El Nuevo Herald
November 29, 2007
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's assault on the Catholic Church may dissuade voters Sunday from supporting changes that he wants.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's habit of verbally attacking his enemies appears to have backfired in his dealings with one of the country's most prestigious institutions -- a Catholic Church critical of the president.
Even as he clashed in recent days with King Juan Carlos of Spain and President Alvaro Uribe from neighboring Colombia, the populist Chávez and top government officials were unleashing the worst crisis in church-state relations in decades.
Chávez threatened reprisals -- and even prison -- against Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino as church officials publicly criticized constitutional revisions proposed by the president -- and to be approved or rejected in a Sunday referendum -- as ``morally unacceptable.''
In a speech televised to this predominantly Catholic country, Chávez branded Urosa Savino as ''a thug,'' ''stupid,'' ''mentally retarded,'' ''sycophant'' and defender of ``dark interests.''
But rather than shying away from confrontation with a popular and powerful president, the church fired back.
''Let them jail the cardinal and we'll see what happens in this country. . . . They are not going to shut us up with actions of that type,'' Msgr. Ovidio Pérez Morales, president of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, said this week. The group is made up of the country's bishops.
BISHOPS HOLD STRONG
The bishops have taken a stronger tone in their criticism of the government in recent days, leaving aside the prudence that characterized the church's public pronouncements for decades.
Msgr. Roberto Luckert, first vice president of the conference, charged Wednesday that the Chávez government is populated by ''a number of bums and corrupt persons'' and that corruption in the Chávez government is a ``rottenness that stinks not only in the country but at the international level.''
And after Jorge Rodríguez, the Venezuelan vice president and a trained psychiatrist, blamed the church Tuesday for the death of a 19-year-old worker during a street protest, Luckert replied: ``He who works with crazy people; something of those crazy people sticks to him.''
''We bishops must respond to the president's gross manner,'' Luckert told El Nuevo Herald.
Urosa Savino got backing from his colleagues in the College of Cardinals, especially Honduras' Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, who on Saturday complained that the Venezuelan church was in danger.
''It would not be unusual that a religious persecution would be launched under any pretext, because totalitarian systems start in that manner,'' declared Rodríguez Maradiaga, one of the most influential cardinals in Latin America.
Analysts say such a frontal clash with the Catholic hierarchy could do Chávez more damage than good among followers of his ''21st century socialism,'' which promises to improve the lot of the country's poor.
''Experience in Venezuela has shown that one never wins confronting the church,'' said political analyst Manuel Felípe Sierra. ``One thing is to confront the spokesmen for the church and another is to confront the church as an institution with great prestige.''
Chávez's belligerence already has cost him the support of some within the church.
''We don't want violence, blood . . . but if the Chávez government is going to force us into street confrontations, we will be there,'' said the Rev. José Palmar, once an enthusiastic Chávez sympathizer but who in his weekly newspaper column has become a sharp critic of government corruption.
Criticism also has come from traditionally liberal church figures such as theologian Pedro Trigo and well-regarded centers of Catholic studies such as the Gumilla Center and the Andrés Bello Catholic University, which have worked for decades in poor neighborhoods -- the strongest base of Chávez support.
''The church is . . . pretty well united around its bishops,'' said the Rev. Arturo Peraza, a Jesuit who directs SIC magazine, the most influential of the country's Catholic publications.
The main criticism of Catholic sectors that are close to Chávez's pro-poor ideology, he added, is of the government's ``lack of capacity to respect others and the political dissidence.''
They also complain about a sharp spike in crime and insecurity under Chávez, he said, and the continuing shortage of housing and public-health services for the poor while Chávez has spent heavily on oil resources during almost a decade in power.
Few believe the Chávez confrontation with the church leaders will develop beyond a war of words.
''Since he's a demagogue, he always tends to talk too much,'' Palmar said. ``If it jails the cardinal, it would be showing itself to be a fascist and communist government.''