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Politics and church in Venezuela: perspectives and horizons.

RECENT DOCUMENTS FROM church conferences, councils, and institutions throughout Venezuela (1) have regularly employed and suggested two basic moral criteria for interpreting the nation's changing political situation: (1) the practice of exercising political power (ethical legitimacy of organizational and operational mediation); and (2) the horizon of any political system (structural criticism and legitimacy of purposes related to the new emerging model).

This new political system, known since 2005 as "21st-Century Socialism," is supported by President Hugo Chavez, even though it appears to be neither mandated by nor aligned with the articles of the 1999 National Constitution. The Venezuelan Episcopal Conference insisted on the need to clarify the orientation of this emerging model because "its ideological foundations and the models proposed as a reference ... can indeed be an attempt to impose a single way of thinking. Faced with this, it is absolutely necessary that the Government and the official political sector clarify with no ambiguities or delays their reiterated proposal for this '21st-Century Socialism.'" (2) The bishops' exhortation carried two particular critiques: (1) expressions such as "revolution," "Bolivarian Revolution," and "21st-Century Socialism" indicate a radical reorientation not only of the political praxis but also of the legitimate political system, and these reorientations seem alien to the language of the constitution. (2) The political means to bring about a "21st-Century Socialism" continue to acquire an increasingly authoritarian and centralist character. As a case in point, the center and directing force of this "revolution" is Hugo Chavez in his capacity as president of the Republic, commander in chief of the armed forces, and president of the Government Party. This sets the question of ethical legitimacy of the current political praxis.

In the words of liberation theologian Pedro Trigo, S.J., the president "democratically exercises (because he can win elections) the dictatorship of the proletariat," not as a member of the proletariat itself, but rather as its commander (comandante). (3) Below, I attempt to outline this new modality of totalitarianism, this new "Democratic Caesarism." (4)


The Venezuelan Episcopal Conference has reiterated that the "open clash between brothers should not continue nor should the government's open, exclusive preference for those who support its current practice and structure. Nobody should be shut out or remain irrelevant on account of differing ideologies. All stand in need of each other, and all can contribute." (5) Unfortunately, despite the episcopal urgings, in 2006 political exclusion and discrimination, for the first time in Venezuelan history, became "policy of State." (6) This new policy has determined the current governmental practice of imposing the so-called "21st-Century Socialism" under "the dialectics of victors and victims" and "the included or the excluded."

The situation in Venezuela is obviously more complex than space permits me to explain, but seven of the practical and theoretical elements of the neototalitarian environment in Venezuelan political praxis and horizon are these:

(1) Marxist-Leninist orientation of this new political stage of the country, as evidenced by public statements from Chavez, important government spokesmen, and ideologists of the Bolivarian Revolution. (7)

(2) Nationalization (on ideological grounds) of companies in strategic sectors, among them telecommunications, oil, food, and electricity.

(3) The creation of a new popular power based on the new popular political spaces of the "communal state" with a marked trend toward weakening the institutional autonomy of municipalities.

(4) Changing the current political system--as set forth in the 1999 National Constitution--by means of an Enabling Law that grants the President sweeping powers without oversight or consultation by the autonomous National Assembly. In 2008 alone Chavez wrote and gained approval for 26 such laws.

(5) Political power is chiefly hegemonic. Hegemonic control is established by "popular electoral support," that is, after an election, the party takes the victory as a mandate and legal ground for its proposed political structure and practice. Those citizens or political leaders not supporting the Government's (i.e., the President's) new direction become traitors to that Government. The result is a potentially permanent, oppressive autocracy devoid of oversight.

(6) Ideology threatens to prevail over the spirit of community proper to all political practices. A social and political view of participation is emerging that neglects the will of all in favor of the will of "many" or in some cases "the few." The political relevance of the human person takes center stage while the value of the person as free, moral subject is left in the wings.

(7) Public education becomes politicized indoctrination intended to form students into the "new socialist man." With other ecclesiastical offices, the bishops have warned that "the intention of government officials to politicize education and turn teachers into agents of indoctrination for a specific political model is unconstitutional and violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hence, it is unacceptable. (8)


Since the start of these "revolutionary" political changes, the Catholic Church has understood that it is missioned to be a bearer of reconciliation, offering "words of Christian brotherhood, mutual respect and hope" and inviting all to share "the great challenge of remaking the country based on a real democracy that will enable a life of peace, freedom, pluralism, and participation, so that we can reduce poverty and achieve governance for shared development and well being." (9)

Currently, three lines of action frame the Church's prophetic discourse: "strengthening the democratic system, sustainable national development, and education centered on the entire human person [rather than on the person as mere political unit]." (10) With these three lines of action, the Church has in a sense made itself a prominent voice, even a mediator, in Venezuelan society, proclaiming "the centrality of the human person, human rights, political pluralism vis-a-vis ideological exclusion; a pluralistic education open to transcendence and religion; the struggle against poverty and unemployment, legal and social insecurity, and violence; freedom of expression and the right to be informed; a positive response to the subhuman living condition of our brothers and sisters deprived of freedom, and those who feel persecuted." (11)

The greatest challenge, though, that persists in the prophetic witness of the Church is to express the voice of all who still clamor for social justice and sustainable well-being. Thus the bishops state: "The attitude indispensible in the progressive search for and attainment of democratic solutions for our country is a clear opening to a true dialogue. (12) The uniquely Christian option ought to be always for reconciliation. This necessarily demands the absence of absolutism in political and ideological options. To this end, it is necessary to acknowledge that society cannot be built on a single totalitarian project that disallows dissidence and pluralism of thought. Such a project is immoral personally, socially, and politically. It only reveals the fragile experience that guarantees defeat and collapse, sinking society into collective poverty.

(1) This Note is concerned chiefly with documents of the Conferencia Episcopal Venezolana (CEV), Universidad Catolica Andres Bello (UCAB), Asociacion Venezolana de Educacion Catolica (AVEC), Consejo Nacional de Laicos (CNL), Revista SIC from the Jesuits' sociopolitical center Centro Gumilla (SIC) and Conferencia Venezolana de Religiosas y Religiosos (CONVER).

(2) CEV, Exhortacion Colectiva del Episcopado Venezolano en ocasion de su LXXXVI Asamblea Plenaria Ordinaria "Pensamientos de paz y no de afliccion (Jer 29:11)" (July 12, 2006). See All Web site addresses referred to in this Note have been accessed on November 30, 2008.

(3) See Pedro Trigo, "Situacion de Venezuela," lisis_documentos.php.

(4) Jose Virtuoso, "Balance y perspectivas," Revista SIC 691 (January-February, 2007) 5.

(5) CEV, Exhortacion del Episcopado Venezolano "Ser luz del mundo y sal de la tierra en la Venezuela de boy" (January 11, 2006), det.php?id=101.

(6) See PROVEA's annual report from 2006, ciones/infanual/2005_06/index.html. Provea is a nonprofit human rights organization.

(7) Heinz Dieterich, one of the main ideologists of the Bolivarian Revolution, in a speech during the 16th World Youth Festival (August 5-13, 2005), recognized that there is no incompatibility between Marx and Engels's vision of socialism and the vision espoused by Hugo Chavez (Caracas: August 13, 2005). See "La revolucion bolivariana y el socialismo del siglo XXI," a16108.html.

(8) CEV, LXXXVI Asamblea Plenaria Ordinaria "Pensamientos de paz y no de afliccion (Jer 29:11)," The same viewpoint is shared by the Asociacion Venezolana de Educacion Catolica (AVEC) and the Consejo Nacional de Laicos (CNL), among others.

(9) CEV, Declaracion de la Conferencia Episcopal Venezolana ante las elecciones del ano 2000, "Unidos en la verdad, la esperanza y el compromiso" (May 8, 2000). See

(10) See CEV, Exhortacion del Episcopado Venezolano "Tiempo de dialogo para construir juntos" (December 13, 2007),

(11) Ibid.

(12) CEV, Exhortacion colectiva del Episcopado en ocasion de la LXXVII Asamblea Plenaria Ordinaria, "El Dialogo: camino hacia la paz" (January 11, 2002), published by the CEV in the Archivos de la Conferencia Episcopal, Caracas, 2002.

RAFAEL LUCIANI received the S.T.D. from the Gregorian University and is director of Theological Studies in the Faculty of Theology at the Jesuit Universidad Catolica Andres Bello, Caracas. Focusing on Christology, Trinity, and theological method, he has recently published: "Hermeneutics and Theology in Sobrino's Theology," in Hope and Solidarity, ed. Stephen Pope (2008); "El Jesus de los Evangelios: Aportes desde el Concilio Plenario Venezolano," ITER Teologia 45 (2008); and "Seguidores y discipulos del Reino en la praxis fraterna del Jestis historico," ITER Teologia 42-43 (2007). In progress is a monograph proposing a new approach to studying the historical Jesus.
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Author:Luciani, Rafael
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:3VENE
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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