ROME, -- An archbishop in Venezuela fears for the future of his country, and warns that the very democratic structure of its government is in peril.
In this interview with ZENIT, Archbishop Baltazar Porras Cardozo of Merida expressed alarm about President Hugo Chávez's socialist ideology, and his proposed constitutional reforms that would give more power to the president.
The reform would, among other things, eliminate presidential term limits and give Chávez control over the Central Bank. A Dec. 2 referendum is set to confirm or reject the changes.
The archbishop is the first vice president of the Latin American bishops' council (CELAM), and a former president of the episcopal conference of Venezuela.
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Q: The Venezuelan president proposes a constitutional reform in 30 articles, and to those the National Assembly added another 30; all these will be the object of a referendum that will stir up strong reactions. What do these entail and why is there so much worry?
Archbishop Porras: We can say that that which will be submitted to the referendum is not a revision of the Constitution but a new Constitution that, in fact, practically confers full powers to the president and the government, expropriating, in spite of appearances, the areas of participation of the people.
Also, the proposals can only be accepted or rejected as a whole and not selectively, hindering any opportune discernment between the various articles.
Q: A recent document of the Venezuelan episcopal conference expresses anxiety and is severe about the reform proposal, to the point of defining it as “morally unacceptable.” Could you comment on this?
Archbishop Porras: The recent pronouncements of the Church, both of the hierarchy and of the religious and lay communities, have been well-received and the people are grateful for them, because they perceive the defense of the rights of everyone, and not only the one who has power and acts forcibly.
The bishops especially defined this proposal “morally unacceptable” for four reasons:
-- it is more than a reform, as said before;
-- in fact, it weakens the protection of human rights, increasing the unyielding judgment of the government;
-- to vote for the 60 articles grouped in two blocks prevents all selective choice, limiting in fact the freedom of expression of the will of the people;
-- the strongly manipulative electoral campaign prevents differing possibilities of information from government propaganda, the opposition and civil society.
Q: Could you comment on reports of large rallies supporting the government?
Archbishop Porras: You have to take into account that participation in the rallies promoted by the government is mandatory for all public employees, who are also provided with the availability of transportation, food rations, and an economic "compensation" from the government as a recognition of their participation! The government does all of this because it is interested in its effect in the media, pursued through the principal means of information.
The conditions for the opposition are very distinct: One has to confront logistical difficulties of all kinds, and the possibilities of information are very limited.
Q: Could you also comment on the peaceful demonstration asking the Supreme Court to extend the time available to inform people about the text and give reasons to oppose them? The rally developed peacefully, but ended in violence against the demonstrators by armed elements close to the government.
Archbishop Porras: It is true, that is exactly what happened in San Cristóbal, in Maracaibo and in Caracas. Today in Venezuela many people are armed, and the police guarantee them impunity, and this increases insecurity and fear. Violence sparked by infiltrators on the university campus justified the intervention of the government against the autonomy of the university.
Q: News reports are saying that the proposed reforms would weaken civil liberties. Is this true?
Archbishop Porras: Of course. It weakens civil rights because it limits freedoms and increases discretionary power: Whoever is not a socialist-Bolivarian is not a good Venezuelan, and therefore can be persecuted.
Besides, the communist experience of the [Fidel] Castro type is foreign to our culture, because of this no one speaks of adventures of this type; the positions that they attribute to Che Guevara are perceived as violence and injustice.
Q: If the referendum passed, would this mean that the majority of the people are with Chávez and agree with his proposals?
Archbishop Porras: No, it will not be a democratic election. It’s enough to think about one fact: 80% of radio and television time is managed by the one currently in power, while only 20% of the time, obviously the hours with the least audience, are left for the opposition.
The other problem is the lack of a serious and independent electoral observer of the day of voting; the irreplaceable function of control to guarantee democracy, which we should recognize is lacking in Venezuela.
Certainly, you have to recognize as well that the opposition is divided and is incapable of making a unified proposal; the proposed alternatives range from not voting to voting against it, but this creates uncertainty.
I should that that, sadly for our country, I do not see a peaceful future, but one of resistance, a troubled future. Communism of the Castro type does not form part of the panorama the Venezuelan people desire.
Q: The situation you have described for us, how will it influence the life of the Church and the Christian communities of your country?
Archbishop Porras: The result of this situation is a strong sense of unity within the Church, and between the Catholic Church and the other confessions. They hope to divide the Church from within, and apart from a few priests who speak a lot on the radio and television, the bishops, priests and laity are very united and joined together.
And this in spite of the fact that they use and abuse Christian symbols, and the government declares itself Catholic. It is a tactic that up to now has failed.
While a tiny minority of Christians is committed to the government, in the aspects of the defense of freedom, human rights, internal and external peace, the Church produces a great consistency, emphasizing an increase in vocations and conversions.