Potential Vatican Mediation in Venezuela Confronts Complex Context

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David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

Recent weeks have seen renewed talk in Venezuela about the possibility of the Vatican mediating in Venezuela’s political conflict. The Vatican has long been pointed to as one of the few possible international actors that could fulfill such a role. However, difficult relations between the Vatican and the Venezuelan Hierarchy, and between the Hierarchy and the Maduro government, in addition to the latter’s likely disinterest in negotiation will make such mediation complex.

The most recent spur to speculation of a Vatican role in Venezuela was an announcement by the Vatican that its Secretary for Relations with States would visit. The announcement was made by the Vatican’s Foreign Secretary Pietro Parolin: “In the coming days the Secretary for the Relations with States, Mons. Paul Gallagher, will visit Venezuela. It will be an opportunity for conversations.” Parolin was Apostolic Nuncio to Venezuela from 2009 to 2013. He also suggested that the solution to the crisis was dialogue.

According to the Vatican, Gallagher will not meet president Maduro during his stay in Venezuela, but will “have contacts with other authorities.” Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi cautioned that Gallagher’s visit will not be a diplomatic mission. “He will be in Venezuela for the Episcopal ordination of the new Nuncio to Congo, the Venezuelan Francisco Escalante Molina, as is traditional” said Lombardi.

Independent journalist Vladimir Villegas also placed high hopes on Gallagher’s visit in an editorial comment. According to Villegas the Vatican, more than abstract dialogue, is proposing a high profile negotiation table. “We Venezuelans have to bet on the success of this Papal initiative, even though it is yet incipient,” he said. Villegas, and at least one more independent commentator, have compared the role the Vatican could play in Venezuela with the role it played broking the Cuba-USA diplomatic rapprochement.

Villegas’s statements are consistent with the emphasis on negotiation and dialogue made by other moderate commentators in recent weeks, such as Luis Vicente León. And opinion polls show that over 90% of Venezuelans want the government and opposition to work together.

And indeed Pope Francis provides one of the few points of convergence in Venezuela’s political conflict. When Francis mentioned Venezuela in his Easter message, specifically calling for dialogue and for leaders to work for the common good, Venezuela’s National Assembly passed a unanimous resolution supporting it.

From the time of his election in March 2013, there have been hopes that Pope Francis could play a role in Venezuela. He is not only the first Latin American pope but is also the first Jesuit pope. In Venezuela, the Jesuits have long distinguished themselves among religious orders for a commitment to social justice and participation in political processes as public intellectuals. Furthermore, as his Secretary of State, Francis chose Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who until that point had served as the Apostolic Nuncio in Venezuela since 2009. And indeed the Pope has made conflict mediation one of his priorities (see a recent working paper by Daniel Levine on the significance of Pope Francis for Latin America.)

The Vatican, along with UNASUR, sponsored the April 2014 dialogues that effectively put an end to the cycle of street protests, but failed to produce any actual agreements between the two sides. Among the opposition, having participated in that round of dialogues is considered to have been a strategic mistake, and is one of the reasons that Ramón Guillermo Aveledo was pushed out as President of the opposition coalition—Mesa de la Unidad Democrática. However, government opponents tend to blame UNASUR for that failure and strongly support Vatican mediation.

Despite this potential and the Pope’s evident interest, a role for the Vatican in Venezuela confronts a complex landscape.

The Catholic Church is not simply a political organization disguised as something else. It is a religious organization with a set of interests, processes and actors that in many instances run orthogonal to politics. While the Church actively attempts to make itself look like a unified monolith, it is actually far from it. While the Vatican functions as the Church’s international command structure, national churches have their own structures and histories, and have considerable autonomy.

Complicating matters further, religious orders such as the Jesuits, Dominicans and Maryknoll have their own purposes and principles and enjoy considerable autonomy vis-a-vis both the Vatican and national hierarchies. And within all of these organizations are personalities and positions in competition with each other.

Venezuela’s one Cardinal Mons. José Urosa Savino was among those who, a month before the Vatican Synod on the Family in October 2015, published a book critical of Pope Francis’s recent opening on issues such as homosexuality and divorce (see a sympathetic review here which describes the book’s authors as “united in their concern to preserve the constant teachings on family against erroneous proposals”).

This public dissent a month before the Synod understandably did not please the Pope and his closest advisors. It also did not sit well with Venezuelan Bishops who were continually asked if they were at odds with the Pope. While he is Venezuela’s only cardinal, Urosa Savino is not the head of the Venezuelan Church, and actually does not have a role in its governing body—the Conferencia Episcopal Venezolana (CEV). Indeed, within the CEV Pope Francis’ reforms have generally been well received, and overall could lead to a strengthening of progressives such as Baltazar Porras and Mario Moronta in the medium term.

However, early in 2016, Church insiders told this blog that the fact that the Pope’s reforms are a point of contention within the Venezuelan Church reduces the Vatican’s willingness to get involved in Venezuela. While the Apostolic Nunciature in Venezuela has long taken an independent and more moderate line than the CEV, the Vatican would be reticent to take on a high profile initiative that could lead to open contention with the Venezuelan Hierarchy.

These issues seem to have been ameliorated. A month after his Easter message, the Pope sent a private letter to Nicolas Maduro. And last week Cardinal Parolín recognized that the Vatican had received many petitions for it to mediate in the Venezuelan crisis and that it was willing to take a role. He mentioned that the Apostolic Nuncio in Venezuela, Aldo Giordano had met with Vice President Aristobulo Istúriz to express this willingness.

Further complicating matters are the poor relations the Maduro government has with the Venezuelan Hierarchy. In Venezuela, the Catholic Hierarchy sparred with Hugo Chávez virtually from the beginning of his presidency and has had poor relations with the Chávez and Maduro governments over the past seventeen years (see David Smilde’s English language chapter here, or a more recent analysis in Portuguese).

The Hierarchy has never stopped trying to make contributions to Venezuela’s political process, but generally does so in terms that make the government bristle. At the end of April, the CEV released a document called “Statement from the Presidency of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference with Respect to the Grave Situation of the Country.” In it the CEV warns people not to be manipulated by those who seek violence or those who seek resignation. It also called on the government and opposition to seek the common good over partisan interests.

And despite the tensions, the Marxist inspired Chavismo has never broken with the Church or pronounced atheism as part of its ideology. Indeed The President of the CEV, Diego Padrón, has revealed that he had recent personal contacts with Venezuelan vice-president Aristóbulo Istúriz, and talked to him about the possibility of “opening windows and doors between the two parts” (opposition and government.).

Nevertheless, Nicolas Maduro has made clear that he does not consider the Venezuelan Church to be a neutral actor, suitable for mediation. In 2014, the opposition wanted a Church representative to participate in the dialogues with the government. Maduro accepted on the condition that the representative be from the Vatican and not the Venezuelan Hierarchy. He had foreign minister Elias Jaua personally invite Pietro Parolin.

This time around it is not clear that the Maduro government has much motivation for dialogue. In 2014 they had international outcry over the violence occurring in the protests, and UNASUR countries were strongly encouraging dialogue.

This year they are focused on weathering the economic crisis and fending off the opposition’s push for a recall referendum. While it is not clear how they can pay their debts over the next year, nor how long the population will go along with raging inflation and cruel scarcities, they would seem to have the institutional upper-hand in preventing or at least delaying the recall until 2017, when it would simply lead to Nicolas Maduro’s substitution by his vice president. Indeed, while the opposition has been jubilant about the Vatican’s recent assertiveness (see Henry Ramos Allup here, and Julio Borges here), Maduro has not publicly acknowledged receipt of the Pope’s letter.