Venezuela faces potentially radical changes to its constitution this weekend, after years of economic collapse and shortages.
In the midst of the political upheaval, the Venezuelan bishops are urging both the government and the people to seek a respectful, democratic solution.
“The country is in ruins, people are dying of hunger, there are a number of children dying every month in the hospitals. This demonstrates that the government has not been on top of the circumstances,” said Cardinal Jorge Urosa of Caracas in an interview with Venezuelan journalist Carlos Croes.
He stressed that the administration of President Nicolas Maduro must dialogue with the country’s legislature, the National Assembly, whose majority is in opposition to the regime.
The government’s misunderstanding and mishandling of the country’s problems, the cardinal continued, is “something that works against peace in the country.”
“The way forward is respect, tolerance, and the government seeking an understanding with the opposition leaders,” he said.
Time to come to this understanding, however, is running out. This weekend Maduro will take the first step toward rewriting the Venezuelan constitution and reorganizing the government: holding a vote for members of the constituent assembly which will be tasked with drafting a new constitution.
The boycott of the process by the opposition will likely result in the dissolution of the National Assembly and further restrictions on the opposition within Venezuela. This move by Maduro follows previous attempts to dissolve the National Assembly through the Supreme Court and the shutdown of an October 2016 recall referendum of Maduro’s government – a constitutional right instated by Maduro’s predecessor and mentor within the country’s socialist party, Hugo Chavez.
The constitution which Maduro seeks to re-rwite was adopted in 1999, shortly after Chávez came to power.
In recent years, the Venezuelan economy has collapsed, resulting in food and medical shortages, as well as struggles with housing, utilities, and other basic necessities. As a result, Maduro’s popularity has plummeted, leading to a rise of opposition to the government and public protests around the country.
Previously, the Church in Venezuela has tried to broker agreement between the government and the opposition, though those negotiations have fallen through. Since then, the Venezuelan bishops have argued for a democratic resolution to the crisis. Cardinal Urosa again argued for democratic negotiations to resolve the issue, and warned that the widespread opposition – as high as 80 percent – to the constituent assembly would only make things worse.
“That is a problem that the government has to face and try to resolve from the democratic point of view,” he stated.
“We’re with the people and most Venezuelans don’t want the Constitutional Assembly,” he said. The bishops of Venezuela, the cardinal continued, “are defending the rights of the people which are being abused by an inefficient government.” He said that the most concerning aspects of the suffering the Venezuelan people face are the shortages of food and medication.
The Venezuelan bishops’ conference later issued a statement reinforcing calls for democratic processes and warning against rewriting the constitution. “Everything suggests that what is sought is to establish a socialist, Marxist state and military, by dissolving the autonomy of powers, especially the legislative powers,” warned the conference. They also warned the populace against starting riots or other forms of violence, stating that it could further destabilize the country.
The government has banned protests that could “disturb or affect” Sunday’s election for the constituent assembly, with fines of between five and 10 years for protestors.
Around 100 people have been killed in anti-government protests since April.
The bishops’ stance against the constitutional rewrite has not been without opposition of its own. Earlier this week, the publisher San Pablo, who distributes the “Sunday Page” – a Sunday bulletin for Venezuelan parishes about the Gospel and meditations – warned the faithful there was a false edition of the bulletin which had been distributed to parishes around the country.
In the false edition of the bulletin, which promoted the constitutional assembly, faithful are advised that the process “is like the permanent Revolution, it is a revolution within the Revolution and we must always be revising the Constitution.”
“We are calling you to be attentive and not be fooled, ” the publisher warned. The warning was later distributed by the Venezuelan bishops.
According to the Caracas daily El Nacional, Holy Family parish in Carora was attacked by government supporters July 27.
Families in the area reported that its roof “was damaged by stones and Molotov cocktails thrown by groups symapethic to government and officials of the Venezuelan National Guard.”