By James Suggett – Venezuelanalysis.com
Mérida, July 12th 2010 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – A recent exchange of declarations between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the opposition-aligned Venezuelan Episcopal Conference (CEV) generated a heated public debate over the separation of church and state in the predominantly catholic nation.
Last week, Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, who has been a staunch public critic of Chavez’s policies, went on a radio station in Rome and accused President Hugo Chavez of leading the country toward a “Marxist-communist dictatorship” based on a “foreign model” copied from the former Soviet Union.
Urosa said the National Assembly, which is controlled by Chavez’s political party, has violated the constitution by passing laws which reflect policies that were part of a constitutional reform voted down in a referendum in 2007. The Cardinal also said Chavez has a “violent, exclusive totalitarian tendency,” and “uses his power to discredit, insult, attack, and offend the Venezuelans who are not in agreement with his political system.”
President Chavez responded in his weekly Sunday opinion column, accusing Urosa and the CEV of overstepping the Church’s role by constantly intervening in politics. “It goes against our constitution when, failing to recognize the secular character of our state, Urosa and the CEV together try to set themselves up as a state power,” Chavez wrote.
The president also accused Urosa of supporting the April 2002 military coup that temporarily ousted him. Chavez cited a news article from April 12, 2002 in which Urosa was quoted declaring his support for the coup and his appreciation for the opposition-aligned media that, it was later discovered, had deliberately manipulated the news in order to justify the coup.
Chavez is a self-declared Christian who refers to Christ as a revolutionary and says the social and political changes spearheaded by his administration draw from a mix of Christianity, Marxism, and Venezuela’s own historic fighters for independence from Spain and land reform.
“We advance toward a full democratization that we have called Bolivarian Socialism, whose primordial purpose is to give power to the people so that they can exercise their sovereign destiny. For us, Marxism is a tool that helps us interpret man, society, and history, not a dogma or a guiding document,” wrote Chavez.
Chavez said the Church is also a bearer of foreign ideologies, given that it’s headquarters are in the Vatican. “To say that we copy foreign models and that we are guided by foreign ideologies… does not cease to be a crime in those who, believing they are the owners of Venezuelans’ faith, try to manipulate it.”
The exchange between Chavez and Urosa set off a chain of declarations by officials from the government, the opposition, and the Catholic Church, expressing their support for one or the other side of the conflict.
The official statement released by the CEV on Monday, following its 94th Ordinary Plenary Assembly, was rife with explicitly political directives and attacks on Chavez and the National Assembly. Referring to the upcoming National Assembly elections, the statement said, “The parliamentary elections are an invaluable opportunity to ratify our faith in the authentic sovereignty of the people,” and concluded with an appeal “for all believers to pray for the destiny of our homeland.”
Venezuelan Minister for Culture Farruco Sesto said the CEV leaders are part of a “church hierarchy” that “was not elected by anyone” and does not reflect the values of democracy, Christianity, or its followers. “Christianity is a doctrine that preaches love, peace, and understanding among people, and equality; meanwhile, Urosa takes the side of the rich and powerful of the Earth, and he does not carry with him the evangelical message,” said Sesto in a press conference on Sunday.
“That is very common in the high-level hierarchy of the Church in many of our countries, the Catholic Church has been partially responsible for many coup d’états, bloody dictatorships, they bless the murderers and the torturers,” Sesto continued.
Venezuela’s Supreme Court released a statement criticizing the signatories of the CEV for “taking advantage of their high investiture to adopt political positions.” The statement said the CEV officials are free to practice their religion, but must “separate what could be called a spiritual, religious act of faith, from that which represents a foreign and unjustified interference in political affairs.”
CEV Representative Jesus Gonzalez fired back, saying, “There is only one, united church” and that President Chavez “considers everything that doesn’t go along with his manner of thinking to be a personal attack.”
Julio Borges, the national coordinator of the opposition party Primero Justicia, stood behind Urosa’s accusations, saying Chavez is trying to “fool the population” by “hiding in a sheepskin” in order to install the Cuban economic and political model in Venezuela.