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Church-State Tensions Increasing in Venezuela

  • Jim Teeple

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is denying accusations from a retired Catholic cardinal that he is turning Venezuela into a "Cuban-style" dictatorship.

Earlier this week, Venezuela's retired Catholic Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara accused President Hugo Chavez of trying to turn Venezuela into a dictatorship, along the lines of communist Cuba. Cardinal Castillo Lara noted that he is retired and does not speak officially for the Roman Catholic Church, but as a cardinal he remains the highest-ranking Catholic clergyman in Venezuela.

President Chavez responded by calling the Cardinal "ignorant" saying anybody that accused his government of turning into a dictatorial regime was, "crazy enough to be tied up, or just ignorant and unaware of what is happening in Venezuela."

Mr. Chavez's comments came in a press release issued in Lima, where he was appointed the new head of the Andean Community of Nations, a regional trade bloc.

In a recent radio address, President Chavez accused Cardinal Castillo Lara of siding with what he described as "coup-plotting opposition leaders while neglecting Venezuela's poor." Cardinal Castillo Lara, responded in a series of media interviews, in which he urged Venezuelans to refuse to recognize Mr. Chavez's legitimacy, saying the country's constitution allows citizens to refuse to recognize an elected leader who violates human rights or democratic principles. Speaking to VOA Cardinal Castillo Lara, expressed fears for the future of democracy in Venezuela.

Cardinal Castillo Lara says President Chavez's sole preoccupation since being elected has been to eliminate any viable opposition to his rule, and that he has used all the means at his disposal to try and do that.

For his part, President Chavez frequently tells supporters in speeches that Jesus Christ was a socialist and anti-imperialist. Mr. Chavez has forged close ties with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in recent years and accused U.S. officials of trying to remove him from office. U.S. officials say Mr. Chavez is supporting undemocratic trends in Venezuela and also says he is trying to create a Cuban-style authoritarian state in his country.

Recently Venezuela's Episcopal Conference, the country's highest group of Catholic officials, renewed its criticism of the Chavez government, prompting President Chavez to complain to the Vatican Ambassador in Caracas that Venezuela's bishops were "out of touch with reality."

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