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Why Venezuela's crisis centers on the Pope

Santa demands the fall of the regime!
Santa demands the fall of the regime!
Cristian Hernandez/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Venezuela's 3 month long protest wave, sparked by some of the world's highest inflation and murder rates, has thrown the country into its worst political crisis in a decade, claiming about 40 lives and throwing thousands of Venezuelans in jail. Yet the nation's salvation may come at some fairly unlikely hands: the Pope's.

President Nicolás Maduro and the leading anti-government group, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), agreed in principle on Tuesday to move forward on negotiations to end the conflict. But the opposition is refusing to sit down unless there's a "credible" third party mediator. MUD's leader, Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, wants that to be the Vatican — he told the BBC's that a Vatican representative's participation was "essential" in any talks."

This demand is really important to Aveledo. Last week, he wrote in a letter to the New York Times that "We want a dialogue, but a credible international institution or leader must mediate such a dialogue. We regard the mediation offered by the Vatican through the apostolic nuncio as a viable option, and have proposed an agenda for that effort."

So why is the opposition so keen on Vatican mediation? It's hard to be sure, but the simplest explanation is that the Vatican is the only plausible mediator that both sides can trust.

For one thing, the Vatican is clearly willing to get involved, as they offered to help resolve the dispute in March. It's a role they've played in largely Catholic Latin America before: in 1978, Argentina and Chile nearly went to war over a maritime border dispute until the Pope stepped in. Since Venezuela is 92 percent Catholic, the Papacy enjoys significant legitimacy on both sides of Venezuela's divide.

Perhaps more importantly, the opposition feels reassured by the Vatican's presence. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a multilateral organization of 13 Latin American states, is taking the lead brokering the talks. But it's not clear whether the opposition really trusts UNASUR. Some in the opposition camp believe the phrasing of the Venezuela mission's mandate is biased in favor of the government's account, and Aveledo has warned UNASUR against becoming a "propaganda tool" for Maduro.

If the Vatican has any biases, it'd be towards the opposition. Maduro's government is basically an extension of Hugo Chavez' socialist quasi-democratic model. The Venezuelan Church repeatedly traded hostile words with Chavez since 2000. His government's restrictions on free speech and confiscation of private property did not sit well with Church authorities, while Chavez believed the Church was attempting to undermine his authority.

Under Maduro, this relationship has only gotten worse. Monsignor Diego Padron, the president of the Venezuelan conference of bishops, described Maduro's use of force against the largely-middle class protestors as "totalitarian."

Now, the local Venezuelan church doesn't necessarily speak for the Vatican hierarchy. And Pope Francis has been outspoken about the need to provide economic support to the poor, the core creed of the Maduro government. Both sides, then, have reason to think the Vatican will give their side a fair hearing.

So will the Holy See come to the rescue? At this point, it depends on the government. Maduro has made favorable noises about Vatican mediation, but the Church won't act until Maduro formally invites it to supervise the talks. If he does, then there may an end to Venezuela's violence in sight.

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