Prayers for Venezuela: Faith and famine in the ongoing economic crisis
Editor’s Note: Our correspondent in Venezuela responded to questions from TMP staff recently, sharing her perspectives over secure, encrypted social media channels. The reporter, Helka Stigler, is using a pseudonym for safety reasons.
(COMMENTARY) SAN FELIPE, Venezuela — The year was 1999 and Hugo Chavez came to power in oil-rich Venezuela on the promise that all its citizens would reap the benefits of a great economic revolution.
In the ensuing years, Chavez would align himself with the Marxist-Leninist governments of Cuba and Chavismo would firmly go on to pit itself against the United States and then-President George W. Bush. Chavez, despite his devotion to Che Guevara, wasn’t afraid to embrace Christian imagery to further his cause. In 2006, he famously said: “If you really want to look at things through the eyes of Jesus Christ — who I think was the first socialist — only socialism can really create a genuine society.”
Upon Chavez’s death in 2013, Nicolas Maduro’s leadership has led the country down a path plagued by economic strife and social upheaval that has triggered a massive crisis across the country and in neighboring Colombia and Brazil.
Every day, state control intensifies at every level. All forms of protest in Venezuela is prohibited. Cities across Venezuela have become militarized zones littered with heavily-armed soldiers and tanks. My friends, many of whom are also journalists, have been fired from reporting the truth.
Every day, I continue to share biblical principles and coaching tools to some 80 journalists in my state through social media. It is a way for us to cope and get through this horrible situation for our beloved country. Maduro is a dictator — something I would call an atheist authoritarianism — and the people and economy are suffering because of it.
Right now, we are all living through a tense calm. More than religion, spirituality plays a key role in transforming the current situation in Venezuela. I consider this crisis to primarily be spiritual and also structural. The Catholic church has assumed a prophetic role in denouncing the abuses committed by those who occupy authority in all public services of Venezuela. Like Protestant churches, they are devoting time to prayer and the preaching of the Gospel.
As a result of the refugee crisis, neighboring Colombia is bearing the brunt of the humanitarian crisis. The U.N. estimates that over one million of my countrymen have crossed the border into Colombia over the past year. Helping with this crisis is the Catholic church, which has exerted power and influence in South America since colonial times. At the same time, the Maduro government has tried everything in its power to close the borders so citizens don’t get access to food and supplies.
In 2016, for example, the church helped broker a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC, the largest leftist guerrilla group in the country that had been at war with the government for 53 years. The church in the region has now turned its attention to helping quell what may very well be the biggest refugee crisis — many of these people are hungry women and children — to hit South America in generations.
Venezuela is a predominantly Catholic nation — about 70% of the population identifies as such — and the church and state have had a delicate relationship in recent decades. Under Chavez, the church saw his brand of socialism potentially dangerous, particularly to the church and its institutions, and the sides were often at loggerheads. In 2007, Jorge Urosa, at the time the cardinal of Caracas, called for demonstrations against any government involvement in overseeing the church’s administration of its schools. The result was a holy war between church and state.
To no one’s surprise, Chavez had overreached his authority. After Chavez’s death in March 2013, Maduro, who took office later that year, became the nation’s de facto dictator.
How did we get here? After Maduro took office, the country was plunged into violence and social strife. Maduro’s socialist policies led to severe food shortages and other economic troubles. He was officially sworn in for a second term on Jan. 10 after winning a sham election where other candidates were either barred from running or jailed for attempting to do so. Venezuela’s bishops have called Maduro’s victory illegitimate, as opposition leader Juan Guaido has declared himself the country’s interim president with recent support from U.S. President Donald Trump.
Maduro’s election fraud and support for Guaido’s claim to the presidency is a move by foreign governments as a sign of solidarity to the Venezuelan people. Fraud has been given to the people. I think Guaido is also a very risky (if well-intentioned) smokescreen — but there is also a great political weakness: Many heads lead the opposition.
While solidarity from other nations is good for our people, it is also dangerous terrain that exacerbates the current political crisis. The hope is that there is real change so that the physical, spiritual and emotional health of the nation is strengthened, causing the breaking of a new light for Venezuela.
I have been asked how religion and faith play a role in the future of my country. Indeed, both have a leading role. Divine intervention is paramount and prayer to restore peace and the structural balance of the nation plays a preponderant role for many people here.
We need to practice the principles inspired by God that will hopefully trigger love, forgiveness and reconciliation. It is a long and slow process, but anything is possible through the power of prayer.