The crisis in Venezuela continues to deepen following elections for a Constituent Assembly promoted by President Nicolás Maduro. In its wake, the bishops of the country, supported by the Vatican, have continued to speak out against potential fraud in the elections and to demand an immediate solution.
Bishop José Luis Azuaje Ayala of Barinas, vice president of the Venezuelan bishops' conference, told CNA that "we are very concerned about the complexity of the situation,” above all "because of the moral degradation that has become present in the country".
“There is large number of murders that, according to the national prosecution, number 121 deaths. Of these, 25 percent have been murdered by state security agencies and 40 percent by groups of armed civilians sympathetic to the regime. There are more than 1,500 wounded, with more than thousands of detainees, in little more than three months, give us a hellish picture that would make any person or institution worried about the lives of citizens at stake," he said.
The United Nations Human Rights Office has warned the Venezuelan government over the use of excessive force against protesters. This disorder and violence is compounded by the shortage of basic products such as food and medicines, which "is the result of dire governmental policies, of improvisation, of wanting to establish a socialism without humanist support, and in its place generating a permanent conflict plagued by corruption and violence,” Bishop Azuaje said.
Bishop Azuaje affirmed that all bishops of the country "hold the hope that every historical process has a beginning and an end" and “that what happens to us is not eternal, but is destroyed as time goes on.” They hope this despite the fact that "every day we feel a greater repression of the government through different state agencies or feel the same because of fear of certain groups. It is forming anarchy in the national consciousness; that is to say, the government has lost its legitimacy and authority. "
Constituent Assembly and constraints
The prelate, like much of the international community, is convinced of fraud in the electoral process surrounding elections for a national Constituent Assembly. The process, initiated by President Maduro, will reform the constitution, which opposition members claim will allow Maduro to remain in power indefinitely. The assembly has already removed from office attorney general Luisa Ortega Diaz, who had faulted the Supreme Court for stripping the National Assembly of its powers earlier this year.
Last week, the company Smartmatic, which is in charge of the electronic voting system for the election, confirmed manipulation of electoral results. The bishop said the revelation "did not surprise us." "On Sunday, (July) 30 we could see with our eyes the small amount of participation of the people in the elections. In this way a direct, informal, but experiential audit was made,” Bishop Azuaje explained.
"Before six o'clock in the afternoon, which was the official time of the closing of the tables, they sent to speak to one of the observers of the National Electoral Council to announce that there was an immense number of people remaining still in lines to vote, and the vote was extended for another hour. I looked at the school that is close to the diocesan see where there were several polling stations and it looked like a desert. They tried to make people believe that there were voters at that time. There’s nothing more false. It was like the official announcement of fraud. "
After the election it was also revealed that “before and during the electoral process for the Constituent Assembly, many people were coerced and threatened to attend to vote,” the bishop alleged. "There are stories of people who are Catholic, are part of our parishes and almost confess as if it was an unforgivable sin. They feel humiliated because their freedom was restricted, because they were threatened that they would lose their jobs or benefits received in government social programs.”
Dialogue with the Vatican
The representative of the bishops' conference also addressed the Vatican-facilitated dialogue process that took place in Venezuela between the government and the opposition in 2016. The bishop denounced the result, which, in his view, was "a feigned dialogue on the part of the government without any result.”
"Whenever this government has been at a disadvantage, it has asked to dialogue; but it is always the same script: dialogue is used to gain time and advance in the hegemonic project of totalitarianism and greater power of domination,” Bishop Azuaje stated. “The Holy See has always been aware of what is happening in the country.
Both Pope Francis and the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, are well informed of the country's problems. They have always been willing to mediate, and we thank them for that. But experiences teach. The failed dialogue from October to December has taught that governments like this should have something more than goodwill,” he said categorically.
He also explained that the Vatican "has reminded the government that to return to the table, they must meet what was agreed in October of last year, and recorded by Cardinal Parolin in the letter addressed to President Maduro on December 1, 2016.” This agreement states that the government must commit to “setting an electoral calendar, the release of political prisoners, the opening of a humanitarian channel to let food and medicines enter the country, and return power to the National Assembly.”
In the bishop’s view, the real solution involves a "total change of government through general elections," perhaps beginning with a "possible transitional national government." However, he noted that "we can not forget justice" because "there has been a lot of corruption and violence" and "those responsible for this can not be left uninvestigated.”
Regardless of how the political situation in Venezuela ends, however, Catholics must live and react to the crisis facing the country. "A Catholic in the circumstances in which we live must be a permanent promoter of the common good, solidarity, and justice," the bishop advised. "It is not a time of adornment, but of going to the essential, to what gives meaning to life."
"We know that nothing will be easy when working for the good of the community, but Christians have a fundamental belief that the power of the Holy Spirit not only animates us, but enlightens us in walking the narrow way. It offers us challenges, but it gives us its strength, " Bishop Azuaje said. "I want to go to the extreme of saying that a Catholic can not bend to exclusionary policies, much less the voracious corruption that exists in the country, nor raise his hand to strike the dignity of anyone,” he added.
"A committed Catholic should demand justice and work for the people with the sole interest of developing processes that lead to greater human development," the bishop urged.
Alvaro de Juana contributed to this report.