Venezuela's Catholic bishops are accusing President Nicolas Maduro’s government of seeking totalitarian rule following weeks of street protests and violence, along with accusations that the government has tortured protesters under arrest. The bishops’ statement pointed out that "the fundamental cause of the crisis Venezuela is experiencing, is the demand by President Nicolas Maduro’s government to try and impose the so-called 'Plan of the Fatherland,' behind which lies the imposition of a totalitarian government." In almost two months of multitudinous protests, especially by university students, there have been 39 deaths, 550 serious injuries and more than 150 arrests attributed to the strife. Entitled, "Officers of Peace and democratic destiny of Venezuela" was signed by the bishops on April 2. “Repression is not the way,” said the bishops’ statement.
According to a report by the Fides news service, Archbishop Diego Rafael Padrón Sanchez of Cumana, who also serves as president of the conference of Catholic bishops, "complained about the political polarization which took place in the country after a series of anti-government demonstrations by students last February 4, where even opposition groups joined to denounce the insecurity in the country, 57% inflation, food shortages, repression by the National Guard and the detention of opponents."
The bishops’ statement declared, "We reaffirm our strong request that the government disarm the armed civilian groups. Their coordinated action, according to certain patterns, demonstrates that they are not isolated or spontaneous groups, but rather trained to intervene violently. In many cases they have acted with impunity."
"The Christian faith requires all believers to assume the responsibility for the fate of the country, not to remain indifferent but rather engage in the defense of life, human rights, freedom and democracy. Nobody living in Venezuela has to say he is not interested or concerned about the violence and deaths that are happening in cities and other places. Everyone, without exception, is responsible for the freedom, peace and democratic destiny of our country."
The bishops voiced the fear that Venezuela’s crisis is “is quite grave not only because of its magnitude, and includes diverse dimensions of national life, but also because of its duration, violence, and disastrous consequences for the present and our future.” They are calling upon all Venezuelans, “regardless of their political persuasion.”
The bishops denounced “restrictions on civil liberties, in particular: that of information and opinion; the lack of public policies to confront the lack of legal and public safety; assaults on national productivity, which have led our country to require importing all sorts of goods; the brutal repression of political dissent; and the intent of ‘pacification’ or appeasement by means of threats, verbal violence and physical repression.”
The bishops also denounced that “infiltrators” seek to spread confusion and discredit the protests. They also denounced the killing of civilians and National Guardsmen during the protests, citing the sacredness of human life. They reject the “criminalization” of civilian protests and the denial of human rights by the government. Signalling a way out of the crisis, the bishops called for a dialogue between the government and civil society. “We call upon all Venezuelans,” wrote the bishops, “especially the leaders of the government and the opposition, to consider the extreme gravity of the present moment and prevent any further bloodshed and the downfall of the country by violence.”
So far, there is no indication that the Holy See will intervene in the crisis, despite calls by the Venezuelan bishops. According to local media, Vatican diplomats believe that dialogue with the Maduro government is currently untenable. This came after President Maduro ridiculed the proposal of Vatican intervention made by a delegation of South American foreign ministers. Said Maduro, “The Secretary of State, the Vatican chancellor Pietro Parolin, can come, sure he can come. The poor man, they will make him waste his time. I agree. Do you want him to come? Let him come.” Maduro has not discussed the matter with Archbishop Aldo Giordano, the Vatican’s ambassador in Caracas.
Venezuela’s divided opposition is currently adverse to dialogue with Maduro. According to the opposition, a number of protesters have been killed by supposedly civilian armed groups, which are allegedly directed by the police. Jesus Colina, a writer for Alfa y Omega, wrote that “when information about human lives that have died violently has been considered in this way, to think of mediation on the part of the right-hand man of Pope Francis seems crazy. However, neither Pope Francis nor Cardinal Parolin will be absent at the moment when serious conversations about peace appear.”
A government spokesman said this week that at least 39 persons have been killed in two months of protests. Among these was a pregnant woman who died at a protest at the end of February. Also, the government has arrested three Air Force general for allegedly plotting a coup d’etat.
President Maduro shows no signs of backing down. In an April 1 opinion article published in the New York Times, Maduro wrote “The protesters have a single goal: the unconstitutional ouster of the democratically elected government. Antigovernment leaders made this clear when they started the campaign in January, vowing to create chaos in the streets. Those with legitimate criticisms of economic conditions or the crime rate are being exploited by protest leaders with a violent, antidemocratic agenda.” Moreover, Maduro said that the protesters are “directly responsible” for half of the deaths, including six National Guardsmen.
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