Andres Oppenheimer

Pope Francis’ wimpy statement on crisis in Venezuela is shameful | Opinion

Pope Francis, right, with Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro in 2013, has tried to broker agreements between the regime and opposition.
Pope Francis, right, with Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro in 2013, has tried to broker agreements between the regime and opposition. Getty Images

Venezuela’s Conference of Bishops has released a bombshell statement demanding an immediate end of dictator Nicolás Maduro’s “illegitimate and failed government.” So why isn’t Pope Francis saying anything even close to that?

Before we get into the pope’s failure to openly denounce Maduro’s crimes against humanity, here’s what the Venezuelan bishops said in their July 11 statement:

“Facing an illegitimate and failed government, Venezuela craves for a change,” it said. “That change requires the departure of who holds power in an illegitimate way, and the election as soon as possible of a new president.”

Furthermore, the bishops said that, “In order for (the election) to be truly free and reflect the people’s sovereign will, it requires some essential conditions, such as a new and impartial National Electoral Council, an updated electoral registry and the supervision of international organizations such as the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the European Union.”

It added that another key condition for a free election should be the “closing of the National Constituent Assembly,” Maduro’s hand-picked Congress that he created after the opposition won the 2015 legislative elections for the National Assembly by a landslide.

So what did the pope say after the bishops’ statement? Instead of echoing their demand that Maduro leave office, Pope Francis made an incredibly bland statement in his July 14 homily asking God to “inspire and illuminate both sides” so that they can “reach an agreement” to solve the Venezuelan crisis.

For years, the opposition had struggled to challenge Maduro. But now, Juan Guaidó, the National Assembly leader, appears to have woken up the population in just a couple of months.

Far from putting pressure on Maduro, the pope’s statement played right into the Venezuelan dictator’s hands. Maduro has often called for a dialogue with the opposition in the past, but has always used such talks to win time and defuse national protests against his dictatorship. Time and again, he later clamped down on the opposition as soon as international attention shifted away from Venezuela.

Why is the pope such a wimp when it comes to Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis? Until recently, one could have speculated that his failure to denounce Maduro’s crimes was because the Vatican hoped to play a helpful role as a mediator in the situation.

But after several Vatican-brokered negotiations, the pope learned the hard way that Maduro was just playing games with the talks. Francis admitted that much in a Feb. 7 letter to Maduro that was leaked to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. In that letter, the pontiff reportedly wrote that every previous attempt to reach an agreement had failed “because what had been agreed in the meetings was not followed by concrete gestures to implement the agreements.”

Furthermore, Pope Francis’ July 14 statement about Venezuela was even more reprehensible because, in addition to the Venezuelan Conference of Bishops’ declaration, it came after a devastating report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Venezuela’s mass killings.

The U.N. report said that here have been at least 6.856 suspicious deaths of government opponents between January 2018 and May 2019, most of which were extra-judicial executions. As a native of Argentina, the pope should know well that this figure is bigger than any number of political killings in the region since the days of Argentina and Chile’s military dictatorships in the 1970s.

To put things in context, the number of political killings in the 17-month period cited by the U.N. report is far bigger than the total number of extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances caused by late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet during his 17-year regime.

After the Venezuelan bishops’ statement and Bachelet’s U.N. report, there is no excuse for the pope to remain silent about the Maduro dictatorship’s abuses, making it look as if “both sides” were responsible for the thousands of deaths and the more than 4 million exiles and refugees triggered by Maduro’s disastrous regime.

If the pope is still hoping to play a role as a mediator or guarantor of a political agreement in Venezuela, the least he could do is echo the bishops’ call for free elections as soon as possible to solve the political crisis aggravated by Maduro’s illegitimate election last year. But Francis hasn’t even done that. Shame on him.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show at 8 p.m. Sunday on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

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