t 84 and resembling Godfrey from Dods Army, Cardinal Rosalio Jose Castillo Lara is the most unlikely counter-revolutionary. A soft voice, a warm smile he's the sort of kindly grandfather figure who'd take great pleasure in offering you a Werther's Original. Yet a counterrevolutionary is what this Venezuelan cardinal has become.
Cardinal Castillo said that owing to recent "fraudulent" ekcdons, the Venezuelan people have no option but to rid themselves of their president Hugo Chavez through force.
"He [Chavez] can do whatever he wants and there isn't the possibility for the people to free themselves democratically." the former president of Vatican City State explains. 'The only option is that if all the people all of them rebel." He adds that to do so would be within Venezuelans' constitutional rights, and he draws on a statute which allows a government to be toppled if it removes democracy or violates fundamental rights.
Since 1999 Chavez has led a "Bolivarian Revolution", a supposedly democratic form of socialism. A populist leader, he was re-elected last autumn with 63 per cent of the vote, since which time his government has taken a more radical turn to the Left. Cardinal Castillo maintains his re-election was a "gigantic fraud" because only one out of five members of the National Ekctoral Council was from the opposition. The electoral register was also manipulated. he says. "The situation in Venezuela is very particular and unique for the following reason: you have a president who intends to put people again through an experimental form of Communism, one which has completely failed in every country in which it has been tried and that's very difficult to understand." the cardinal says. He further explains that President Chavez is trying to take away all private property and place it in government hands, religious education in schools is being replaced with ideological instruction, and unemployment is rising. What you're left with, he says, is a "dictatorial regime".
And he's not finished. "Chavez is someone who can be defined as paranoid,he says. "He has a rigid aim: to free Latin America flow... the empire of the United States. But that makes no sense because the United States doesn't oppress anyone and Venezuela has some of the greatest trade links with the country."
Yet when Chavez took his oath of office for a second time last year. he did so in the name of Jesus Christ whom he called "the greatest socialist in history". His mission, he frequently says, is to be a friend of the poor. Can he not, therefore, at least be given credit for a passion for Christian social justice? "No. no." says Cardinal Castillo, wagging his finger. "Chavez is not Christian. He was baptised but he's not a Catholic in that sense. He his government is founded on two things: hatred and lies. He began planting hatred in Venezuela by stirring up a class hatred that did not exist." The only reason he stays in power, the cardinal believes, is through sheer force.
So would the cardinal support a coup? He says no, but not because it might be wrong, but because it would be impossible. "The people are without arms," he laments, adding the government is well-armed because Chavez "dreams of a confrontation with the United States-.
Such strong words from the cardinal are not new. For most of the past eight years he and Chavez have been at loggerheads. At one point, Cardinal Castillo claimed his president was in need of an exorcist, leading Chavez to make the same recommendation back. The bishops, meanwhile, despite taking a hard line in Chavez's early years (after he withdrew state funding from the Church) have moderated their position. They have also distanced themselves from the cardinal who, for now at least, continues to live a relatively trouble-free life in Caracas.
Indeed, the bishops seem to have woken up the fact that harsh words and name-calling do little to bring about reconciliation. Which leaves one with a lingering suspicion that there could be turbulent times ahead.
Rome Correspondent: Edward Pentin E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org