Venezuelan cardinal: Chavez a dictator

Caracas, Venezuela - Venezuela's highest Catholic prelate on Sunday condemned President Hugo Chavez's rule as a dictatorship and urged Venezuelans to reject it in an attack likely to strain already poor church-government ties.

"I am convinced that what we have here is a dictatorship," Cardinal Rosalio Castillo, who is retired, said in a interview published by El Universal newspaper.

He told Venezuelans to use their constitutional right to refuse to recognize the left-wing president on the grounds he was not ruling democratically. Castillo did not elaborate on what actions he thought Venezuelans should take.

But recent opinion polls show nationalist Chavez enjoys the support of a majority of Venezuelans because his self-styled "revolution" is using abundant oil export income to fund free health and education programs and cheap food for the poor.

Castillo said that as he was retired he could not speak officially for Venezuela's Catholic Church. But as cardinal he is the highest-ranking member of the local church hierarchy in the predominantly Catholic South American country.

The cardinal scoffed at a recent assertion by Chavez that his government was following the teaching of Jesus Christ by spending Venezuela's oil wealth to help the poor.

"His goal above all is not to help the poor but to concentrate his power," Castillo said.

Echoing the criticism of Chavez's political foes, Castillo said the president was trying to install Cuban-style communism in the world's No. 5 oil exporter.

Castillo's remarks were published after Chavez complained this week to the Vatican's new ambassador in Caracas that Venezuela's Catholic bishops were opposing his government, which has ruled since he first won elections in 1998. Chavez criticized the bishops as "out of touch with reality."

Chavez won a referendum on his rule last year, and opinion polls predict he will win re-election in late 2006 elections.

Castillo said Chavez maintained a "varnish of democracy" but had accumulated dictatorial powers.

The cardinal said Article 350 of Venezuela's 1999 Constitution allowed citizens to refuse to recognize an elected leader if he violated democratic principles or human rights.

"That's what should be done -- reject this government," he said.