Throughout Latin America a rich tapestry has long existed when it come to Catholics who have fought with the poor and challenged the establishment. The Brazilian Franciscan Friar Frei Betto, Monseñor Óscar Romero of El Salvador, and Father Camilo Torres who left the order in the mid-1960s and joined the Army of National Liberation (ELN) in Colombia are all examples of this coming together of politics and theology. Marxists, Christians and left-wing politics mix in this region like in few other places.
With this in mind, it is interesting to follow relations between the Catholic Church and the incumbent President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez Frías, who is himself a believer. Although time will show to what extent Chávez's proclaimed “Socialism for the 21st Century” will differ in practise from socialist or reformist regimes of the last century, there are some things that can be said about the man and his government with some assurance.
For a start, much evidence indicates that the Chávez administration is genuinely engaged in a series of ambitious policies aimed at reducing poverty and forging Latin American integration. Second, if President Chávez is sincere about his religious beliefs, his stance is certainly not out of kilter with the actions of countless Catholics throughout Latin American history who have also run into conflict with Church authorities.
Regarding the first point, a brief look at the practices of past Venezuelan governments highlights why Venezuela needs the radical change currently underway. In the past, previous administrations in Caracas were all too keen to sell the US cheap oil under market value while they in turn siphoned state profits through PDVSA, the state-owned oil company.
According to one Business Week report last year, the country today, “is a far cry from the 1990s, when Venezuela welcomed the big oil companies to invest in marginal fields at a time of low prices”.
Having negotiated new joint ventures, the report notes that “Chávez has sharply hiked royalties and taxes on these operations to an effective take of more than 80 per cent” while the revenues themselves are spent on, “lavish programs for Venezuela's poor, from monthly stipends for needy students to rice-and-beans subsidies for the barrios”.
If misinformation and lack of reporting on the Chávez's government's policies to reduce poverty abound in the press, confusion also exists when it comes to the man's religious beliefs. On this point, President Chávez's overly rhetorical style certainly shares some responsibility for the misrepresentation of his views.
His performance last year at the United Nations is a case in point even if his chutzpah caused such “loud” and long “applause” in the General Assembly that “[UN] officials had to tell the cheering group to cut it out”, as noted in The New York Times on September 21. Such performances, although cheered at home, debase the Venezuelan President as he can be boxed in the same league of leaders who view the world through a prism of “good and evil”: for example, George Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Serious interviews with President Chávez, such as that of Barbra Walters recently on the American ABC, show a much more cultured and reflective leader. Speaking at the Pastoral Action Center in New York in 2005, President Chávez stated his admiration for Jesus Christ because, “He confronted the religious hierarchies. He confronted the economic power of the time. He preferred death in the defence of his humanistic ideals, and fostered change …”
Speaking with Chilean sociologist Marta Harnecker about his close encounter with death during the April 2002 coup - the soldiers assigned to execute him refused to carry out their orders - President Chávez said, “I began to recite my prayers with my crucifix. I was ready to die with my dignity.”
Maybe due to his close brush with death or the fact that the late Cardinal Ignacio Velasco signed the “Carmona decree”, which dismantled the country's democratic institutions by “Dictator-For-a-Day”, businessman Pedro Carmona, Chávez bitterly condemned Velasco's stance during the two-day coup.
Monsignor Roberto Luckert - also an outspoken opponent of Chávez - was going to hell, according to the president, to which Luckert responded that if that was the case, Chávez is “going to hell, too”. As if the flames were not hot enough, US televangelist Pat Robinson in August 2005 called for Chávez's assassination.
Recently, however, events have taken a turn for the better with Chávez stating that: “The Catholic Church, its priests at all levels, (should) take a step toward the forefront of the debate ... You are welcome in the debate on building socialism, our socialism.” In return, the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference has called for a “style of socialism that upholds free speech, tolerates opposing views and respects religious education”.
Given the international importance of Venezuela these days and that Chávez is a Christian, perhaps it is time for Friar Frei Betto to conduct another marathon interview on religion, as he did with Cuba's Fidel Castro in the mid-1980s.
Whether this will happen remains to be seen, however, another comment can be made with some confidence. That is, in Latin America, the land of the possible, priests can certainly become radical social activists while presidents can also believe in God and put in place policies which benefit the poor. The latter are however a more rare breed than the former.