July 17, 2005
Relations between President Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan Catholic Church took another turn south on Sunday as the head of state charged that Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara had "the devil inside of him."
Chavez berated Castillo Lara after the cardinal called the government a dictatorship in an interview printed by El Universal on Sunday. Castillo Lara summoned Venezuelans to exercise Article 350 of the Constitution, which he said gave them the right not to recognize a government that violated principles of democracy or human rights.
"This is the most ill-fated government in the history of Venezuela," the nation's only cardinal said. He also likened upcoming elections organized by the National Electoral Council (CNE) to "a pantomime that no one can trust."
"He is a pantomime," Chavez shot back at Castillo Lara during a fiery segment of his Sunday television show "Hello, President." The president went on to call the cardinal an "outlaw," "immoral" and a "golpista"-or, one who stages a coup d'etat.
Chavez reprimanded Castillo Lara's comments as an attempt to discourage voters at upcoming August local elections. The crowd matched the president's fervor with the referendum-era chant, "Oh, ah, Chavez won't go away."
"The whole world knows that a democracy is living in Venezuela for the first time in 200 years," Chavez said, responding to the cardinal's accusations.
The president then held up a cross and told the crowd he was certain that Jesus Christ was a "radical socialist." He added that Che Guevara and Simon Bolivar were "Christ-like."
In the interview, Castillo Lara laughed when El Universal cited Chavez' comments that there had never been a Venezuelan government "closer to the mandate of Christ." He argued that the president's goal was not to favor the poor, as the government said, but to concentrate power.
A retired cardinal, Castillo Lara said he could not officially speak for the Church. But he did accuse Chavez of trying to divide up the Church ranks by giving some of its members benefits under the table, an effort which he said had failed because the Church was "united."
The El Universal article was published after Chavez told the Vatican's recently appointed ambassador to Venezuela last week that the country's bishops were against his government.
JENS ERIK GOULD
Jens Erik Gould is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News.