Chavez denounces Catholic cardinal
Jan 30, 2006
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez accused a Roman Catholic cardinal Sunday of conspiring against him after the clergyman chastised the leftist leader for eroding democracy and abusing his power.
CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters, January 15, 2006) -- The exchange was the latest sign of tense relations between the country's Catholic church hierarchy and Chavez, an ally of Cuba who has vowed to introduce a socialist revolution to fight poverty in the world's fifth-largest oil exporter.
"This is part of a provocation, part of a conspiracy, there is nothing innocent about this. It is a plot to destabilize the country," Chavez said on his weekly Sunday broadcast.
"I demand the Catholic hierarchy distance themselves from this ... the least we can expect is for you to reject this man's comments," he said.
Tensions rose late Saturday inside a cathedral in Barquisimeto, a city about 205 miles west of Caracas, where Cardinal Rosario Castillo made his remarks during a Mass to mark the end of a holy procession attended by thousands.
Local television on Sunday showed military officers walking out of the ceremony, spectators jeering and others applauding as Venezuela's highest Catholic prelate lamented the country's "grave situation."
"A government democratically elected seven years ago has lost its democratic path and shows signs of dictatorship, where all powers are in the hands of one person who exercises them in an arbitrary and despotic way," Castillo said.
The Episcopal conference of Catholic bishops released a report last week challenging Chavez's claims to have bettered the lives of the poor and expressing concerns over the fragility of the country's democracy.
Chavez, who often brandishes a crucifix and evokes Christ when vowing to fight poverty, has clashed with Venezuela's Catholic leaders before, calling them a "cancer" and once branding Castillo a "coup-mongering bandit".
He has often accused his opponents of plotting to overthrow him since he survived a short-lived coup in 2002.
Venezuela, a predominantly Catholic country of nearly 27 million people, is sharply divided over Chavez's rule but he remains popular ahead of elections in December. His foes appear demoralized after boycotting recent congressional elections.
A former soldier elected in 1998, Chavez has spent billions of dollars in oil revenues on social, education and health programs his supporters say are helping to reverse years of neglect by previous governments.
But his critics say his seven years in power have failed to tackle poverty and chromic crime. They say Chavez has extended his control over independent institutions such as the courts and the electoral authority as he tightens his grip on power.