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Chávez embraces Christian socialism

  • 16 April 2007

Throughout Latin America a rich tapestry has long existed when it come to Catholics who have fought with the poor and challenged the establishment. The Brazilian Franciscan Friar Frei Betto, Monseñor Óscar Romero of El Salvador, and Father Camilo Torres who left the order in the mid-1960s and joined the Army of National Liberation (ELN) in Colombia are all examples of this coming together of politics and theology. Marxists, Christians and left-wing politics mix in this region like in few other places.

With this in mind, it is interesting to follow relations between the Catholic Church and the incumbent President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez Frías, who is himself a believer. Although time will show to what extent Chávez's proclaimed "Socialism for the 21st Century" will differ in practise from socialist or reformist regimes of the last century, there are some things that can be said about the man and his government with some assurance.

For a start, much evidence indicates that the Chávez administration is genuinely engaged in a series of ambitious policies aimed at reducing poverty and forging Latin American integration. Secondly, if President Chávez is sincere about his religious beliefs, his stance is certainly not out of kilter with the actions of countless Catholics throughout Latin American history who have also run into conflict with Church authorities.

Regarding the first point, a brief look at the practices of past Venezuelan governments highlights why Venezuela needs the radical change currently underway. In the past, previous administrations in Caracas were all too keen to sell the US cheap oil under market value while they in turn siphoned state profits through PDVSA, the state-owned oil company. According to one Business Week report last year, the country today, "is a far cry from the 1990s, when Venezuela welcomed the big oil companies to invest in marginal fields at a time of low prices." Having negotiated new joint ventures, the report notes that "Chávez has sharply hiked royalties and taxes on these operations to an effective take of more than 80%" while the revenues themselves are spent on, "lavish programs for Venezuela's poor, from monthly stipends for needy students to rice-and-beans subsidies for the barrios."

If misinformation and lack of reporting on the Chávez's government's policies to reduce poverty abound in the press, confusion also exists when it comes to the man's religious beliefs. On this point, President Chávez's overly rhetorical style certainly shares some responsibility for