President Nicolas Maduro’s surprise visit to Pope Francis last evening was totally unexpected even to the Venezuelan Church. This gesture ushers in renewed hopes for the opening of a dialogue process between the government and the opposition against the backdrop of a serious political, social and economic crisis that is afflicting the Country. The national population is on the brink of starvation, amidst violence and insecurity, massive protests, and a petition demanding a recall referendum to oust the President (which Maduro blocked and postponed to next year.) The president of the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference Monsignor Diego Padrón, Archbishop of Cumanà, reiterated that although dialogue is critical to resolving crucial issues the referendum must take place as a sign of respect of the will of the population and of the Constitution.
Monsignor Padròn, were you expecting President Maduro’s visit to the Pope?
I learned about it yesterday and it came as a surprise to me too. All I knew was that President Maduro was in Russia, which means he changed the program of his journey and decided to travel to Rome in the light of the present circumstances in Venezuela, namely the social and political crisis in the Country. I am very happy about this visit. I think it could be seen as an answer to the Pope’s letter to Maduro during the summer, which the President hadn’t answered yet.
In an official message Maduro said it was “a private meeting marked by deep spirituality”. Did the contents of the meeting leak out?
No, because it was a private meeting.
Is it a sign of hope for the Venezuelan Church?
Indeed it’s a very positive step. Within this process the nuncio in Argentina Paul Emil Tscherrig, delegate of the Pope, had suggested to probe the two parties’ intentions to engage in serious dialogue. President Maduro’s visit to Pope Francis is a quality leap. In fact, a meeting is tabled for next Sunday, October 30, representing an additional step in the opening of a dialogue process, which is yet to officially begin. Only the most important issues will be on the agenda. It will certainly be an opportunity for reaching an agreement on a set of crucial issues.
Who will take part in the meeting of October 30?
As far as I know on behalf of the government will be present the mayor of Caracas Jorge Rodriguez, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs Elías Jaua Milano, Venezuela’s envoy to the UN Roy Chaderton. The opposition will be represented by the Secretary of the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, along with other two people whose names I don’t remember, including the second Vice-President of the National Assembly. The meeting will be equally attended by Church dignitaries: the apostolic nuncio in Venezuela Mons. Aldo Giordano and the apostolic nuncio in Argentina Mons. Paul Emil Tscherrig.
It is therefore a very delicate and important moment for Venezuela.
Indeed, it is.
Most importantly, it should be remembered that the dialogue must not be seen as a means to replace the recall referendum, for in that case it would be infringing a right enshrined in the Constitution.
It’s a right that cannot be renounced. Just as the people have the right to elect their political representatives and the President, the people also have the right to recall them from office when they deem it necessary. Eliminating this right is equal to stripping the right to elect the President. It would be an attack against the citizens’ freedom and a harsh blow against democracy.
Will you continue asking for a referendum demanding the removal of President Maduro?
Needless to say that the recall referendum cannot be replaced by dialogue.
The people are loudly and clearly demanding a change in the political direction of the Country.
Dialogue must never be a means to silence protests, which constitute a right enshrined in the Constitution. Dialogue is necessary for the government to fully adhere to the Constitution, since at present it fails to respect it. All the bishops firmly believe in the importance of working together in the hope that the people will be stronger that the Government.
Do you think that Maduro has listened to Pope Francis’ words?
I’m not sure, for just as he failed to reply to the Pope’s letter he could also have listened without wanting to give credit to his words.
The Venezuelan population have been suffering for a long time as a result of the humanitarian and food crisis, and because of widespread violence. What’s the situation now? Has it changed?
It did change, but for the worse. Now the suffering is widespread, there is a serious shortage of goods, the people experience deep anguish and uncertainties, and we have no way to find essential goods for living.
Have medicines been allowed from abroad as you had requested?
No concession was made. It’s not convenient for the government to speak about the crisis. They don’t want to mention the existence of a humanitarian, food and healthcare crisis. They intentionally don’t want to acknowledge it.
What about the Columbian borders, crossed by many Venezuelan citizens to buy essential goods?
There the situation is even worse than in the rest of the Country. We are experiencing tragic circumstances marked by unprecedented violence.
What is your final wish?
We hope the government will be open to engage in serious dialogue.