“It should be said loud at clear: starving the population is part of strategy to keep the people at bay.” Monsignor Diego Rafael Padrón Sánchez, archbishop of Cumaná, president of the Episcopal Conference of Venezuela is not afraid of calling things by name. He is not afraid because he had never experienced such a dramatic situation in his entire life. The only option is to denounce, pray and help. The Venezuelan people have no food or medicines, a 700% inflation rate, sky-rocketing violence and crime in a Country with the highest number of acts of violence in the world: 28.000 murders in 2015 alone. What Venezuelans – in the attempt to play down the situation – have called “the Maduro diet” is but the most visible aspect of a humanitarian and political crisis that Nicolás Maduro’s government pretends not to see. Last December the opposition swept the parliamentary elections and called for a recall referendum against the President. After weeks of postponements, two days ago the National Election Council, a governing body, has validated 200 thousand signatures but failed to set a date for the next stage: the collection in just three days of four million signatures, equivalent to 20% of the electorate. If new elections are not held by 2016 all political powers will go to the vice president, thus maintaining the status quo. Maduro is playing for time also with the Vatican, which expressed its readiness to mediate. Even Pope Francis, returning from Krakow on the papal flight, said he looked forward the presence of a representative of the Holy See in the negotiating team. But the government did not budge, while dialogue with the Venezuelan bishops is non-existing. Worse still, in recent days a campaign was launched on social networks to discredit the Church, cloned accounts on Twitter released false information, and acts of vandalism were carried out in the premises of the Episcopal Conference to undermine the trust which the Church enjoys among the population at large. Thus, “given the many needs of our country,” on Aug. 2 the Bishops’ Conference called a Day of Fasting and Prayer across all churches. The initiative was shared also by other religions, with the hashtag #esportivenezuela. During the last assembly of July 7 Mons. Padrón denounced in his prolusion the government’s indifference vis a vis the needs of the population, coupled by the risk of “falling into a spiral of hatred and death.”
— CEV (@CEVmedios) August 2, 2016
The Pope has at heart the situation in Venezuela. Can we expect the mediation of the Holy See?
We are grateful to the Pope. Each time he speaks about Venezuela it is a great help for us. We received the heartfelt solidarity of European Countries and the United States. We know that we’re not alone; we enjoy the support of the whole world. We hope in dialogue, it’s the only way to reach a peaceful, democratic solution and achieve consensus. But there’s a major difficulty: until now the government has made no concrete step, not with a letter or an official communication. The Holy See is waiting to see a positive sign.
The government has no intention to engage in a dialogue?
I don’t think so. The government understands dialogue as an escape route. It declared its openness to dialogue, but at the same time it doesn’t budge. There’s an important aspect that should be borne in mind: there are just few months left to the end of the year and the government could use this time to abort dialogue and the recall referendum, postponing it to next year. The first verdict of the National Election Council on the referendum is not positive. In fact, the Council declared that although the opposition obtained 1% of the required signatures, 20% are needed. Each time, the Election Council has to check every signature thereby creating a major difficulty, for verification procedures can take as much as two months. We try not to give our people this negative news for they would get depressed. We always talk about the possibility and the hope of obtaining a recall referendum. But the truth is that it won’t be an easy task.
Campaigns on social networks aim to discredit the Church, while vandals have plundered and destroyed one of your institutes. What were the consequences?
It’s part of a dirty political battle. What’s new is the attack on moral grounds. Thanks God there were no consequences. The raids on our premises instead happen often. Last year the headquarters of the Bishops’ Conference were vandalized 14 times, perhaps by contracted criminals. But this worries us less; it’s not as bad as the moral attacks.
Is there still no form of dialogue between the bishops and the government?
None. They are against all forms of dialogue, and least of all with the Bishops’ Conference, for they see us as an enemy. They accuse us of being ideological, but all we do is to describe the situation of Venezuela as it is. We don’t invent. We only report what is happening. Such a dramatic situation hadn’t occurred in years: we are without food and without medicine. To put it loud and clear: starving the population is part of a specific strategy, as in many parts of the world. It’s the only way they have to keep the people at bay. The paradox is that we have many resources but we are poor, just like many African countries.
How has the lack of food and medicine affected daily life?
Life has changed in every way. We can’t purchase medicines because they’re too expensive. Monthly salaries are not enough to cover basic needs. We renounced everything. There is no sugar, butter, milk, or cheese. We only eat vegetables, meat on rare occasions. There are no food products in Caracas and the few food items available are extremely expensive. We have to travel to other cities in search for food or try to pass the border with Colombia, which however has been closed again.
What pains you the most?
We filed a formal request to the government to authorize the import of medicines and food, but they rejected the request. They promised that this situation would be overcome with foreign aids. They are sure that aids from China will be arriving in fifteen days with ships carrying food products. But in our opinion this isn’t enough because the military are in charge, and while they are good at maintaining discipline and public order, they don’t know how to solve the economic problem. In the end they will lose, as has already happened in the past.