” against the presidential elections. Other members of the Church’s hierarchy expressed similar opinions in the following weeks.

However, in early July this year the Church hierarchy directly called on the opposition’s leadership to be open to dialogue. “When we go to dialogue to [not] listen to the other, that is no dialogue. When we go to dialogue to do what the other says we should do, that is no dialogue,” said Msgr. José Luis Azuaje, the current president of the CEV. He claimed that the Church “has always been in favor of dialogue.”

The latest press release by the CEV, published in February 4, makes no mention of possible mediation by the Vatican and does not even mention the word dialogue. Instead it backs, without directly mentioning him, the “transition path” laid out by Guaidó: “…a transition path towards and electoral process…peaceful and with the instruments provided by the National Constitution, in order to avoid further suffering and pain for the people.”

Indeed, the tone of these last weeks has reaffirmed the long standing misunderstanding between the local Church hierarchy and Nicolas Maduro on the one hand, and the apparent trust by both the opposition and Maduro on the Holy See.

Despite claims to the contrary, the local hierarchy today seems deeply skeptical of possible mediation efforts by the Vatican. Some opposition opinion makers have also been critical of the Pope, claiming he has a soft spot for the Venezuelan regime and more broadly for left-wing movements in Latin America, which does not allow him to openly side with the opposition. As it stands, the government mistrusts the local Church hierarchy and seems to trust the Vatican. Conversely the opposition trusts the local hierarchy, but a significant part of it does not completely trust Pope Francis.