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What’s behind Venezuela’s new archbishop appointments?

On June 28, the Vatican announced the appointment of three new archbishops in Venezuela.

Flag of Venezuela. Credit: railway fx / Shutterstock.

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Pope Francis accepted the resignation of 79-year-old Cardinal Baltasar Porras of Caracas, and appointed Bishop Raúl Biord, SDB of the Diocese of La Guaira as his successor.

The pope also filled two major vacant sees.

Archbishop Jesús González de Zárate of Cumaná was appointed as the archbishop of Valencia. González is also president of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference.

Bishop Polito Rodríguez of San Carlos was appointed archbishop of Barquisimeto.

Those appointments - in three of the four largest sees in Venezuela - would appear to clear an episcopal deadlock in the country that had lasted for the past few years.

There are several possible reasons for the appointments - including a strategic decision in an election year or the result of Vatican diplomacy. But whatever the reason, the relationship between Church and state remains complicated in the volatile nation.


Complicated appointments

According to the concordat signed between the Vatican and Venezuela in the 1960s, the Venezuelan government has to give its placet — or approval — to episcopal appointments in the country.

Historically, government approval of episcopal appointments was always given - even by dictator Hugo Chávez, who ruled between 1999 until his death in 2013.

For the first few years of his rule, Nicolás Maduro also approved the appointments. However, in the last few years, the Maduro regime has started to use them as a tool against the Church.

For example, when Cardinal Jorge Urosa resigned from the Archdiocese of Caracas in 2018, Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Porras as his successor. 

While Francis had intended to make Porras the Archbishop of Caracas, the Venezuelan government did not give its consent. So instead, the pope named Porras apostolic administrator, a position which does not require government approval under the concordat.

Porras would serve as an apostolic administrator for almost five years, until January 2023, when he was finally named archbishop of Caracas.

The Archdiocese of Barquisimeto underwent a similar situation. Archbishop Antonio López Castillo resigned in March 2020, a few months before turning 75, due to health issues.

Pope Francis appointed Bishop Víctor Hugo Basabe of San Felipe as the apostolic administrator. Although Basabe was considered a rising star among the Venezuelan episcopate, the formal appointment as archbishop never came.

It was understood that Basabe was Francis’ preferred choice for Barquisimeto, but Basabe is perhaps the most strident critic of the Venezuelan regime in the bishops’ conference.

In January 2023, Basabe used the homily at the procession of the Divina Pastora - which attracts over a million people in the streets of Barquisimeto - to criticize the Venezuelan dictatorship for its corruption, inattention to poverty, and the lack of freedom in the country. The homily earned him threats of imprisonment from Diosdado Cabello, number two in the Venezuelan regime.

Basabe would end up being apostolic administrator of Barquisimeto for three years, until he was eventually appointed as the archbishop of Coro, a smaller, less influential see.

The situation in the Archdiocese of Valencia was slightly less complicated. Archbishop Reinaldo del Prette died in 2022 of lung cancer, leaving the see vacant. Since then, the diocese had as an apostolic administrator, Bishop Saúl Figueroa of the nearby diocese of Puerto Cabello. Figueroa was already past the normal episcopal retirement age at the time that he was named apostolic administrator, but the vacancy was not filled for almost two years.

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Why now?

The fact that the new archbishop appointments were made last week means that the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro approved them.

What changed? There are a few possibilities.

One is that Maduro considers these bishops to be less threatening than other potential candidates - for example, Basabe. 

Another name that was rumored as a potential candidate for Caracas is Archbishop José Luis Azuaje of Maracaibo, the second largest see in the country. Azuaje, the former president of the bishops’ conference, has also maintained a strong position against the Venezuelan dictatorship.

Instead, the government approved the appointments of González - the current president of the bishops’ conference - and Biord - who served as vice president of the conference until 2022. 

In recent years, the conference’s stance against the Venezuelan government has focused on opening pathways of dialogue while denouncing the poor economic and human rights situation in the country.

While Biord or González will likely not be any closer to Maduro than their predecessors, they are also likely to be less outspoken than some of the possible alternatives.

Another explanation for the appointments might lie in the visit of Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, sostituto of the Vatican Secretary of State, to his home country in late 2022.

Peña, a native of Maracaibo, the second-largest city and archdiocese in the country, met with Nicolás Maduro in an apparently friendly visit. Just a month later, Porras was finally appointed as archbishop of Caracas, which many credited to Peña’s intervention.

Another possible factor is the presidential election coming up on July 28. Many international organizations have voiced suspicions of fraud surrounding the election, as many members of the main opposition campaign have been jailed or have taken asylum in embassies.

Whatever the outcome, the election will likely bring a renewed crisis to Venezuela. Many western governments are pressing Maduro to recognize the results, whatever they may be.

The election may have prompted Maduro to pick his battles carefully, alleviating his conflict with the Venezuelan bishops at a time when he might need them as mediators and certainly doesn’t want them as critics.

Whether that strategy could be successful remains to be seen - if recent Venezuelan history teaches us anything, it’s that Maduro will need more than a few conciliatory episcopal appointments to convince the Venezuelan bishops to keep their mouths shut.

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