By ANGELO PERSICHILLI
The Hill Times (May 22, 2017)
Is Pope Francis supporting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro? While this question is not debated in the international mainstream media, the role of the Vatican in Venezuela is widely criticized in social media, the only tool in the hands of the opposition to Maduro’s regime to inform the world about the bloody civil war in the country.
This dispute is gaining strength at a time when prominent Venezuelans abroad, mainly sports personalities, have intensified their activity to denounce the brutalities of the Maduro regime.
Two weeks ago, Antonieta Mendoza de Lopez and human rights activist Lilian Tintori, respectively, the mother and wife of a Venezuelan political prisoner, Leopoldo Lopez, met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to denounce the suppression of human rights, asking Canada to help. In a picture posted on Trudeau’s Instagram account, the prime minister calls on “the government to release its political prisoners.”
Tintori also wrote in The Globe and Mail last week, asking for the release of almost 2,000 political prisoners. Social unrest is on the rise, and in the last a few weeks, more than 40 protesters—mainly young people—were killed.
With the conventional national media controlled by the Maduro regime, opposition leaders and their followers have been communicating through social media, denouncing the brutalities of the Venezuelan police and the killings taking place daily in the streets.
It is in this background that the resentments against the Vatican is surfacing in social media. There is some increasing resentment against the Vatican and Pope Francis, who’s considered close to Maduro, or at least not sympathetic to the cause of the Venezuelan people in this difficult moment.
Concerns about the role of the Vatican started last October when Pope Francis intervened in the conflict, asking opposition leaders to sit down with Maduro to avoid a bloodshed. However, after weeks of fruitless meetings, one of the opposition leaders, Jesus Torrealba, announced the end of the talks.
In fact, many people in Venezuela believe that the intervention of the Vatican helped Maduro to gain some time and, most importantly, credibility. The Venezuelan president was personally received in the Vatican for a private meeting with the Pope, who also made “an impassioned plea to the government and all those within Venezuelan society to avoid any other forms of violence, to respect human rights, and to seek a negotiated solution.”
This statement irked the sensitivity of many Venezuelans because they believed that Pope Francis essentially put the oppressed and the oppressor on the same level.
While the rest of the world, including United Nations and Organization of American States (OAS), has condemned the dictatorial regime of president Maduro, there is still no direct criticism against Maduro from the Pope who, instead, on the way back to Rome from the visit in Egypt, mentioned a “divided opposition” as one of the obstacles to compromise.
In social media, the role of the Vatican is increasingly criticized, if anything, for the silence about the killings of young protesters in the streets of Caracas and now other cities.
Lately, an open letter to Pope Francis from Venezuelan writer Valentina Párraga, attacking the role of the Vatican, is circulating online. It is the letter of a person that rejoiced when the election of Pope Francis was announced. Not anymore: “You know what, Jorge Bergoglio? The Church isn’t you,” she writes.
She goes on to say that “the Church is my family, my friends. My fellow countrymen, who every day go out to fill the lungs of toxic gases, but that won’t stop protesting against this criminal regime, corrupt and sells homeland.” Párraga praises the role of “the nuns who are marching in the street next to their fellow citizens, and they face with his sweetness to the oppressor. The Church are those priests our, combative and warriors … praying for and with us.”
Many Venezuelan demonstrators are now making connections with the role played by Pope Francis to smooth the relationship between Cuban regime and the United States. While they appreciate the lowering of political tension in the entire region, many resent the absence of any condemnation against the lack of respect for human rights from the Castro regime and support for the fight of thousand Cuban refugees around the world. Writer Párraga, a Catholic, writes that the Pope didn’t do anything, even “the smallest gesture to meet the ladies in white: those women who are devout, who go through the streets with flowers, and go to your churches to pray for their prisoners.”
In the social media, Venezuelan opposition support Pope Francis’s efforts to fight for social justice and promote peace; but, they say, criticizing some and ignoring others might be wrongly interpreted as political interference.
Angelo Persichilli is a freelance journalist and a former citizenship judge for the Greater Toronto Area. He was also a director of communications to former prime minister Stephen Harper, former columnist for Toronto Sun and Toronto Star and is the former political editor of Corriere Canadese, Canada’s Italian-language newspaper in Toronto.