BOGOTA — Venezuela and the Vatican haven’t always seen eye-to-eye. During his 14 years in power, late President Hugo Chávez often battled with the church, accusing leaders of participating in a coup against him and calling a Venezuelan cardinal a “troglodyte” on national TV.
But on Monday, Chávez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro, said he’d had an “extraordinary” meeting with Pope Francis, where the two men talked about poverty, politics and peace in South America.
Speaking at a news conference after their encounter, Maduro said he’d proposed that the Vatican and Venezuela work together to take the administration’s signature social missions, which include free housing and healthcare, to other parts of the world.
“It was an extraordinary conversation with a human being full of humility,” Maduro said. “I told him that I felt represented by the ethics that he expressed.”
In a statement, the Vatican called the meeting “cordial” and said the men had discussed the country’s social and political situation after Chávez’s death, as well as poverty and the fight against crime and drug trafficking. Both parties also agreed that there was a need for more contact between Venezuelan Catholic authorities and the government. But the Vatican didn’t mention engaging in joint activities.
The meeting — the first for the two men — comes as Maduro is facing food shortages, runaway inflation and a belligerent opposition. Those problems followed him on his European getaway.
The opposition coalition took out an ad in an Italian newspaper Monday thanking the Pope for his interest in Venezuela and saying it was “fighting for a society where we can all live and progress in peace, without exclusions, division or discrimination.”
Maduro gave the Pope a picture of Latin American Liberator Simón Bolívar, a copy of Venezuela’s constitution, an image of Venezuela’s patron saint, the Virgin of Coromoto, and a statue of José Gregorio Hernández — a revered Venezuelan doctor who died in 1919 and is awaiting canonization.
In many ways, the papal meeting was another diplomatic victory for Maduro, who is fighting opposition allegations that he engaged in fraud to clinch April’s presidential race. Earlier this month, his government and the United States announced they would begin talks to exchange ambassadors for the first time since 2010. While the United States has not explicitly acknowledged Maduro’s presidency, the move was seen as tacit recognition.
There weren’t many reasons to have high hopes for Monday’s meeting. In many ways, Maduro and Francis come from opposite political camps.
As the Archbishop and Cardinal of his native Buenos Aires, Francis often used the pulpit to take on President Cristina Fernández and her late husband and predecessor Néstor Kirchner — both Chávez allies and proponents of his socialist policies. A U.S. State Department cable from 2007 published by WikiLeaks referred to Bergoglio as the “leader of the opposition.”
While Chávez met with both of Francis’ predecessors, he often accused the Venezuelan clergy of engaging in politics, supporting his rivals and undermining his socialist reforms. He also accused the church of being complicit in a 2002 coup that briefly ousted him. During a speech before the National Assembly in 2010, Chávez called the cardinal a “troglodyte” and warned him that Venezuela “can no longer be manipulated by the cassock.”
Maduro seemed ripe to inherit the disdain for the Church. As a youth, he was a member of several communist groups and, more recently, has been a follower of Indian mystic Sai Baba. But since taking office, he has underscored his Christian beliefs.
“I am the son of Chávez,” Maduro told state-run TV after meeting Church leaders in Caracas last week, “and if I learned something from him, it was to understand and deeply love Christ the Redeemer. I truly carry him in my heart.”
The papal meeting was the highlight of a whirlwind Italian tour for Maduro. On Sunday, Maduro received recognition from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization for having halved the number of undernourished in Venezuela in the last decade. He also met with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.
The FAO recognition seemed tone deaf to some. Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, who lost against Maduro in April, said that shortages of basic food items and annual inflation running at 35 percent — the highest in Latin America — meant that many were going hungry in Venezuela.
“Where did they do this study?” he asked about the report. “They must have done it in the home of somebody who’s politically connected or the Miraflores [presidential palace] where they’re not hungry.”