Francis’s Real Stance on Venezuela: More Positive than Neutral

While many demand an open attack on the Maduro regime, the Vatican is actively using its soft power toward an immediate political change. Theologist Rafael Luciani, who works directly with the Pope, explains how.

Photo: America Magazine retrieved

Less than 24 hours after Juan Guaidó announced that on February 23rd a “humanitarian avalanche” will pass over the Maduro regime’s refusal to let the international aid convoys cross the borders, one headline in remote, cold Milan slipped surreptitiously into the Venezuelan crisis.

Italy’s main conservative newspaper, the venerable Corriere della Sera, revealed that on February 7th, three days before Nicolás Maduro swore the oath of office for an illegitimate presidential term, Pope Francis sent him a letter, in response to a new requirement of mediation from Chávez’s heir. The Argentinian Pope called Maduro “sir,” and not “president,” noted Corriere’s Massimo Franco, and made clear what the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Piero Parolin, really meant when, on February 18th, he said that the Santa Sede’s stance on Venezuela was of positive neutrality.  

In the two-page letter, Francis reminded Maduro that the Pope’s attempt to mediate in 2016 failed because his conditions were not met and added that he only believes in a real negotiation when both parts are able to overcome their particular interests in favor of the common good. Francis demanded Maduro, once again, that any form of bloodshed must be avoided, and ended saying that he’s very worried by the situation and moved by the “apparently endless” suffering of the Venezuelan people.

Francis demanded Maduro, once again, that any form of bloodshed must be avoided.

“The letter is real and it’s not a coincidence that it was made public by Corriere della Sera the day after Guaidó provided a date to the entrance of the humanitarian aid,” says Venezuelan theologist Rafael Luciani, who has been working directly with Pope Francis for more than two years, as an advisor to the Latin American Episcopal Conference, CELAM. “That letter is an official document not for publication. It’s not that Corriere della Sera obtained it from a source: it was handed to the newspaper by the Vatican. Now, in Venezuela, Cardinal Baltazar Porras says the letter is real. That’s how Francisco works.”

The voice of the bishops is the voice of the Pope

A serious, discreet scholar who teaches at Venezuela’s Catholic University and Boston College, Luciani has been quite active these days, trying to raise his voice amid the rage on social networks after cardinal Parolin used that term of positive neutrality. The people who believe the legend that Pope Francis is a communist at heart have joined forces with many Venezuelans who see Francis’s position on Maduro as too ambiguous, if not complicit; and Luciani has been arguing that the Pope, far from being inactive or neutral, has been pressuring for years on issues that now are two of the flags of the caretaker president: humanitarian aid and free elections.   

In an article he wrote for the Vatican’s website, Luciani alleges that the cliché of a leftist Pope ignoring the claims of the Venezuelan conservative bishops makes no sense, and explains that Francis has been de-centralizing power, giving more autonomy to local clergies. This way, writes Luciani, “The geopolitical narrative focuses on the Pope as a shepherd, the Vatican as a place for negotiation and humanitarian relief, and the local Episcopal Conferences as the stages that must denounce the autocracies in their countries.”

Luciani says that since the Lateran Treaty of 1929, the Vatican has never called anyone a dictator. “It can’t. It’s the government that’s interested in diminishing the Church’s image in this crisis, and therefore, it’s the one spreading the idea that the Pope is indifferent to the things the Venezuelan bishops have denounced so clearly, and many people in the Venezuelan opposition followed that game.”

But one thing is Twitter and another one the reality. This is a Pope who knows exactly what a dictatorship is: he comes from Argentina. This is a Vatican Secretary of State that was Nuncio, ambassador at Caracas, for four years, and knows the country very well, both its politics and the hardships of the poor. The bishops in Venezuela, Cardinal Parolin, and the Pope are all on the same page. Of course they are: the Vatican is not a democracy.

Luciani alleges that the cliché of a leftist Pope ignoring the claims of the Venezuelan conservative bishops makes no sense, and explains that Francis has been de-centralizing power.

Francis condemned the repression in 2014, in 2015, and in 2016, when he accepted the mediation asked by the opposition, he demanded four conditions that are still valid: free elections, the restitution of the National Assembly’s functions, the release of political prisoners, and the creation of a humanitarian channel. He left the process in April 2017 because the conditions were not accepted, and demanded the regime to respect human rights. This was known thanks to another private letter, published by the Italian press, that the Vatican confirmed later. In those times, the Pope met Argentina’s Foreign Affairs Minister Susana Malcorra to promote a joint statement from Argentina and other countries, which inspired the Lima Group.

In 2017, the Jesuits, the Episcopal Conference and the Venezuelan association of priests and nuns raised their tone and called the government a dictatorship, which was supported by the region’s Episcopal Conferences. On May 13th, 2017, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Parolin, said that the solution is free elections. On June 2017, Francis said that his voice was resonating in the voices of the bishops. Last Christmas, in his message Urbi et orbi at San Pietro, the Pope included Venezuela among the countries most needed of urgent help, like Syria and Yemen. The Vatican did not send a Nuncio to Maduro’s swearing-in ceremony before his Supreme Tribunal on January 10th, but a minor diplomat, and the Episcopal Conference does not recognize his new term.

The nuances of neutrality

So, why did Cardinal Parolin use this problematic term of positive neutrality? Rafael Luciani thinks that what the Secretary of State means is that the Vatican defends his natural role of mediator, while it actively works, at the same time, towards a resolution. Parolin has been talking in the past weeks with China, Russia, Cuba, and the United States about Venezuela. The Venezuelan bishops are already in talks with the regime and the opposition. “Santa Sede always speaks of neutrality. But in this specific context, after Mexico and Uruguay declared themselves neutral, Parolin saw the need to add the adjective positive in order to establish the difference.”

According to this logic, the Vatican is not as neutral as the leftist governments in Mexico City and Montevideo insist it is. Actually, last Monday, number three at the Vatican, Cardinal Edgar Peña, received a delegation sent by Guaidó. Peña, a former Nuncio in Africa, is from Venezuela (as well as Arturo Sosa, the Superior General of the Jesuits).

Actually, last Monday, number three at the Vatican, Cardinal Edgar Peña, received a delegation sent by Guaidó.

Luciani thinks that the Pope’s discourse of social change has some ascendance amid the ranks of the military, while he admits that not everybody at the Venezuelan Catholic Church is happy with the way Francis has been acting towards the country’s situation. And he refutes another myth: that John Paul II, now seen as an anti-communist hero, would have handled this in a radically different way. “That Pope was accused of the same things about his native Poland. Years passed before we knew that he secretly worked to help the resistance against the regime, through the local church. John Paul II met with Pinochet, but by doing so he managed to keep open the human rights vicaries. The Vatican always tries to maintain a relationship with any government, not only to keep its embassies functioning but the whole social structure that the Catholic Church is.”

So Pope Francis won’t break diplomatic ties with Maduro, although he won’t work with him either. “With this letter,” concludes Luciani, “the Vatican made public its decision on Venezuela. They want a change, now, and they are pressuring for it.”