Last May, under the headline ‘Venezuela Fractures’, The Irish Catholic reported on the deteriorating economic and social situation for that Latin American nation. That article visited recent history in charting the slow yet steady decline towards financial disaster since the rise of President Nicolas Maduro and offered on-the-ground reports from eyewitnesses to the subsequent results of that decline: hospitals working in darkness with a severe lack of medicines, a vibrant black market and acts of spontaneous looting.
The conclusion at the time was that without some form of intervention or at the very least common consensus across a bitter political divide, and recognition that the Catholic Church had a valuable role to play in bridging that divide, much worse lay in store for Venezuela.
Seven months later, the analysis has been borne out by the latest horrendous dispatches from the country.
At the time of writing, the international press has begun to detail further grim societal realities for those remaining in Venezuela. One focus, on the nation’s fishing industry, reminds that this sector was once the world’s fourth-biggest tuna supplier. Today, the word fishing has been replaced with that of piracy as desperate boatmen take to the seas to attack those still trying to make a living through their nets.
Catches are routinely seized along with equipment and outboard motors – no doubt forcing even more working men into desperate criminality – and murders have accompanied such thefts.
Away from the coast, and male-dominated fishing, women fortunate enough to live near the border with Colombia have found their own novel enterprise. Aware of the demand for hair extensions in that country, women travel daily to border crossings to sell their hair for enough money to afford what few basic essentials can still be sourced in Venezuelan stores.
Meanwhile, the authorities announced at the beginning of December that the nation’s mint will commence printing large denomination bank notes in order to accommodate the surging prices for goods caught in a dizzying spiral of inflation. (In November alone the bolivar plummeted dramatically against the US dollar, seeing the price of cigarettes, for example, rising from 250 bolivars to 2,000.)
A far darker aspect to the situation came with the government’s initial response to matters, a security crackdown in place of any thought of interaction with the opposition. Those who would, under normal circumstances, have served as representatives of the people for any such negotiations, today languish in the nation’s jails as prisoners of conscience, while, under the title Operation Liberation and Protection of the People (OLP), the security services were unleased on the populace.
Elsewhere in these pages, the October murders of 12 young men and women, allegedly at the hands of the army engaged in OLP is reported, an act which led to condemnation by the Catholic hierarchy’s Justice and Peace Commission. But this is just one incident among many; the United Nations (UN) has singled out Venezuela for criticism in relation to its policing tactics and the rate of extra-judicial killings – a phenomenon offering uncomfortable echoes from Latin American history.
Set against all of this has been the oft-stated preparedness of Rome and the local Church to mediate the only real solution to matters, a dialogue of equals for the good of all in Venezuela, and, indeed, that path appeared to have been seized upon after far too much stalling when, in October, President Maduro appealed directly to Pope Francis for an intervention to break the bitter political deadlock (after the heads of state of Panama, Spain and the Dominican Republic urged him to do so).
Appearances can be deceptive.
Over a month into said talks, mediated by Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino of Caracas, the Maduro administration has yet to meet any of the preconditions demanded by the opposition in relation to mutual respect at the negotiating table. Aside from a handful of individuals, the key issue of a swift release of political prisoners has not happened, leading to the fresh appeal on this by Cardinal Savino (working through ill health to keep negotiations on track).
This one element has kept at least a dozen groups from the talks. (Opposition member María Corina Machado has referred to them as “cynical and dangerous”.)
There is every reason for Rome to worry now as the talks break until mid-January; not only is the Maduro administration maintaining its seeming blind-eyed defiance in the face of national meltdown – witness Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez’s December 8 condemnation of “false media that tries to sell a humanitarian crisis” even as she announced UN help in gaining badly needed medicines – but barely two months after he reached out to the Vatican, President Maduro is now cosying up to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, with the latter promising as much wheat as is needed to feed the nation, together with the supply of modern military equipment through 2017.
No-one needs reminding that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Cardinal Savino, therefore, faces a Herculean task as the Venezuelan crisis rumbles into the New Year. The merest hint of double-dealing will almost certainly drive political rivals even further apart and render negotiations void. Aside from any sense of failure accruing to the Vatican in this, the consequences locally will be dire.
Speaking last month, the visiting Vatican envoy, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, sounded an ominous warning on the impact of a failed dialogue.
“If it happens that one side or the other wants to end the dialogue,” he said, “it’s not the Pope but the Venezuelan people who will lose, because the road ahead could truly be that of blood.”