The Role of the Vatican and the Catholic Church in Venezuela
The Vatican and the Roman Catholic church have been influential political players in the current Venezuelan humanitarian and political crisis. Pope Francis commands an active constituency inside Venezuela larger than that of any local political faction. As the country’s most practiced religion, millions of Venezuelan Catholics look to the church for spiritual and political guidance as they seek to find a way out of the crisis. In light of recent developments, the Vatican should reevaluate its current position and consider renewing its diplomatic efforts. However, it must deploy its influence carefully, learning from its track record and maintaining the delicate balance between moral authority and political realism.
The church’s involvement in Venezuela runs deep. The Catholic humanitarian relief organization Caritas Internationalis has led the church’s efforts on the ground to aid Venezuelans in need. The organization has also called for the regime to allow humanitarian aid to enter the country and criticized the impact of international sanctions on the humanitarian crisis. The Venezuelan Catholic church has blamed Nicolás Maduro for the crisis and condemned his efforts to cling to power by manipulating negotiation efforts.
As head of the Catholic church, the pope has taken a diplomatic approach that avoids direct confrontation with either side. While he has yet to endorse Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president, the pope refers to Maduro as “excelentísimo señor” (“your excellency”) rather than “president.” Both sides have asked the Vatican to mediate in the country’s crisis, but Pope Francis has responded cautiously, emphasizing the need to first secure the appropriate conditions for successful engagement.
In his most direct recent engagement, the pope facilitated negotiations in 2016, when former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles led the opposition in demanding a recall referendum. The National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE) initially delayed approval of the measure and later nullified it. Capriles called for massive demonstrations to protest the CNE’s decision. Then, just as the pressure against Maduro was at its highest, and following a surprise meeting between Pope Francis and Maduro, the Vatican joined a multistate initiative that sought to find a negotiated solution to the political crisis. But in the end, the talks failed to achieve significant progress. Instead, they further solidified Maduro’s grip on power and caused divisions within the opposition.
Venezuela’s Catholic bishops, through Venezuela’s Episcopal Conference (Conferencia Episcopal Venezolana, CEV), are also a strong voice in the national political conversation. In August 2020, ahead of the December 6 parliamentary elections, the CEV released a statement highlighting the regime’s failure to procure the electoral conditions necessary for free and fair elections as well as the regime’s efforts to curtail the opposition’s last remaining electoral guarantees. However, the bishops also criticized the opposition for deciding to boycott the elections and emboldening a growing group of opposition actors critical of Guaidó’s tactics. In doing so, it caused disagreements within the opposition reminiscent of the divisions following the Vatican’s 2016 engagement. The statement has nonetheless failed so far to promote better electoral conditions.
Potential for Intervention
The Catholic church’s track record in Venezuela underscores its political impact and moral authority within the country. Both sides listen to the church, and the Vatican, as the seat of the Catholic church, can deploy its influence to achieve concrete results. Although ultimately a failure, the 2016 negotiations opened a window, pressuring Maduro into releasing five political prisoners. More recently, Maduro responded to the concerns of the Vatican and the international community by releasing an additional 110 political prisoners.
But effective engagement requires the Vatican to draw constructively on its past experience. First, facilitation alone is futile. Previous negotiation attempts have shown that merely bringing both political sides to the table is insufficient. As a mediator, the Vatican should anticipate and help resolve disagreements between the negotiators. In doing so, it should focus on the humanitarian crisis and the human cost.
Second, the Vatican should be sensitive to the international dimension of any political transition. Both sides in Venezuela enjoy the support of international actors who hold polarized views on what a political transition should look like, if they think one is desirable at all. The success of previous negotiations in neighboring Colombia relied on the participation of international actors who supported the negotiating parties. Successful negotiations in Venezuela will likely require the same.
With these lessons in mind, the Vatican should see in the current political climate an opportunity for renewed engagement. On one side, the Maduro regime’s financing is increasingly vulnerable. In recent months, the United States and the European Union have managed to economically asphyxiate the Maduro regime through targeted sanctions. Moreover, through the work of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Maduro regime now stands accused of human rights violations, including systematic torture and extrajudicial killings, that amount to crimes against humanity. These charges could go all the way to the International Criminal Court and trigger a criminal prosecution under international law. The Catholic church has a moral responsibility to condemn these human rights violations and act to protect human rights in Venezuela.
On the other hand, the December 6 parliamentary elections threaten Guaidó’s political legitimacy. The interim government derives a great deal of its political authority from the robust international support it currently enjoys. The rationale behind this support is clear. Guaidó, as the president of the National Assembly, has a constitutional mandate to lead an interim government through the process of organizing new presidential elections. If the opposition loses the National Assembly in December (a likely scenario), Maduro will have more ammunition to undermine the interim government’s constitutional mandate and erode its international support.
In Venezuela, the political status quo is increasingly undesirable for both the interim government and the Maduro regime, something that was not true even a few months ago. At the same time, despite criticism over the Vatican’s neutrality, such a position is valuable to the degree that it avoids feeding into the polarization that has made a negotiated transition so difficult. However, effective engagement is only possible if some practical hurdles can be overcome, such as the pope’s insistence that he will only mediate at the request of both parties and the Vatican’s inability to enforce a potential agreement.
Antonio de la Cruz is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Hector Correa is an intern with the CSIS Future of Venezuela Initiative.
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