When asked by a reporter about the threat of civil war in his country, Archbishop Ubaldo Santana of Maracaibo responded starkly: “there is already a bloodbath of considerable proportions in Venezuela.”
“We're talking about 30,000 people murdered a year, and if we don't manage to find peaceful ways to understand each other, that number can increase,” he said in a recent interview.
Archbishop Santana, the former head of the Venezuelan bishops' conference, made his remarks to the Alpha and Omega news weekly during a visit to Spain, in which he discussed various issues related to the grave crisis affecting Venezuela.
In the wake of Nicolas Maduro succeeding former socialist president Hugo Chavez after the latter died from cancer in 2013, the country has been marred by violence and social upheaval.
Poor economic policies, including strict price controls, coupled with high inflation rates, have resulted in a severe lack of basic necessities such as toilet paper, milk, flour, diapers and medicines.
Venezuela's socialist government is widely blamed for the crisis. Since 2003, price controls on some 160 products, including cooking oil, soap and flour, have meant that while they are affordable, they fly off store shelves only to be resold on the black market at much higher rates.
The Venezuelan government is known to be among the most corrupt in Latin America, and violent crime in the country has spiked since Maduro took office.
In response to a question about the possibility of a civil war in the South American country, Archbishop Santana said that a potential conflict “would be in very asymmetrical terms.”
“The party that possesses weaponry belongs to the government,” he clarified. “I can't say the opposition groups don't have weapons, because today arms trafficking is uncontrollable, but perhaps not in the number and quantity of the other groups.”
“That doesn't mean there can't be a bloodbath. In fact, we can say that in Venezuela there already is a bloodbath of considerable proportions,” the archbishop said.
He noted added that “there are armed groups all over the country. In Maracaibo, we have in addition groups of criminals and gang members that would seem to enjoy a certain impunity. We know that there's a lot of overcrowding in the prisons and at times the authorities have opted for a massive release of prisoners to reduce the congestion.”
There are also “extortion rings,” he noted, “that operate in the city, many are undercover in the security forces, not infrequently backed by operatives in some of those groups who by day keep order and at night are robbing.”
To this “is added is the presence of irregular armed groups on the border who come from Colombia,” he said. “They ensure protection, order and the resolution of small neighborhood conflicts
upon payment of what we call a 'vaccine.'”
A “vaccine” is an illegal charge that armed groups in Venezuela and Colombia use to allow passage through territory they control. Archbishop Santana said that these are paramilitary groups, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and some factions of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that have not demobilized.
Despite the country's problems, a recent assembly of bishops and lay people held in Venezuela had an upshot that “was highly positive,” he said. “You could feel a great deal of consensus in the lay people's feeling regarding the need for political change in the country.”
“We talked about how the laity could play a more important role in the Church and in their transformative action in diverse social environments,” he said.
The meeting also discussed “the formation being offered to lay people and its impact because we see they are not sufficiently present as Catholics in the political, economic and cultural worlds. The time was short, but it resulted in proposals for future meetings.”
Pope Francis also met with President Maduro in October of last year, According to the official Vatican communique on the meeting, Francis invited the president “to undertake with courage the path of sincere and constructive dialogue.”
He also invited the Venezuelan dictator to make it a priority “to alleviate the suffering of the people – first of all, those who are poor – and to promote a climate of renewed social cohesion which would offer a vision forward with hope for the future of the nation.”