A Venezuelan lawmaker took a rhetorical swing at a prominent bishop in the country last month, soon after the bishop blamed Venezuela’s ruling political party for the country’s dire economic and political situation.
It’s nothing new in Venezuela for a politician to criticize the Church.
But when it happened in January, the criticism came as a surprise to some political observers in the country — because it happened while senior officials in the country’s government - including President Nicolas Maduro - have been courting a better relationship with the Church.
In fact, the context tells a much bigger story about the state of the Venezuelan Catholic hierarchy — and its relationship with the Venezuelan regime, well-known for causing a grave economic, political, and humanitarian crisis in the country.
The lawmaker was Diosdado Cabello, who is also the second-ranking official in the Venezuelan United Socialist Party, led by dictator Nicolas Maduro for more than a decade.
The churchman was Bishop Victor Basabe, a young and prominent bishop in the country.
Cabello was unsparing in his criticism of the prelate, and of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference.
"That ecclesiastical hierarchy has historically turned its back on the people. They haven’t realized that their attitude has led other religions to welcome so many Venezuelans, thanks to the petty politics of the episcopal conference, every last one of them," Cabello said in a January press conference.
Cabello, who has been sanctioned by the U.S. and the EU for allegedly leading a cartel that smuggles hard drugs to the U.S. from Venezuela, is among the most powerful men in the Venezuelan regime. The politician is widely regarded as one of President Maduro’s most influential deputies — and he has a long history with the Venezuelan regime.
“When Hugo Chávez staged a coup attempt against a democratically-elected government in Venezuela in 1992, Cabello was one of the many military officers who joined him. When [Chávez] became president, Cabello turned into one of his strongest allies and collaborators,” Enderson Sequera, a Venezuelan political analyst, told The Pillar.
“Cabello imposes fear in Venezuela. From his TV show, he created operación tun-tun — ‘operation knock-knock.’ Cabello mentions a list of names on his show, accuses them of committing a crime, and hours later, the SEBIN --the political police of the regime-- raids their homes,” Sequera explained.
Diosdado Cabello is clearly a powerful man in Venezuela. But why does it matter that he criticized a bishop, or the bishops’ conference? Doesn’t his party criticize the Church in Venezuela often?
But what happened in January might point to part of the regime’s political strategy for engagement with the Church — while the Maduro administration is reportedly looking to Rome to help Venezuela address its international problems.
Víctor Hugo Basabe, 61, is the bishop of San Felipe, a small diocese in the western region of Venezuela. Since 2020, he’s also been apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Barquisimeto.
Basabe’s position in Barquisimeto is a temporary one; he is not the permanent archbishop of the city, despite his two-year tenure at its helm, and the favorable impression he’s made among other Venezuelan Church leaders.
But while Catholics outside Venezuela might expect Basabe to be appointed soon as Barquisimeto’s archbishop, few in the country are holding their breath.
The reason is probably a political concordat between the Venezuelan state and the Vatican, signed in 1965, which governs the Church’s appointment of bishops.
The agreement requires that before the Vatican appoints a diocesan bishop, the Holy See “shall send the candidate's name to the President of the Republic, so that he may state whether he has any objections of a general political nature to oppose the appointment.”
“In case of such objections, the Holy See will indicate the name of another candidate.”
In other words, Venezuela’s dictator has the right to thwart the appointment of any diocesan bishop. But he can’t, according to the agreement, stop the Holy See from appointing apostolic administrators — theoretically temporary diocesan leaders, who can be given the power of archbishop, but not the stability of office.
That might explain why Basabe, an outspoken critic of the Maduro regime, is apostolic administrator, not archbishop.
In Caracas, Venezuela’s capital city, Cardinal Baltazar Porras spent four years as apostolic administrator before he was allowed to become the city’s archbishop earlier this year – and it's likely that he eventually got the permanent post only as part of a Maduro strategy to curry favor with the Holy See.
But in Barquisimeto, Basabe’s will likely wait longer before he can be formally installed as the city's archbishop — if it happens at all.
‘Beaten, betrayed, and ransacked’
However long it will last, Basabe is not spending his tenure as Barquisimeto’s apostolic administrator sitting quietly.
On January 14, he celebrated a Mass before the procession of the Divina Pastora, the patroness of Barquisimeto. The procession is one of the largest Marian processions in the world, with as many as 3 million people in attendance.
Traditionally, the homily is charged with a strong social and political tone. For example, in 2018, Basabe called out political corruption in the Venezuelan government, and Maduro responded by calling him “a devil in a cassock.”
This year was no exception.
With triple-digit inflation, hundreds of political prisoners, and over 7 million refugees having fled the country amid the largest migrant crisis in the world, the crisis in Venezuela can hardly be overstated.
And Basabe’s homily pushed hard against human rights violations and poverty in the country.
“I invite you to put in the heart of our prayer, our dear Venezuela: hurt, beaten, betrayed, and ransacked to the utmost, and [to pray] for the end of the bubbles of economic falsity that seek to hide the horrid situation in which most of our Venezuelan brothers are,” he said to applause.
“Let’s put in the heart of our prayer our teachers, our doctors, our nurses, our journalists, our workers, and let’s join their cries so they receive a dignified treatment for their labor,” he said, evoking a recent spate of teachers’ protests across Venezuela.
“Let’s put in the heart of our prayers those 7 million Venezuelan brothers who have been forced to flee our country to look for a better life for themselves and their families … we ask God and the Divina Pastora to give us the joy of embracing them [again] in this land, which belongs to them, and where they will never be strangers,” he added.
The bishop was on fire, many people at the Mass said. He was inspired. And Diosdado Cabello took notice.
‘The refuge of incompetents’
Cabello took offense at the homily, and soon said that Basabe was an “opposition leader” who had “tarnished” the “extraordinary show of faith of the Catholic people” with his “low-politics, malicious speech.”
“The [bishops] are taking advantage of a faithful people for the petty intentions of the ones who lead their political party — the bishops’ conference,” he said.
On his TV show, Cabello accused Basabe of making money by selling t-shirts in the procession.
“Here you can see the logo of the bishops’ conference and of the Archdiocese of Barquisimeto,” Cabello said, pointing at a t-shirt sold at the procession.
“This is the official t-shirt, $15 each. That ‘bubble’ in which you do not believe allowed you to earn a little money — $450,000 if you sold 100,000 t-shirts. A good business, right?”
After Cabello’s statements, government supporters began protesting the bishop. Some government supporters also interrupted him during a Mass, allegedly cutting internet service so that the Mass could not be live-streamed. The government of the Iribarren Municipality, where Barquisimeto is located, declared the bishop persona non grata.
In an interview Jan. 29, Basabe said he will not back down.
“We have the duty to denounce anything that goes against the people of God. We cannot stay silent,” he said.
“I will never agree with the political actions of those in the government because it has led to worsening the life of people and breaking families due to migration ... I will never agree with the political actions of someone that, having all the power and all the resources, have led the people to this situation.”
“I’m not afraid. I’m convinced of my mission and I know that this mission has its risks… I have thick skin, no threat will stop me from exercising my prophetic ministry,” he added.
“I’m not interested in any political positions,” he said to Cabello’s allegations that the bishops have become their own political party, “I am convinced that, in this country, public positions are the last refuge of incompetents.”
‘A political enemy’
It would be an understatement to say that the Church has had a significant role in the history of Venezuela. In reality, you can’t understand the country’s history without understanding something about the Catholic faith.
If you go to elementary school in Venezuela, it’s one of the first history lessons you learn.
Venezuela was once a Spanish colony, led by a Crown appointee. But amid the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in the early 19th century, some Venezuelans began calling for their country’s independence.
Things came to a head on April 19, 1810, which was Holy Thursday.
On that day a crowd had gathered in Caracas, protesting the Spanish government. A few representatives spoke with Vicente Emparan, the Spanish Captain General of Venezuela, telling him that the people wanted independence from Spain.
Emparan went out on a balcony that day to ask the gathered crowd if they still wanted him as their ruler.
Behind Emparan stood a priest, Fr. José Cortes de Madariaga, who signaled to the people that they should say no. They did. Emparan resigned his office, and fled to the United States.
The moment paved the way for the eventual Declaration of Independence in Venezuela, issued July 5, 1811 – and Fr. Cortés de Madariaga played an important role.
Daniel González, a Venezuelan historian, told The Pillar that the Church has continued to occupy an important role in Venezuela as a voice for public morality, and for public justice.
“The Church has always had an important socio-political role in Venezuela,” González explained.
The Church’s voice “has been molded by a concern for the most needed in society, for example, through a large network of schools that are partially funded by the state,” he added.
“Many religious institutes have built schools, universities, soup kitchens, outpatient clinics, which allow them to reach parts of the country that the government simply cannot reach,” González added.
The historian explained that the hierarchy’s efforts to speak prophetically have led to clashes with Venezuela’s government.
“One of the first clashes in the 20th century occurred when [martyr and Servant of God] Bishop Montes de Oca of Valencia publicly criticized the divorce and remarriage of an official of the Gómez dictatorship, which led to his exile.”
“Then, in the ‘50s, you have the pastoral letter of Archbishop Arias Blanco of Caracas, criticizing the dictatorship, which helped in starting the protests against it that led to its downfall,” González added.
“You had some more peaceful years in which there were good relations and the [concordat] was signed in 1965,” he explained. “But Chávez arrived in 1998 and things really changed after 2002, when Chávez resigned after widespread protests against him and the Archbishop of Caracas, Ignacio Velasco, supported the move,” González said.
But Chávez would return to power only a few days later.
“This turned the hierarchy into a political enemy of Chavismo,” González added.
‘A constructive dialogue’
After decades of political repression in Venezuela, the Catholic Church remains one of the few local institutions that is relatively free to criticize the country’s political regime.
The bishops’ conference has rarely been timid in denouncing human rights violations and the dire economic situation of the country.
While Pope Francis has mostly remained silent about the country, he has said that “my voice …resounds in the voice of the Venezuelan bishops,” a sentiment which has encouraged the country’s prelates to continue speaking out against the regime.
The bishops can speak out in Venezuela because the large network of schools and social services operated by the Church in the country forces the government to be careful in its dealings.
The Church also enjoys widespread public trust in Venezuela, leaving the Maduro regime usually careful not to push back much against the prelates.
Recent polling shows that “two-thirds of Venezuelans consider the Church the most trustworthy institution in the country,” according to the political analyst Sequera, who runs Politiks, a local political consulting firm.
“In a country that distrusts the government and opposition equally, the Church is an institution that goes beyond political or ideological divides. For its enormous credibility and moral power, it has become an actor which all can trust, and a potential mediator in political negotiations,” he added.
The role of the Church is regarded as especially important in Venezuela in recent years, as the Maduro regime is aiming to see U.S. and EU sanctions on the country lifted, without major concessions. Some government leaders believe the Church can play a big mediation role in Maduro’s diplomatic efforts.
“Maduro is taking pressure away from his relationship with the Catholic Church because he is seeking to legitimize himself through the negotiations in Mexico with the opposition,” María Verónica Torres, a political consultant and canon lawyer, told The Pillar.
In November, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, second-in-command at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State of the Vatican, traveled to Venezuela, his home country.
When the archbishop met with Maduro, many analysts thought that the government was looking to the Vatican to mediate between its government and Western countries imposing sanctions.
In an interview after the encounter, Peña Parra said that he was hopeful that Venezuela would have “a constructive dialogue that really takes [the country] ahead.”
While no major details were shared, it is widely believed that Peña Parra’s meeting with Maduro led to Cardinal Porras’s appointment as Archbishop of Caracas, after four years of serving as apostolic administrator. Maduro's approval of the appointment is perceived as a sign of good faith offered to the Vatican.
Maduro, in short, has been making a special effort to show goodwill to the Church.
And that’s why Cabello’s January criticism of the bishops’ conference – and the ensuing protests against Basabe – came as something of a surprise.
‘Good cop, bad cop?’
Analysts have had differing readings of Cabello’s sharp criticism of the bishops’ conference.
“I think Cabello and Maduro are doing a ‘good cop, bad cop” bit,” political analyst Sequera suggested.
“Maduro is a friendly, diplomatic face that tries to improve his relationship with the Church. Maduro’s son is the VP of religious affairs in the ruling party and his father gives him many of these tasks. On the other hand, Cabello is the bad cop. He’s there to remind the Church of the punishment they might suffer if they cross the red line,” Sequera added.
Torres, the political consultant, took a different view. She questioned whether the Maduro regime really intends any positive relationship with the Church.
“There might be some internal disagreement in the regime. There are different groups of power within them and that means that their political interests may not align every time,” Torres conceded.
But that’s not the whole story, she said.
“I cannot call it a rapprochement because there are no common interests or common will to strengthen the religious identity of the country with the Catholic Church and the Evangelical Churches.”
“I don’t think there is an honest dialogue because it’s just a political strategy to obtain what they need. They want to show that they are close to God and religion because the presidential election is near and religion is still important in Venezuela.”
A monkey in silk is still a monkey
What will come next for the Church in Venezuela?
Everything points toward a stalemate.
Few bishops seem to believe in Maduro’s goodwill gestures. Nor do they seem to believe that Cabello’s threats will turn into mean—and if they do, the bishops are likely ready to deal with the consequences.
And even if the Vatican Secretariat of State encourages another round of negotiations between the government and its opposition, the bishops’ conference might prefer to support it from a distance, instead of serving as mediators.
There’s a popular saying in Venezuela: “Aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda.” — “A monkey that dresses in silk is still a monkey.”
Political analysts tell The Pillar that both Maduro’s overtures and Cabello’s sharp words are something of a silk dress, covering the usual state of impasse between Church and state in Venezuela.
And if that’s the case, Cabello’s attack on the bishops’ conference might evoke for Venezuelans another national saying: “La Cruz en el pecho y el diablo en el hecho.“ — “They carry the Cross on their chest, but the devil in their deeds.”