[This the first of a two part series on the role of the the Catholic Church in Venezuela’s political process. Part II will look at the Venezuelan hierarchy.]

On Thursday, February 2, Vatican Nuncio in Venezuela Aldo Giordano urged the Maduro government and opposition coalition to sit at the table and seek common ground, but stated: “the Holy See is not going to close any door, but if we are not invited, we are not going to impose dialogue. It’s not true that the Church wants to impose dialogue. The Church is offering to help.”

Giordani also pointed out that “the ones who have to dialogue are Venezuelans, the ones involved (las partes), the political organizations and civil society. We are accompanying. The Pope has said that if there is a window open, we go in order to help.”

The statements follow the opposition’s rejection of a proposal for reestablishing the dialogue, presented to both sides on January 19. On January 25 the MUD announced they found the proposal unacceptable and said they would not return to dialogue with the government until the previous agreements had been fulfilled.

Giordani defended the Vatican effort from criticism, saying the text had been written by the UNASUR commission. But it did indeed have the Holy See’s support as a way to get the dialogue restarted.

Given the lack of progress, the Vatican itself has diminished its public commitment to the dialogue. On January 19, it was reported that the Vatican representative, Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, would no longer facilitate the process, leaving that to Giordani. The move is significant as Celli is considered by insiders to be one of the Pope’s highest level envoys, while Giordani is the Vatican’s permanent representative in Venezuela.

The MUD responded to Celli’s withdrawal saying, “absence can be a way of exercising presence, and silence can become the most eloquent form of speech”

The Vatican’s unfruitful efforts represent a disappointing turn for those (of us) who thought that Vatican involvement had the potential to generate a breakthrough in the Venezuela’s political stalemate. (See our previous coverage from 2016 here and here).

The Vatican became formally involved at the end of October 2016. While the possibility had been in the works for several weeks, after Vatican involvement was solicited by both sides in September, it became concrete in the days after the government suspended the opposition’s push for a recall referendum.

On October 24, Pope Francisco received Nicolas Maduro at the Vatican at Maduro’s request. During the meeting, the Pope advocated for “sincere and constructive dialogue” between the government and opposition to promote “social cohesion”.

That same day, Vatican representative Mons. Emil Paul Tscherrig, announced the begging of conversations between the government and the MUD the 30th of October, after having met with each side.

The opposition was divided from the beginning, with Voluntad Popular and other radical parties refusing to participate. Most opposition leaders did agree to participate and this led them to call off a planned march to the Presidential Palace that likely would have ended in violence.

When the negotiating teams announced the agreements they had reached on November 12, it pushed the opposition coalition to the breaking point, and put MUD leadership on its heels. Many thought the opposition had conceded to the government’s language—calling the economic crisis the result of sabotage, for example—while getting too little—the agreement did not mention the recall referendum or elections of any kind. Opposition leaders, however, defended the agreements, pointing to the proposed release of political prisoners and recognition for the National Assembly

Following the agreements, the opposition National Assembly (AN) coalition solicited the unseating of the three Amazon State deputies–a key sticking point in the government’s recognition of the AN. Their elections had been suspended in December 2015 by the TSJ because of accusations of fraud despite the National Electoral Council having accredited their elections.

However, even after unseating the deputies, the government did not recognize the AN, saying the process had not taken place through the right procedure and demanding that they be stripped of their seats in a plenary session.

The first of December, The Vatican sent a confidential letter to both the MUD and the government, in which it lamented the delay in the measures previously agreed upon, as well as declarations and decisions that were not facilitating reconciliation of the two sides.

“In this context, the Holy See, fulfilling its role as guarantor of the seriousness and sincerety of the negotiations to which it has been called, thinks there should be substantial steps taken if there is a desire for the National Dialogue to be effective and fruitful. As a result, the Holy See, respectfully but with firmness, demands that:”

·   Measures are immediately taken to address scarcities of food and medicine.

·   An electoral calendar is agreed upon

·   The National Assembly is recognized in its constitutional functions.

·   The situation of political prisoners is addressed.

The letter suggested that the Vatican expected progress to be made on the first issue before the December 6 meeting, and concrete agreements be achieved on the last three, in the meeting.

The letter produced a vitriolic response from Socialist deputy Diosdado Cabello, who called Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolín, author of the letter, “disrespectful” and “irresponsible.” Cabello stressed that the Vatican is a guest, a facilitator, and has no right to veto or make proposals.

“People are saying that the Pope sent a letter. The Pope didn’t send any letter! The one who sent the letter was Pietro Parolin. Disrespectful! Irresponsible! They think that from the Vatican they are going lecture Venezuela.” He added that “we don’t get involved in the problem of priests that are accused of pedophilia. You are the ones who have to handle that.”

Maduro responded to the letter as well, claiming that it was an attempt by the opposition to use one of the international facilitators to “implode” the dialogue. Maduro suggested that more than a facilitator the opposition was being a “saboteur.”

In response to Maduro and Cabello’s words, the Foreign Ministries of Uruguay, Peru, Paraguay, Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Chile, Brazil and Argentina reiterated their support for the dialogue and the ex-presdiential and Vatican mediators.

The opposition refused to attend the December 6 dialogue meeting. On the 24th of December, the MUD published an open letter to the Vatican signed by Jesus Torrealba. The letter reviews the four demands made in Parolin’s letter and says:

These demands, which the Holy See asked to be met by December 6 still have not been met. To the contrary, in terms of elections there have been multiple setbacks (including the regime’s ratification of an illegally constituted biased Electoral Council) and likewise there have been setbacks in respect for popular sovereignty as expressed in the National Assembly, whose January 5 installation is surrounded by threats of not being recognized and by aggression from government leaders. Just as important, with respect to political prisoners and attention to the victims of the humanitarian crisis, there have been timid and insufficient efforts, that do not represent a real reparation for the damages nor help to the victims in the dimensions and seriousness that the crisis requires.

The letter concluded that given the lack of progress on these demands, there were no grounds for to return to the dialogue table on January 13 as planned, but requested that the Vatican stay involved and confirm that the agreements had not be fufilled.

On January 6 both Delcy Rodriguez, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, and Jorge Rodriguez, head of the government’s dialogue team, met with Mons. Claudio Celli. Afterwards she suggested that the Pope “maintained his commitment to the dialogue in Venezuela.”

On his February 5 edition of “Sunday with Maduro,” the president suggested that a comission was seeking a meeting between the government and the opposition directly with the Pope in the Vatican (watch from 7:10-8:10).

“I welcome the steps that are being taken, the efforts being made–let’s hope it happens—for a meeting with Pope Francisco in the Vatican. Let’s hope it happens soon and that in that meeting between our delegation and the delegation of the right, of the MUD, we can embrace each other.”

It is clear that for the government, having the Vatican involved is a useful way to signal to the international community that there is some sort of democratic process underway which should not be interfered with. Not clear, however, is how much energy the Vatican is willing to dedicate to a dialogue that has borne such little fruit.

Whatever the case, opposition insiders themselves have suggested that the only possibility of an advance in Vatican-led dialogue was if it were held in the Vatican itself.