Chavez’s holy war

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - SAMUEL GREGG

Iis not of­ten we have the op­por­tu­nity to watch a dic­ta­tor­ship be­ing es­tab­lished. But few ques­tion this is now un­der way in Venezuela. Fol­low­ing his 2006 re-elec­tion, Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez has made no se­cret of his in­ten­tion to re­move what­ever re­main­ing re­straints ex­ist upon his power. Mr. Chavez has asked, for ex­am­ple, for con­sti­tu­tional changes elim­i­nat­ing term-lim­its on the pres­i­dency. He also wants to abol­ish the cen­tral bank’s in­de­pen­dence as part of his so­cial­ist Venezuela agenda.

Mr. Chavez also in­tends to ask Venezuela’s leg­is­la­ture — con­trolled by his al­lies — for the power to im­pose sev­eral “revo­lu­tion­ary laws” by de­cree. This pro­posal will re­mind those con­scious of his­tor­i­cal analo­gies of the in­fa­mous “En­abling Act” passed by Ger­many’s Re­ich­stag in 1933, es­tab­lish­ing the le­gal foun­da­tions for the Na­tional So­cial­ist dic­ta­tor­ship.

No one seek­ing to build so­cial­ism, how­ever, has ever been con­tent with to­tally con­trol­ling the state ap­pa­ra­tus. In­vari­ably their at­ten­tion turns to other spheres of so­ci­ety. For sev­eral years, Mr. Chavez has been re­duc­ing the size and in­de­pen­dence of Venezuela’s private sec­tor, most re­cently by na­tion­al­iz­ing power and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies. He has also stated his in­ten­tion to close private me­dia out­lets crit­i­cal of his poli­cies.

This re­cent de­ci­sion pro­duced po­lite but firm ob­jec­tions from the lead­ers of Venezuela’s Catholic Church. Mr. Chavez’s re­sponse was to pub­licly at­tack the Arch­bishop of Cara­cas, Car­di­nal Jorge Urosa Savino, and to is­sue veiled threats of ag­gres­sion against the Church.

Such be­hav­ior should not sur­prise us. There are three things all as­pir­ing dic­ta­tor­ships seek to con­trol or de­stroy. The first is private prop­erty. Un­der­min­ing this in­sti­tu­tion en­cour­ages eco­nomic de­pen­dency on the state while si­mul­ta­ne­ously strip­ping peo­ple of private re­sources they might use to sup­port po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion. Thus we see Mr. Chavez na­tion­al­iz­ing var­i­ous in­dus­tries, con­fis­cat­ing land, and at­tempt­ing to con­trol private com­pa­nies, es­pe­cially in the oil in­dus­try.

A sec­ond tar­get of dic­ta­tor­ships is the fam­ily. Most such regimes seek to weaken fam­ily loy­al­ties by turn­ing chil­dren and par­ents against each other and en­cour­ag­ing ev­ery­one to re­gard the state as an al­ter­na­tive par­ent. Here Mr. Chavez’s moves have in­volved at­tempt­ing to mil­i­ta­rize as many young peo­ple as pos­si­ble, and his ed­u­ca­tion law which will, Car­di­nal Urosa Savino be­lieves, re­sult in the “politi­ciza­tion and ide­ol­o­giz­ing of ed­u­ca­tion” and di­min­ish par­ents’ abil­ity to con­trol their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion — es­pe­cially their re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion.

This brings us to the third ob­jec­tive of any dic­ta­tor­ship: sup­pres­sion of re­li­gious lib­erty. The au­ton­omy en­joyed by the church cre­ates a sphere of ac­tiv­ity in­de­pen­dent of the state. In­vari­ably this re­sults in dic­ta­tors at­tempt­ing to de­mol­ish re­li­gious faith, as one saw in the Soviet Union, or a Kul­turkampf against churches, as oc­curred un­der the Nazi regime.

Mr. Chavez is un­doubt­edly aware that the Catholic Church is one of the few au­ton­o­mous in­sti­tu­tions left in Venezuela. Thus far Mr. Chavez’s Kul­turkampf has man­i­fested it­self in pub­licly in­sult­ing any Catholic bishop ques­tion­ing gov­ern­ment pol­icy (he once called Car­di­nal Ros­alio Castillo Lara an “out­law”) and his ef­forts to di­min­ish church in­flu­ence upon ed­u­ca­tion. The lat- ter earned him a pub­lic rep­ri­mand from Bene­dict XVI dur­ing Mr. Chavez’s 2006 visit to the Vat­i­can.

The other el­e­ment of Mr. Chavez’s strat­egy for neu­tral­iz­ing the Catholic Church is his self­im­mer­sion in Chris­tian im­agery. Mr. Chavez uses what Arch­bishop Jose Bal­tazar Por­ras of Merida calls the lan­guage of “Mes­sian­ism” to try and per­suade peo­ple that so­cial­ism Chris­tian­ity — hence, Mr. Chavez’s re­cent ref­er­ence to Christ as “the great­est so­cial­ist in his­tory.” “The King­dom of Christ,” Mr. Chavez has stated, “is the king­dom of so­cial­ism.”

Pres­i­dent Chavez is prob­a­bly unfamiliar with the moun­tains of pa­pal and church doc­u­ments con­demn­ing so­cial­ism in the­ory and prac­tice. He is, how­ever, acutely con­scious of the es­teem in which the Catholic Church is presently held through­out Latin Amer­ica.

A much-cited 2005 Lati­no­barometro poll an­a­lyz­ing pub­lic opin­ion in 17 Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries re­vealed that just 18 per­cent of Latin Amer­i­cans trusted po­lit­i­cal par­ties, 28 per­cent trusted their leg­is­la­tures, 38 per­cent trusted private busi­ness,

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42 per­cent trusted the mil­i­tary, and 43 per­cent trusted their pres­i­dents.

But the poll also re­vealed the Catholic Church is the most re­spected or­ga­ni­za­tion in Latin Amer­ica. Seventy-one per­cent of Latin Amer­i­cans sur­veyed stated they trusted the Catholic Church. The fig­ure was even higher in Venezuela (74 per­cent). No won­der, then, Mr. Chavez is so anx­ious to “Chris­tian­ize” his po­lit­i­cal pro­gram, even while dis­parag­ing the church to which 96 per­cent of Venezue­lans be­long.

Just af­ter Mr. Chavez’s re-elec­tion, Car­di­nal Urosa Savino de­clared the Catholic Church’s op­po­si­tion to any “line of to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism, a statist vi­sion.” The Church, the car­di­nal in­sisted, is not seek­ing con­fronta­tion. He and the Venezue­lan bishops have, how­ever, put Mr. Chavez on no­tice that they will con­tinue to speak against Venezuela’s slide into pop­ulistleft caudil­lismo, no mat­ter how much Mr. Chavez drapes it in Chris­tian sym­bol­ism.

Many Chris­tians have been mar­tyred for far less.

Samuel Gregg is re­search di­rec­tor at the Ac­ton In­sti­tute.

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