Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government held a vote July 30 that will replace the opposition-controlled National Assembly with a new legislature known as the Constituent Assembly. The new legislative body is expected to rewrite the constitution and give new powers to the ruling Socialist Party.
The country, in political turmoil with a downward spiraling economy, has been dealing with a deepening humanitarian crisis for more than three years, resulting in a severe shortage of food and medicine and an increase in violence and crime.
Ten people were killed in the recent protests surrounding the election, adding to the reported tally of 121 deaths in all.
At the height of the election, Father Ben Kociemba, associate director of vocations for the Diocese of St. Cloud, traveled to Venezuela to visit and support his friend, Father James Peterson, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis whom he met while studying in seminary. Father Peterson has been serving a parish in the city of San Felix in the southern part of the country as a parochial vicar.
Joan Spring, director of campus ministry at Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud, is also a friend of Father Peterson and joined Father Kociemba on the visit. The following questions were answered by Father Kociemba.
Q: What did you do while visiting Father Peterson in Venezuela?
A: We left on July 20 and arrived back in the United States on July 31. We accompanied Father James as he did his ministry in the parish.
We had the privilege of meeting and visiting families in their homes. We were able to get to know them and to talk at length about their family and life in Venezuela. We were able to really develop some friendships as we would see some of them several times during our stay.
We joined Father Peterson as we prayed at house blessings, attended wake services, delivered cooked meals to the poorest of the poor, attended prayer sessions with parishioners, celebrated Mass at various chapels in the barrios and provided some transportation for some individuals to the hospital.
Q: How was the area you visited affected by the political climate of the country?
A: San Felix is a seven-hour drive from the capital city of Caracas. Caracas is where most of the intense activity is seen on international media with the protests and counterprotests regarding the government.
However, all the people in San Felix are talking about the current political situation. There are local protests with simple blockades that are made with whatever the people can find on roads. The past 10 years Venezuela has seen leadership from a socialist party with Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro. Under their leadership, the government evolved from a democracy to a socialist government and currently is in danger of becoming a dictatorship. The economy has been mismanaged and the local people of San Felix are facing the direct effects and ramifications of the government and economy.
Q: What are some of the challenges the Venezuelan people are facing?
A: One of the socialist party claims for the last 10 years was to put high emphasis on the oil industry and make it cheap for the people. They claimed that they could lift people out of poverty. Indeed, today, gas is cheap for the local people. But the economy has been greatly mismanaged. Inflation is through the roof. Food and medicine prices are incredibly high. Imagine paying half a month’s wage for one dose of simple acid reflux medicine.
Venezuelans need to provide their own medicine when they enter the hospital but because of the government there are incredible medicine shortages. Even for those who have full-time jobs, salaries haven’t risen with the inflation of prices. There has been very little or no assistance from the government to help with charity efforts. [People] lack the ability to acquire money that they can use to buy essential things.
To give an example: a nice meal at a restaurant could equal one month’s salary at minimum wage. They try to get cash from the bank because credit cards don’t work many places. They have to stand in line for hours to get a limited amount of cash that is inadequate for what they need to buy. They are also vulnerable to robberies.
Q: Was there anything that challenged or surprised you during the trip?
A: I was very surprised by how people can live with so little. Yet they still smile and they want to offer hospitality. They face very difficult things such as family members passing away from various dangerous things such as robberies, lack of medicine, bus accidents, etc. Yet they face it with faith. They continue to make family life their central value. I was challenged to reflect on how wasteful we can be here back in the United States with food, etc.
Q: What is the greatest lesson you learned while visiting Venezuela?
A: The power of faith. The people there show that in the midst of complete powerlessness, they find strength in God. They are suffering greatly, yet there is still a sense of joy and determination in them that can only be from God. They even want to be hospitable when they have so little. Please pray for the people and for the political situation to improve.