Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Chávez and the church

A German-language, catholic newspaper, Die Tagespost, has published an article on President Chávez's Venezuela and the president's relationship with the catholic church. This is a relationship increasingly fraught with difficulty, as the article shows. There is a significant potential for conflict here because the catholic church still exerts a strong influence in Venezuela, like in most Latin American countries (even though secularisation is increasing, as is the influence of the so-called evangelical churches).

Open hatred against anything spiritual
In Venezuela, a severe conflict between the church and the state is brewing – the process of cubanisation under Hugo Chávez continues
By Jürgen Liminski

As the conversation moves to the topic of politics, the bishop takes his cellular phone out of his pocket, turns it off and removes the battery. Now he can be sure that he can’t be overheard. Since the meetings between Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez and the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro over the past few years, he says he can sense the government in Caracas toughening its stance vis-à-vis the church. During the past year, the government has singled out the bishops for attacks and has been trying to incite the people against the shepherds. In public speeches, Chávez reviles the church for being corrupt and the bishops for being “pigs”, according to the cleric, and is trying to set up his own national church. He has not managed to do so yet because the people have no faith in such initiatives. But in individual cases, he has managed to “buy” some priests. Overall, there’s a climate of intimidation. Some bishops can’t travel on their own anymore, and certainly not at night.

Little is known about all this in Rome, and nothing in Europe. Here, two main aspects are known of Venezuela: It has a lot of oil and good rum. And that is enough for most politicians involved in foreign affairs. As long as elections are held some way or another, the country imports lots of goods from Europe, pays its debts and the situation appears stable overall, then only the barrel and the bottle remain in the short-term memory. A disastrous mistake. A crisis is brewing in Venezuela that will probably have negative effects on European markets as well at some point in time.

The new, old president Hugo Chávez has a masterplan. He emulates his idol, Fidel Castro, and wants to turn the country into a communist dictatorship extending across the entire region, i.e. including Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, in the name of liberation – in Latin America, this is always carried out in the name of the historical hero of independence, Simón Bolívar. The plan is to extend his vision across the entire subcontinent via the new leftist governments in Brazil and Argentina. That may seem presumptuous. But Chávez has money, lots of money. In the past year alone, Venezuela exported oil worth 24 billion dollars to North America; daily production is equivalent to three million barrels – almost as much as Saudi Arabia’s. The state-owned oil company Citgo disposes over 14,000 petrol stations in the United States and is the second-biggest supplier there. This also explains in part Washington’s patience with the ruler in Venezuela, who buys his people and is giving an international rebirth to socialism.

Revolution according to the “proven” Cuban pattern

The pattern for the “Bolivarian Revolution” is also well-known. Chávez knows it from his brother, who gave him extra lessons in Marxism and is now the ambassador in Cuba. First, you ensure the population’s basic needs are met – food, health, education – then you restrict the liberties and finally you export the revolution from the basis of a solid dictatorship. This is how it’s happening: Chávez is buying his people with interest-free credits for cars, furniture, consumer goods. A taxi driver, for instance, is satisfied with the Chávez government. It has financed his car. The street sweeper is also satisfied: he is picked up in the morning, given a uniform, taken to his place of work and brought back home in the evening. He gets eighty dollars a month, enough to live on, because electricity and water are free of charge and he has food to eat during the day. The fact that he and many other Venezuelans are not engaged in any investment activities and that the economy is dependent on oil revenues, i.e. that the country is hardly producing, but instead only consuming and thereby not creating any wealth, is not apparent to him. But he does see that Chávez has removed the old, corrupt clique from the leadership of the nation. The fact that Chávez has installed himself with a different clique does not bother him.

Cuban experts, above all medical personnel, distribute medicines in first-aid stations and are now also beginning to indoctrinate people engaged in education; more than a thousand Venezuelan teachers have already completed courses in Cuba. The next step could be strangling or confiscating the catholic schools. TV and radio are mostly synchronized with the regime. The only opposition comes from parts of the press and the catholic church. Its credibility is a thorn in the eye of the regime. Leading bishops are electronically bugged and shadowed. Anonymous threats and open insults are no longer a rarity either. Officials stoke open hatred against anything spiritual. Up to now, only the Adenauer Foundation and the international aid organization “Kirche in Not” (Church in Need) have reacted to the Cubanisation and stealthily increasing dictatorship in Venezuela. The foreign policy establishment in Brussels, Berlin, Rome, Paris, and London, on the other hand, is sleeping the sleep of the just. It is like at the times of the “Speckpater” (Bacon Priest): There’s a church in need and “Church in Need” sees it and goes there.

A dangerous mix of oil, drugs, and terrorism

The revolution is being exported via the existing guerilla infrastructure in Colombia. When the Colombian government, which is supported by the United States in its war on terrorists and the drug mafia, recently had a guerilla leader kidnapped in Venezuela, the result was a diplomatic crisis. It became known that Venezuela serves as a safe haven for narco-terrorists, from where they plan and execute operations. Washington is restraining itself – up to now. But the connection between petrodollars, drugs, terror, and ideology has attracted its attention. It contains a potentially explosive effect on the oil markets, and on the oil price. This makes caution a necessity. But looking away is not a solution. And least of all an appeasement policy such as that practiced by Spain regarding Cuba.

Europe, and Germany especially, holds great prestige in Latin America. This should be thrown in the balance to contain Chávez, the revolutionary -- before it’s too late and the laments about the oil price and the rebirth of socialism from this corner of the world again drown out everything else.


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Blogger A.M. Mora y Leon said...

John, this is an extremely valuable news contribution, on a subject about which I know nothing. The Catholic Church is one of the few remaining institutions in Venezuela that could potentially challenge Chavez. You do us all a service by translating this excellent article to show us this outlay of this aspect of the political landscape. Thanks.

1:39 pm  
Blogger A.M. Mora y Leon said...

There was one last cultural note to this article that fascinated me greatly - the line that Germany is greatly prestigious in Latin America. From my travels there and what I saw, I would say this is quite true. And I am guessing it's an admiration of the orderly culture. In the US, we are basically a German culture ourselves, Anglo-German perhaps, but definitely more German than most people realize, so the admiration for Germany is much more muted. The country we instead ADMIRE - in the same way possibly that Germany is admired in Latin America - is Spain. It's different and the wonderful things about it are vivid to us in the US. Whereas, I don't usually see that kind of admiration in Latin America, possibly because it's made invisible by its ubiquitousness. I wonder if the dynamic sort of resembles the tendency of Swedes to admire dark hair, simply because they are a country full of blond haired people. They seem to love to dye their hair black, much to the rest of the world's bafflement. Maybe this too is the same dynamic. In any case, it puts Germany in a position to do some good in Venezuela.

1:51 pm  
Blogger John said...

Dear A.M.,

good to have you back! Today, as I was driving on the Autobahn (one of the perks of living in Germany), I listened to some talk radio programmes; I was struck by how far left they were politically. If you'd been there, you'd probably have thrown a fit! As it was, I just felt a need to read the right-wing Spiegel again. (Just teasing!)

The relationship between Latin America and Germany is indeed interesting. There are several reasons why it is special, not all of which are positive: for instance, the post-WWII emigration of German Nazis to Latin American countries meant an influx of rather undesirable people.

On the other hand, there are several positives: Germans are seen as reliable and orderly; the men are seen as being better marriage material because the macho culture is not as strongly pronounced as in Latin America (German men have been civilised by several decades of feminism, as a result of which most of them believe in partnerships based on equality, including heretical concepts such as helping with the housework and the bringing up of children); Alexander von Humboldt is still admired for his humanistic and scientific contributions (at least in Venezuela, where he used to rank right after Bolívar in the pantheon); and German engineering and craftsmanship is still highly respected. Interestingly and somewhat astonishingly, Venezuela was also German-administrated for a a couple of decades in the 16th century when the Spanish emperor at the time, Charles V, used it as a kind of security deposit for the enormous loans he had received from the Welser family.

Anyhow, I also hope that Germany uses whatever leverage it has -- either on its own or through the European Union -- to bring some pressure to bear on Chávez.


11:14 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article, thanks for translating it. Sadely I don't see Europe doing anything about Venezuela. It is one of the major complaints I have about it, they just turn a blind eye to all of the things that happen around the world. Thus, the US comes out and does or says something, and we look like the bad guy. So I ask you what is wrong with Europe?

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Blogger Aleksander Boyd said...

We all know that Chamberlain tactics do not appease ruthless leaders and we also know that turning a blind eye carries extraordinary costs in the long run.

Europe, most of all, should be taking a very close look to Chavez, its shores being invaded as we speak with Venezuelans for let us remember that we don't need visas to come over here. Said forced migration has an impact on these economies which will only augment in coming years.

Sadly the reincarnation of Che is just to appealing to the many wretched leftists in power.

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