By Jim Mannion | AFP
CARACAS, Venezuela – The Roman Catholic Church weighed in Sunday on Venezuela’s political crisis, with Pope Francis expressing deep concern and calling for dialogue in the wake of a disputed presidential election.
President Nicolas Maduro and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles both welcomed the pope’s statement on their Twitter accounts, while sidestepping the call for a dialogue.
“It’s necessary to resolve this crisis. The tone has to be lowered,” Cardinal Jorge Urosa, the head of the Venezuelan Church, said in an interview with the Últimas Noticias daily, offering to help arrange a dialogue.
Two days after Maduro’s inauguration as president, the government and the opposition remained locked in a tense confrontation over the outcome of the snap election to replace Chávez, who died March 5 after 14 years in power.
The National Electoral Council declared Maduro the winner with a tight 1.8 percent margin. That set off opposition demands for a recount and furious street protests that the government said left eight people dead across the country.
An expanded audit of the vote is set to begin as early as next week, but the vice president of the election council said Saturday it could not overturn Maduro’s victory.
Pope Francis, who hails from Argentina and is the first pontiff from Latin America, said in a statement from the Vatican Sunday that he was following events in Venezuela “with great concern.”
“I invite the dear Venezuelan people, and in particular its institutional and political leaders, to establish a dialogue based on the truth, mutual recognition in the search for the common good and out of love for the nation,” he said.
Maduro responded: “I agree, Pope Francis. I’m concerned about the Intolerance The Hate and the Violence that generated deaths and injured.”
Capriles tweeted: “A million thanks to Pope Francis for his mention of our Venezuela and the search for solutions founded on the truth.”
Urosa noted that the Venezuelan bishops had issued a statement after the April 14 election offering the church’s good offices “to procure a dialogue among the parties who are still in conflict.”
The Catholic Church has often played a role as mediator in political conflicts in Latin America, notably in communist-ruled Cuba in recent years, but it has been largely sidelined in Venezuela under Chávez, a left-wing populist who often butted heads with the bishops.
Urosa acknowledged that the church’s appeals have often gone unheeded.
“In terms of the political climate, we have constantly been highlighting the need to lower the aggressive tone,” he said.
“It’s regrettable. They pay no attention! And when I’ve talked about poor public safety conditions and violence, they’ve told me I’m getting involved in politics.”
In his inaugural address, Maduro said he was ready for dialogue, “even with the devil,” but warned he would take a hard line against opposition protesters, whom he accuses of seeking a coup d’etat.
Capriles responded: “I’ll always be open to dialogue, but not with a gun to the head or on the basis of blackmail, or threats and intimidation.”
The opposition leader and his aides said they were preparing for a long fight over the vote.
The election council has said the audit, which is supposed to take 30 days, will involve comparisons of paper receipts of electronic votes cast with the electronic tallies. Capriles and his aides have indicated they will seek access to other voting records as well.
Meanwhile, National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello, the second most powerful person in the ruling party after Maduro, said he had ordered an internal review to understand the sharp drop in support reflected in the election results.
An estimated 700,000 voters swung to Capriles between his October 7 loss to Chávez and the April 14 election against Maduro, who had campaigned as the late comandante’s political “son.”
“We are not going to blame those who didn’t vote, or voted against us,” Cabello said in an interview on Televen, a private television network. “What did we do that left them unconvinced or allowed them to be convinced by a media campaign?”
“If we don’t do it, the people are going to,” Cabello said.