Venezuelan President and Catholic Church at odds

CARACAS, Venezuela - The Roman Catholic Church and President Hugo Chavez each fight for Venezuela's poor. But they have clashed in the process, and don't expect the church to back down from its confrontations with the leftist leader.

Many here think Pope John Paul II's decision to give the Caracas archbishop the added honor of cardinal is a sign the church won't bow to the government.

``The attitude of the church is to follow the process of change and support those that appear good for the people,'' Cardinal Ignacio Antonio Velasco Garcia, 72, said in a recent interview.

But the church will also criticize leaders when their policies don't advance civil liberties and human rights, and do not ``relieve the poverty among the majority of the population,'' the cardinal said.

Since his 1998 election, Chavez has attacked a corrupt political elite for squandering billions of dollars in oil revenues while half of Venezuela's 23 million people live in poverty.

He has created a single-chamber Congress and new Supreme Court, both dominated by his allies, and enacted a new Constitution that upset church leaders who fear it could ultimately permit abortion in this heavily Roman Catholic nation.

Chavez and his allies have also taken on the clergy directly. The president once called church leaders ``devils under their cassocks.''

A ``Chavista'' governor, Florencio Porras of Merida state, filed corruption charges against a leading Chavez critic, Monsignor Baltazar Porras, in October. The governor charged Porras with embezzling donations meant for a local hospital. The church strongly denied the claims.

Yet another thorny issue is church schools, some of which are government-funded. Government attempts to influence curricula, and veiled threats to revoke funding, have provoked intense opposition fom both church and private schools.

``The problem of Venezuela is a problem of moral values, not one of poverty,'' said Velasco Garcia, who was in Rome this week for a meeting of cardinals. ``As long as education, which is one of the strongest means to convey moral values to children and young people, is not presented in this way, it won't be able to correct the situation in this country.''

Just last week, the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference joined in the debate by releasing a document that harshly criticized the Chavez government for failing to reduce poverty. Government officials responded with an invitation to discuss the document.

The bespectacled Velasco Garcia says conflict with the president shouldn't be the norm -- and he hopes, ultimately, for fruitful collaboration with Chavez.

There have been some signs of a rapprochement since the pope's Jan. 21 announcement that Velasco Garcia, Caracas' archbishop for five years, would become a cardinal. Chavez cited the church as a key element of Venezuela's war on poverty.

Velasco Garcia said he believes Chavez has done a great deal to help the poor, such as creating the Social Fund, a foundation to help the disadvantaged, as well as other social welfare programs.

``But the most important thing for the state to do is to create a stable economy that produces work for the Venezuelan population -- which has not been the case up until now,'' he said.

A smile comes to Velasco Garcia's tanned face when he is asked if his appointment was a signal to Chavez from the Vatican.

``I see it this way,'' he said. ``My appointment to cardinal is a way to support the church. This is the way the people see it. And the pope feels that by naming cardinals, he has strengthened the church against the public authorities, and against any group, not just political groups.

``Although I am a person who likes a good dialogue, I try to be like a bridge, to exchange ideas, unless there is clearly something negative that needs to be said. And the church will always say it.''

Still, the cardinal doesn't rule out trying to patch up his faith's differences with the president.

``President Chavez finally, after I was appointed to cardinal, offered to talk. Let's talk!''