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It’s not too late for the Vatican to change its Venezuela policy

Maduro and Putin (Getty)

The Vatican's inaction on major diplomatic crises has inadvertently strengthened the hand of people like Maduro and Putin

It has long been evident that the Holy See’s diplomacy regarding Venezuela has been of no help to Venezuelans starving under the “illegitimate” – to employ the judgment of Venezuela’s bishops – regime of Nicolás Maduro. But it now risks making things worse and compromising its own credibility.

On his return flight from Panama, Pope Francis said that he would remain neutral between the tyrannical Maduro and the National Assembly’s Juan Guaidó, who declared himself interim president.

Venezuela’s bishops have clearly indicated – for years – that the Maduro regime has been pauperising the people and dismantling Venezuelan democracy. Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, archbishop emeritus of Caracas, has said bluntly that Maduro should step down. Cardinal Baltazar Porras Cardozo, archbishop of Merida and apostolic administrator of Caracas, has rejected Maduro’s calls for Vatican mediation, noting that in the past such calls have made a “mockery” of the Holy See’s goodwill.

Other bishops are in the streets with hundreds of thousands of protesters, supporting the opposition. The Venezuelan Church has already made its position clear: peace, democracy and prosperity will only come when the military-backed Maduro departs. Asked why the Holy See will not take the side of local Catholics, Cardinal Porras generously insists that the Holy See totally supports the bishops of Venezuela. Maduro thinks differently, which is why whenever he gets in a tight spot, his first call is to Pope Francis to obtain some room to manoeuvre.

On Monday, officials from the National Assembly were received by at the Secretariat of State, lobbying for recognition of Guaidó. A statement from the Holy See Press Office said that Pope Francis certainly did hope it would all work out for the best:

“The proximity of the Holy Father and of the Holy See to the people of Venezuela was reaffirmed, particularly in regard to those who are suffering. In addition, the grave concern was underlined that a just and peaceful solution be urgently sought to overcome the crisis, respecting human rights and seeking the good of all of the inhabitants of the country and avoiding bloodshed.”

That’s pretty thin gruel from the Holy See when the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, the United States, Canada and a dozen or so Latin American countries have formally recognised Guaidó as the legitimate interim president.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, sought to put a positive gloss on his position by calling the Holy See’s position “positive neutrality”. But it really isn’t neutrality at all, given that the Holy See has diplomatic relations with Venezuela, and currently does recognise the Maduro regime. As does China and Russia.

Which ought to make the diplomats advising Pope Francis very nervous. On the two great diplomatic crises of his pontificate – Syria in 2013 and Ukraine in 2014 – the Holy See’s position ended up strengthening the hand of Vladimir Putin in both countries. The international community is not going to let Putin emerge stronger in Venezuela, as it did in Syria and Ukraine, but the Holy See is effectively – again – on the Russian president’s side. Once may have been naïveté, twice may have been bad luck, but three times indicates an incapacity to deal credibly with tyrants.

Make no mistake, the incapacity of the Holy See to publicly articulate the same position as the bishops of Venezuela is costly to its credibility.

Claims that neutrality is either obligatory or advisable are hard to sustain when the Holy Father campaigned for the Paris 2015 climate accord, or celebrated Mass at the US-Mexico border in a very lightly veiled critique of American immigration and security policy. Indeed, the credibility of the most insistent diplomatic initiative of Pope Francis, the opening of borders to refugees and migrants, is being compromised by his neutrality on Venezuela, where Maduro’s regime is driving people out of Venezuela and preventing food from entering, including from Catholic aid agencies.

It is not possible to credibly call for countries to welcome refugees if you refuse to denounce those regimes which drive people from their homes in the first place. Three million Venezuelans have fled Maduro’s regime, and the number is expected to reach five million this year. It is not credible to call for aid to the afflicted without condemning the Maduro regime for blocking aid shipments of food and medicine from crossing the border from Colombia.

The two greatest flows of refugees in recent years have been caused by the Assad regime in Syria and the Maduro regime in Venezuela. Incredibly – and unintentionally to be sure – Vatican diplomacy has been considered helpful by both regimes. Despite all the heroic efforts to advocate for refugees around the world, it may tragically be the case that the Holy See has unwittingly given support to those dictators driving millions to seek refuge.

It’s too late to correct course in Syria. It is not too late in Venezuela.

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