The man who drove away millions

Venezuelam President Nicolás Maduro

How wretched must conditions be for masses of people to seek refuge in Colombia, only recently emerged from a decades-long civil war? Yet that is what is happening as Venezuela moves from petro-socialism to starvation-socialism, administered by the extra-constitutional dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro, successor to Hugo Chávez.

More than a million Venezuelans have fled their homeland, not only for fundamental liberties and civil rights, but also for basic food and access to medicine. Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope and someone whose heart is sensitive to the plight of refugees, has asked that the Church take concrete steps to deal with the crisis.

On Monday, the call of Pope Francis to “welcome, protect, promote and integrate” migrants was answered by the launch of Bridges of Solidarity, an “integrated pastoral plan to assist Venezuelan migrants in South America”.

The episcopal conferences of Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina have developed joint efforts to deal with the economic disintegration of Venezuela. The joint plan aims to provide services to Venezuelan refugees, including welcome centres and shelters, assistance in housing and employment, access to education and social services, legal advocacy, pastoral care and the promotion of acceptance in host populations.

The whole effort is being assisted by a singular department in the Roman Curia, the migrant and refugees section of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development. Migrants and refugees used to have their own separate dicastery – known as Migrants and Itinerant People – a pontifical council with its own cardinal president. It was abolished by Pope Francis, and assumed into the larger dicastery to which it now belongs.

But it struck everyone as counter-intuitive that this Holy Father would give immigrants and refugees a bureaucratic downgrade, so Francis fixed that by appointing himself head of the section dealing with migrants and refugees, in effect inserting himself both above and below Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of Integral Human Development, on the Vatican org chart.

Given that both the Holy Father and Cardinal Turkson have rather more on their plates than running the migrants section, the practical director is a Canadian Jesuit, Fr Michael Czerny. At the Vatican press conference announcing the initiative, Czerny said that the collective voice of the Church in the eight countries was a powerful call upon governments to be generous.

“They’re closing their doors, I think, because they buy into the rhetoric that ‘there are too many, we don’t know what to do, we’re running out of resources’,” Czerny said. “[With this pastoral plan] we are showing there’s lots we can do with relatively little resources.”

The Venezuela collapse is sometimes referred to as the world’s “least-talked about” migration crisis. That’s partly because it cannot be discussed responsibly without acknowledging that Maduro and his regime must go, and many are reluctant to say that. The crisis would pass almost as soon as the Chavismo ideology ceased pauperising Venezuela.

Bridges of Solidarity avoids discussing regime change in Venezuela, as there is not much that other Latin American countries are willing to do about that. But Czerny himself has pointed out that the dignity of refugees is first violated by their own countries, long before they might find a hostile welcome elsewhere.

“A sound starting point for our reflection is the right to remain in one’s homeland in dignity, peace, and security,” Czerny said in an address at the United Nations last July. “No one should ever be forced to leave his or her home due to lack of development or peace. The right to remain helps to focus the international community’s efforts on its prior obligation to ensure the sustainable and integral human development of all people in their place of origin and to enable them to become active agents of their own development.

“It also helps us to recognise the social, economic and cultural costs that migration can mean for a country when its own citizens feel constrained to leave rather than remain. It is by ensuring the conditions for the exercise of the right to remain, then, that makes migration a choice, not a necessity.”

The Venezuelan migration is one of necessity. Yet despite its size, it is dwarfed by the Syrian migration and refugee problem, also one of necessity.

It is often the Church that is on the front lines of giving practical aid to refugees, especially in those countries where governments are quickly overwhelmed. That is the need that the Bridges of Solidarity project serves.

Accompanying that practical aid, there must also be solidarity with the Venezuelan bishops, who have courageously identified the Maduro regime as the principal cause of their country’s degradation. And it is that degradation that is making migration not a choice, but a necessity.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of

This article first appeared in the May 11 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here