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Shifts in balance of power create uneasy relations in Latin America

January 29, 2013

LIMA, Peru

When Venezuela’s bishops spoke out against postponing the inauguration of ailing President Hugo Chávez, the president’s supporters accused them of meddling in politics, while government opponents praised their comments.

That latest round of church-state sparring is typical of the uneasy relationship between church leaders and government officials in many Latin American countries amid shifts in the balance of power between the church and political leaders.

Venezuela’s Supreme Court allowed indefinite postponement of the inauguration, scheduled for Jan. 10, raising questions about political leadership in the country. Chávez has not spoken or appeared publicly since undergoing a fourth cancer operation in Havana Dec. 11.

But if Venezuela’s prelates were criticized for expressing political views, they are not alone.

Church-state conflicts date back to colonial times, and when the region shook off Spanish rule, the Catholic Church had to readjust its relationship with each newly independent Latin American country, says Alexander Wilde, a senior scholar in the Washington-based Wilson Center’s Latin America program.

Most countries’ constitutions gave the Catholic Church a privileged place, but some of those privileges have eroded as those documents have been revised over the years.

One sign of the shifting relationship was a Jan. 10 meeting between Argentine President Cristina Fernández and leaders of the Argentine Federation of Evangelical Churches (FAIE). The half-hour session ― the first time an Argentine president has met officially with an Evangelical delegation ― is a likely first step toward constitutional separation of church and state, said Washington Uranga, a Uruguayan journalist, political analyst and university professor in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

That may further complicate an already complex church-state relationship in that country, where former dictator Jorge Videla last year accused top church officials of complicity in the government’s “dirty war” against leftist opponents between 1976 and 1983. In November the bishops denied that claim and issued a general apology, asking “the forgiveness of everyone whom we failed or did not support as we should have.”

The bishops said they were open to a review of their predecessors’ actions under the dictatorship, which often put them at odds with priests, sisters and other church workers who were threatened by the government because of their work on behalf of victims and their families.

Church leaders in Chile in the 1970s also initially supported former dictator Augusto Pinochet’s violent crackdown on opponents, although their position changed over time, Wilde says. There, too, many church workers at the grass roots took an active stand against the dictatorship.

Because of their positions in Latin American societies, both presidents and church leaders run the risk of becoming isolated from the grass roots, says Wilde, who has studied human rights and violence in various countries in the region, including Chile.

“It’s a bubble ― it happens to people in power,” he says. He adds, however, “You hardly ever get a hierarchy that is uniform,” and bishops have been threatened or killed for taking stands against dictators or strong-arm rulers.

While church leaders were accused of being too close to right-wing governments in the 1970s and 1980s, they have distanced themselves from a new breed of Latin American leader. Since the 1990s, countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia have elected left-leaning, populist presidents who pledged to redistribute wealth and give poor, indigenous and disenfranchised citizens a greater role in their countries’ civic life.

In all three countries, bishops have sparred with the presidents in newspaper headlines and public statements, although Uranga says the reasons vary from country to country.

In a statement issued Jan. 3, with an eye toward the Feb. 17 presidential elections, Ecuador’s bishops called for voters to “not favor political and legislative options that are contrary to fundamental values and ethical principles” and called for respect for human rights and “freedom of expression.”

Opponents have accused Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa of attempting to stifle criticism in the media, a charge that has also been leveled against Chavez in Venezuela and Fernandez in Argentina.

The Ecuadorian bishops also noted that citizens were not “an amorphous mass to be manipulated or used as a tool, but a group of people with their own vision of public affairs, who are willing to defend their rights and carry out their obligations.”

The Bolivian government’s use of power was on the agenda when the country’s bishops met in mid-November to elect new leaders. The prelates chose Bishop Oscar Aparicio Céspedes, head of the military ordinariate, replacing Cardinal Julio Terrazas Sandoval, 76, who led the conference for 15 years, and whose sharp exchanges with President Evo Morales have often made newspaper headlines.

Cardinal Terrazas, who did not attend the bishops’ meeting for health reasons, sent a message in which he warned of government “manipulation” of the judiciary, as well as the expansion of crime and drug trafficking.

Bolivia’s vice minister of social defense and controlled substances, Felipe Cáceres, shot back that the bishops were “taking sides, ideologically speaking,” while a congressman from Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism accused the church of “politics.”

In their message, the Ecuadorian bishops acknowledged that politics is a touchy subject.

“Some people say the bishops should support all governments acritically; others say they should maintain steadfast opposition; and some say we should abstain from saying anything. The three views are partial and imprecise,” they wrote in their Jan. 3 statement. “It is not our place to express political preferences, but it is our job to evaluate the ethical and religious implications and consequences of political plans.”

Those comments reflect what Wilde says is broader ambiguity about the church's involvement in politics.

“The Vatican has sent very different signals in recent years,” he says. “There’s always an inherent tension, because the church claims some authority over the whole society, and where the lines are drawn as a practical matter may change over time.”

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