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Venezuela: Mons. Azuaje (President of the Bishops’ Conference), “we demand the respect of the people”

"We demand respect of the people and their needs: there is a centralised totalitarian and economic regime whereby government and military authorities act as moguls, amidst widespread corruption. They want to subjugate the people and permanently retain power”, said Msgr. José Luis Azuaje, bishop of Barinas, appointed President of the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference less than a month ago, in an interview with SIR. The bishops have been denouncing the scourge of hunger and malnutrition, the deterioration of health in children and adults, the flight from the Country of over two million youths and adults, human rights violations and poor levels of democracy

“We call upon the government to urgently put an end to malnutrition and health deterioration and urge the adoption of a democratic process with the participation of citizenry.” These are the main requests of Msgr. José Luis Azuaje, bishop of Barinas, appointed President of the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference less than a month ago, with regard to the severe political, economic and human rights crisis ongoing in the Country. For a long time the bishops have been denouncing the distressing situation of hunger and malnutrition, the deterioration of health in children and adults, the flight from the Country of over two million youths and adults.  After the Vatican’s mediation in 2016, which was stalled, now a delicate dialogue is ongoing in the Dominican Republic between the government and the opposition forces, with the mediation of former Spanish Premier José Luis Zapatero. A few days ago it appeared that the involved parties had reached an agreement on a road map that envisaged elections at the end of the year, guarantees of impartiality, a new national Electoral Council. But on January 26 there was an unexpected turn of events: the pro-government Constituent Assembly called for new presidential elections by the end of April with the National Electoral Council. On top of this, the Supreme Court ordered the exclusion of Mesa de Unidad Démocratica(MUD), the twenty-party opposition coalition, from the electoral process. Thus President Nicólas Maduro will run alone at the upcoming presidential elections. Mons. Azuaje described a “bleak” situation.

How is the situation in Venezuela?

In Venezuela the situation is critical especially in humanitarian terms: the population is faced with food shortage, there are no medicines, no products for agricultural production, even transport of goods is difficult. Many products are lacking in stores or are too expensive. The average salary of workers is not sufficient to ensure a nutritious diet. This creates a lot of anxiety and desolation. Politically, every day there is a new declaration by the government and the Constituent Assembly, which only favour the ruling party and its leadership, regardless of the needs of the people.

We are sadly facing a very serious, difficult situation caused by low levels of democracy and humanitarian emergency.

The government recently adopted a law against “hate crimes”. President Maduro publically accused the bishops Antonio López Castillo and Víctor Hugo Basabe of having committed these crimes in homilies they gave on January 14. Is it a serious issue?

The law has been adopted and promulgated by the Constituent National Assembly. But the latter lacks the competences to pass national laws. A new Constitution and a new legal framework should be put into effect, instead

The proposal serves the interests of the government.

The new law envisages penalties for whoever makes public statements that refer to the government or its institutions. As bishops we denounced the law as violating the right to free speech.

The two bishops have not violated any law in their homilies. All they did was to underline the suffering of the people in the light of the tragic situation we are experiencing in Venezuela.

The President twisted their words and put words in the mouth of Msgr. Basabe that he never said, although thousands of people bore witness to it.

Are you more afraid to speak out now?

We continue carrying out our mission of evangelization and human promotion. We are aware that law enforcement authorities will exert stronger control on what the bishops say, on official declarations. But we, in the full freedom as sons of God,

We shall continue carrying our prophetic mission of proclamation and denunciation.

We shall continue reaffirming the good things that exist in Venezuela – reconciliation, forgiveness and commitment for peace –. This could help overcome the scourge of hunger, the deterioration in the health of children and adults, while two million youths and adults are fleeing the Country.

Very few carers of pastoral care of the young remain in the Country, universities register 40% less first-year students and professors are also leaving.

We are facing a bleak situation but the Church relentlessly continues her prophetic mission of evangelization and human promotion.

A few days ago also Unicef denounced an increase in the number of undernourished children as a result of the economic crisis. Most figures were released by Caritas Venezuela.

The government has not been releasing statistical figures for several years. How can the future and public policies be planned without data? For the past years Caritas has been carrying out surveys with the support of experts to identify what the Church can do to address the problem of nutrition and to support children. The collected data was presented at national and international level but

Instead of finding solutions to the problem the government failed to acknowledge the emergency situation and declared that the Church is not authorized to publish data.

We are making considerable efforts with Caritas internationalis and Caritas Latin America to save the life of undernourished children. We managed to protect the life of the newborn, suffering for the lack of nutrients.

Have public protests stopped after the repression of the past months?

There are very few demonstrations and the media don’t address this issue, we are informed online. Last year’s protests, that lasted until July, caused dozens of deaths. The consequences of the harsh repression by the security forces last in time. Many people are no longer sure whether the purpose of the security forces is to protect or repress citizens.

There is evidence of many violations of human rights that are not being prosecuted, but sooner or later the truth will come to the fore.

What are your present requests?

We demand the respect of the people and their needs. We have a totalitarian, centralized regime whereby the government and the military power act as moguls amidst widespread corruption. They intend to subjugate the people and permanently retain power.

We call upon the government to urgently put an end to malnutrition and health deterioration and urge the adoption of democratic process with the participation of citizenry.

We hope to reach a stage of negotiations between the government and the opposition that may focus on support to the people who are suffering and to the political parties. Our task is to protect the life of the people and of the population: It’s what we are constantly saying to the government and to opposition parties.

After the Vatican’s failed mediation attempt, with the letter of Cardinal Parolin, a delicate negotiation is under way in the Dominican Republic. Is there still room for dialogue?

We always said that we’re open to any form of dialogue process. Dialogue enable us to achieve many results. The letter of Cardinal Parolin is an extremely sensible proposal that should be enhanced, his four points are essential tools that could prompt greater democratic participation by the people, so that the organisms that currently favour government institutions may give greater support to the people without advantaging party interests. We are completely open to the Vatican approach for ongoing dialogue. Now efforts are being made to promote a high-level debate in the Dominican Republic: it’s a very powerful dialogue because it reflects the stands on both sides. However, what’s important is to reach an agreement that favours the population and that will further the development of a process directed at the integral human development of all citizens.

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