The bishops of Venezuela issued Wednesday a scathing critique of the country's political leadership, calling for greater respect for basic needs and rights.
Since Nicolas Maduro succeeded Hugo Chávez as president of Venezuela in 2013, the country has been marred by violence and social upheaval.
“Attitudes of arrogance, authoritarianism and abuse of power, as well as the constant violation of human rights, are accumulating on their actors a rejection that future generations will claim,” the bishops said in a July 11 statement at the close of their plenary assembly.
“It is suicidal to continue stubbornly insisting on a path of self-destruction that will turn against its promoters,” they said, stressing that the Church does not endorse acts of revenge or retaliation, “but neither does it promote impunity for crimes that threaten life and fundamental rights.”
The United Nation's human rights office said in June that Venezuelan security forces carried out more than 500 extra-judicial killings amid purported crime-fighting efforts between July 2015 and March 2017. The report highlighted the failure of authorities to hold accountable perpetrators of serious human rights violations which include killings, the use of excessive force against demonstrators, arbitrary detentions, ill-treatment, and torture.
The bishops' statement, “Do not be afraid, I am with you,” offers an overview of the political and humanitarian crisis plaguing the country and their reaction as pastors.
The bishops said the future of the nation is at stake, and the situation is becoming “increasingly more serious.”
Citing “monstrous hyperinflation” as a key reason for much of the country's crisis, the bishops noted that the quality of life for the majority of Venezuelans, which was “already extremely precarious, is deteriorating day by day.”
Added to shortages in food, healthcare supplies, public services such as water and electricity, which were already a cause for serious concern, are problems with personal safety, employment, the circulation and sale of cash, and problems with public transport.
With most methods of public transport disappearing from the streets, citizens have created their own means getting around, packing themselves into overflowing truck beds or holding onto cage-looking structures on the back of large lorries, causing an increase in traffic accidents and deaths.
Poor economic policies, including strict price controls, coupled with high inflation rates, have resulted in a severe lack of basic necessities such as toilet paper, milk, flour, diapers and medicines.
Venezuela's socialist government is widely blamed for the crisis. Since 2003, price controls on some 160 products, including cooking oil, soap and flour, have meant that while they are affordable, they fly off store shelves only to be resold on the black market at much higher rates.
In 2017, Maduro announced plans to re-write the country's constitution, a decision that was widely opposed by citizens and the Church. Millions of people turned out to protest in the lead-up to a July 30, 2017, nation-wide election which approved a constitutional assembly to reform the country’s 1999 constitution.
In their statement, Venezuela's bishops pointed to the ongoing political crisis the country is facing, saying the primary cause for their woes is the national government, “for putting its political project over any other consideration, including the humanitarian.”
They also criticized the government for “erroneous” financial policies, for its “contempt for productive activity and for private property and for its constant attitude of placing obstacles in the way of those who want to resolve some aspect of the current problem.”
The government is playing the victim in both internal and external ways, they said, explaining that this is “nothing more than the confession of their own inability to manage the country. One cannot pretend to resolve the situation of a failed economy with emergency measures such as food bags and bonuses.”
Elections held in May, which many Venezuelans, including the bishops, protested as illegitimate, has only cemented the current government's hold on power, rather than leading to legal and democratic presidential elections, they said, noting that the boycott by high numbers of the population is a “silent message of rejection” toward a regime that seeks to impose “a totalitarian ideology.”
Calling Venezuela's National Constituent Assembly “illegitimate,” the bishops said the entity violates “the most sacred rights of the Venezuelan people: the fundamental freedom to elect their own leaders in a fair electoral competition” without manipulation or favoritism.
Bishops said they live under a “de facto regime” which does not live by the constitution, and stressed the need for national leadership which puts people and ethics at the center, rather than power, control, or the pursuit of “petty interests.”
They also pointed to the growing Venezuelan diaspora throughout the world, mostly in neighboring Latin American countries, who risk trafficking and often struggle to integrate into their new countries. The Unied Nations Refugee Agency recently estimated that 5,000 Venezuelans emigrate daily.
Noting the high numbers of youth who have left, bishops said their absence is a loss of “human talent” for the country and of hope for the future.
However, the bishops stressed that “God guides his people from slavery to freedom, but he also educates them, through trials and hardship, so that it reaches the necessary maturity as a nation.”
They urged citizens to pray, saying no prayer or sacrifice is useless, even if the result is not immediately seen.
In the midst of the crisis, the Church, they said, has en evangelic task of looking after the interests of the people.
They stressed that the Church is not a substitute for political leaders, and does not wish to “dominate the social panorama, nor to become a factor of government or opposition.”
“However, it encourages the duly educated and aware laity of their citizens' rights and obligations to make their voices heart and to actively intervene in the political arena, so that the high principles and values that the Christian faith transmits to us can also be lived in the scope of the public and translate into works of common good.”
The bishops invited members of civil society to look for creative solutions to the crisis, urging citizens not to grow accustomed to living in “humiliating” conditions, and to be active in using every means possible to return power to the people.
Addressing the Venezuelan armed forces, bishops urged them to be faithful to their oath before God and homeland to “defend the constitution and democracy, and not to be carried away by political and ideological bias.”
They also advocated for greater solidarity on the part of parishes and ecclesial institutions in keeping with the Church's social doctrine, despite the difficulties. The Church community, they said, is called “to promote a structural change in favor of the transformation of our society.”
“We must never be discouraged in front of the challenges of an uncertain and difficult present,” they said. “On the contrary, we place our trust in God, who gives us the strength to bear witness and to do good, and we strengthen the demands in favor of justice and freedom.”