Wednesday, January 18, 2006 — I was hoping to post this blog yesterday, but we were just too busy finishing up a slew of interviews with some fascinating people and editing two reports (what we call “packages”) that we hope to air later this week. The first will be a brief summary of the political and economic situation in Venezuela, and the second, a look at the increasingly tense relationship between church and state as presidential elections, slated for December, approach.
Last Thursday I did an interview from the New York studios just before boarding the plane. I told the anchor, Jon Scott, that unlike Harry Belafonte, who while visiting Venezuela the previous week called President Bush the world’s biggest terrorist and tyrant, we were going down to Venezuela with an open mind and with no political agenda. But I didn’t deny that I had an intuition: if this religious procession garnered the numbers that the organizers promised, it would renew the will of the Venezuelans to stay true to their traditional values, including the defense of real and transparent democracy, even in the face of political confrontation. It was an intuition that came true much faster than I had thought.
The day before the procession, President Hugo Chavez took to the airwaves and delivered a four-hour uninterrupted address that included provocative warnings to the bishops of the country not to involve themselves in political commentary. Not only was his discourse painfully long, but he obliged all radio stations to interrupt their programming to deliver his message commercial-free. I flipped through every channel trying to find a rebel station — nothing of the sort. It was lunch hour, but no Top 40, no Latin salsa, no talk radio was to be heard. He was particularly belligerent in his address about the year-end report delivered by the bishops the previous day in which they called the lack of political representation of all Venezuelans and the concentration of power in the executive branch “troublesome.” His language was reminiscent of times past when he called the late Archbishop of Caracas “the devil in a cassock” (a cassock is a clerical robe).
But Chavez’s remarks were nuanced by a full embrace of the procession. He rallied the people as a general harangues his soldiers. The impression he gave was that he himself had made the procession possible, that the government and the procession were one and the same. And just in case people had not listened to him on the radio the day before, he made the same point during the procession itself. Thousands of government workers dressed in Bolivarian red worked the streets distributing pamphlets and providing logistics. The words printed on their T-shirts, superimposed over an image of “La Divina Pastora,” said it all: “Gobernación de Estado” (state government).
In between our live transmissions, I spent time talking to these red-shirted helpers. I wanted to know if they were willing members of the Chavez team or employees with an innocent will to make a living. They were both. This charismatic president has won their hearts and minds and has promised to fill their empty pockets. He is the first president in memory who speaks to them directly, who talks in plain terms about their misfortune, about the injustice of poverty, and the revolution that he is leading in their name. And they are grateful. With a little prodding from me, and under hushed breath, they told me that they were indeed grateful for being paid for this, their volunteer work. I was struck on a personal level how dangerous and manipulative half-truths can be, especially when they come from a person of great power to someone in despair. Yes, the poor had been abandoned before President Chavez came to power. Today they have a voice, but they are still poor, and still waiting.
The closing act belonged to the Church, or so it seemed, as the bishops officiated at an outdoor mass in front of the throngs of witnesses. The only Venezuelan cardinal, Msgr. Castillo Lara, gave the sermon. His graceful and faith-filled words about the meaning of the procession took pride of place, but what people will remember were the words he chose to express his belief that the government poses a grave threat to democracy and human rights. Here’s a sample:
“Un gobierno elegido democráticamente hace siete años ha perdido su rumbo democrático y presenta visos de dictadura, donde todos los poderes están prácticamente en manos de una solo persona que los ejerce arbitraria y despóticamente”
Personal, unofficial translation: “A government that was elected democratically seven years ago, has lost its democratic course and presents a face of dictatorship, where all of the powers of government are practically in the hands of a single person, who exercises them arbitrarily and despotically.”
This Episcopal conference clarified later that Cardinal Castillo Lara spoke on his own behalf and not on the behalf of the Episcopal conference, but in the same declaration the body of bishops reiterated its concerns about the government’s approach, especially in regard to democratic transparency.
President Chavez would not be outdone. The next day he did another marathon television address in which he claimed that the Church was leading a “conspiracy” against him and as a response he would ban all religious education in schools. It’s hard to know if this will come about, but he certainly has the power to do so.
I look forward to continue soon with more about this trip. I hope that you find these entries beneficial in some way. Know that I haven’t forgotten your e-mails. I have read them and hope to answer some of them here on this blog in the coming days...and yes, pictures will be on the way. Your interest is an inspiration.
Write to Father Jonathan Morris at firstname.lastname@example.org.