Venezuela is now in an advanced state of political and economic collapse. Such is the fruit of seventeen years of the “21st century socialism” pioneered by Hugo Chávez and pursued by his successor Nicolás Maduro. On a daily basis, the reality of Venezuelans is one of empty shops, massive corruption, triple-digit inflation, an absence of necessities like food and medicine, and omnipresent violence as law and order breaks down. This is the logical consequence of a populist regime that, in the name of “the people,” nationalized entire industries, demolished the central bank’s independence, ploughed oil-revenues into inefficient and corrupt state-owned enterprises, printed money to cover escalating government spending, and then tried to control the rapidly-deteriorating situation through price and currency controls.
Politically-speaking, Venezuela is now one of the world’s most polarized and repressed societies. The government regularly uses the police and its own “national militia” to terrorize its critics. Most of the press has been muzzled and the judiciary’s independence severely compromised. Civil society has, for all intents and purposes, been pulverized—all in the name of the people’s socialist revolution.
The one institution that’s maintained its integrity in this midst of Venezuela’s disarray is the Catholic Church. Catholic university students have played a central role in bringing the regime’s abuses to international attention. Likewise, Venezuela’s Catholic bishops have been unstinting in their criticism of the Chavistas’ economic and political experimentation. In January 2015, for instance, the Venezuelan bishops’ conference formally denounced the nation’s economic crisis as the result of “a “politico-economic system of a socialist, Marxist, or Communist nature.” That’s strong language. The bishops also condemned the regime’s demonization of its opponents, its demagogic language, its systematic violation of human rights, the imprisonment of thousands of government opponents, and the torture of political prisoners.
Venezuela isn’t the only Latin American country to embrace populist politics over the last decade. Other notable examples include Ecuador, Bolivia, and Pope Francis’ own Argentina. And the results have been the same: economic destruction, deep political and social fractures, and a distinctly authoritarian style of government. Much of this has been justified by reference to the will of “the people” and the need to combat that all-purpose contemporary bogeyman—“neoliberalismo.” Venezuela is simply the most extreme example of this populist model and its lamentable consequences.
The Church and the populists
Given these facts, many have wondered why, of all the Latin American heads of states who could have attended the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences recent conference to mark the 25th anniversary of Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, the only two present were left-wing populists: Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Are we to believe that not a single other serving Latin American head of state was able and willing to attend?
Since Pope Francis often states that realities are more important than ideas, let’s recall some basic realities about presidents Correa and Morales. Both are professed admirers of Chávez and committed to what Correa calls “socialism of the 21st century” or what Morales describes as “communitarian socialism.”
Both men have also followed the classic populist playbook. This involves (1) dismantling constitutional restraints on power; (2) blaming their nations’ problems on foreigners and foreign interests; (3) following a political logic of internal confrontation with those designated as “enemies of the people”; (4) fostering a cult of personality around a charismatic leader; and (5) creating large constituencies of supporters through disbursement of state largesse. The result has not only been political oppression. The economies of Bolivia and Ecuador are now formally classified as “repressed” in the 2016 Index of Economic Freedom. That means they are among the least free, most corrupt, and statist in the world.
The fact, however, that Correa and Morales were invited to speak at a conference at the Holy See reflects the Church’s ambiguous relationship with left-populist movements and governments in recent years. The Venezuelan bishops’ willingness, for instance, to name and shame a populist regime so directly for its destructive policies is the exception rather than the rule.
During his years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis was censorious, sometimes vividly, of aspects of the populist presidencies of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner. Yet in July 2015, the pope appeared with Morales before the “Second World Meeting of Popular Movements” and delivered a speech which had more than a populist edge to it. Indeed, in the numerous addresses, press conferences, and interviews given by Francis since becoming pope, it’s hard to find any clear criticism of left-populist policies that comes close to matching his impassioned denouncements of market economies.
So why are some Latin American Catholics apparently reticent to criticize political movements that have brought such misery to the region? Part of it, I suspect, comes from a healthy desire to ensure that the Church doesn’t get entangled in daily politics. Fair enough. But it may also owe something to particular intellectual currents that have marked Latin American Catholicism in recent decades. Prominent among these has a focus upon el pueblo—“the people”—that has permeated much of Catholic Latin America since the late-1960s.
A theology of el pueblo
One phrase which became prominent throughout the Church after Vatican II was “the People of God.” As stated in the Council’s 1964 Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, the People of God expresses the idea that “In the beginning God made human nature one” and that “all men are called by the grace of God to salvation” (LG 13). The stress is thus upon universality, not sectionalism.
This language acquired rather different meaning, however, in late-1960s Latin America. In the case of Marxist versions of liberation theology, the idea of el pueblo de Dios was subsumed into the rationale of class-conflict: “the people” against “the oppressors”. A somewhat different take was adopted by what’s known as the teología del pueblo. This school of thought was primarily developed by three Argentine priests—Rafael Tello, Lucio Gera, and the Jesuit Juan Carlos Scannone—and certainly influenced Jorge Bergoglio SJ from the 1970s onwards.
The first thing to note about the teología del pueblo is that it rejects Marxist categories. As Father Scannone commented in a 2011 interview, the main difference between his position and that of the Marxist liberationists is that his theology “has neither used Marxist methodology for analyzing reality nor categories taken from Marxism.” Other prominent characteristics of the teología del pueblo are its deep respect for popular piety and the fact that it has inspired many priests to live among and serve the slums of Buenos Aires. Significantly, the teología del pueblo has never expressed hostile views of the Church’s teaching authority, let alone portrayed it as an instrument of class-oppression.
All this is certainly true and even admirable. That said, the teología del pueblo does take “the people” as its primary reference point and it’s unclear if “the people” is defined in the same way that Vatican II understood the term. Father Gera, for instance, specifically identified el pueblo as the “marginalized and scorned majority” in Latin America. What this meant for Latin American Catholics who didn’t belong to this group isn’t clear.
Unlike Marxists, the people-theologians don’t believe that el pueblo need a Leninist-like vanguard of middle-class intellectuals to lead them out of the darkness. Rather, the teología del pueblo is skeptical of all elites. In a 1979 article, for example, Scannone wrote, “We must denounce the elitism in the area of knowledge that we now find among the enlightened elites of both the left and the right.” Instead, the focus should be upon el pueblo: not so much as a class but rather as a cultural reality and movement that shows the Church how to live the faith and which embodies a particular wisdom not shared by others.
But who are the People?
Viewed from this standpoint, the teología del pueblo allowed the Church to underscore its option for the marginalized and poor without taking sides in the interminable conflict between the left and right that dominated Latin America throughout the Cold War. Notwithstanding this, however, the teología del pueblo has its own problems.
The first is that it was conceived in a political culture soaked in Perónism: the populist movement associated with the charismatic Argentine president Juan Perón and his wives which still exerts enormous sway over many Argentines’ imaginations. Some people-theologians such Ernesto Lopez Rosas SJ were close to various Perónist movements. Some even saw Perónism as a mechanism which gave political expression to the values they associated with el pueblo.
Though it has right-wing and left-wing expressions, Perónism is generally characterized by an anti-elite mentality, a reliance on us-and-them categories, political and economic nationalism, and often bombastic rhetoric. It also looks to charismatic figures to mobilize mass movements which channel the popular will in ways that weaken the resistance of established elites. In this regard, Perónism is a quintessentially populist phenomena.
The brutal reality, however, is that Perónist leaders, ideas, and movements have inflicted enormous damage upon Argentina over the past 70 years. Among other things, they have burdened Argentina with bloated state bureaucracies, over-mighty trade unions, massive corruption, and entire constituencies dependent upon political patronage. Over time, Perónism weakened institutional safeguards on political power, not least by facilitating widespread instability and often violence.
The problem for the teología del pueblo is that it has difficulty criticizing populist movements such as Perónism because of (1) the special status it accords to “the people” and (2) the emphasis it places on the people’s wisdom. That underscores another difficulty: the teología del pueblo embodies the weaknesses of any set of ideas that makes el pueblo its main reference point.
Take, for instance, the reality that you’re likely to find different views on numerous subjects among el pueblo. Recognizing this becomes more difficult if you lump millions of individuals into one catch-all category. Then there are the questions surrounding who qualifies as a member of el pueblo. If it’s primarily those on the margins, what does this imply for those who aren’t living in a slum? Does their social status mean that they are somehow “non-people” or even “anti-people”? Do those who escape poverty or leave the slums cease to be part of the people?
And while it’s true that those who live on life’s margins often possess insights which escape the elites’ attention, it’s also likely that some of the ideas flourishing among el pueblo are simply wrong. Not every thought circulating on what Pope Francis calls life’s peripheries is reasonable or coherent. Scripture tells us that large numbers of Christ’s first followers came from the margins of first-century Judean and Galilean society. Yet John’s Gospel (Jn 6:15) also relates that, at one point, many of them made the error of wanting to make Christ an earthly king. In today’s Latin America, many who presumably qualify as members of el pueblo are among Venezuela’s strongest Chavistas, despite the hard-to-deny evidence of populism’s destructive effects. Plenty of el pueblo in Buenos Aires’s villas miserias maintain saint-like images of Juan and Eva Perón in their houses and apparently don’t see the link between Argentina’s precipitous decline and Perónist populism. This is evidenced by the fact that many of them continue voting for Perónist parties and leaders.
Opportunity in the darkness?
The good news for Latin America is that populist movements and governments are on the wane. Late last year, the main Perónist candidate for the Argentine presidency was defeated in national elections. In February this year, Evo Morales lost a referendum that would have permitted him to seek a fourth term. In Venezuela, the opposition now controls the National Assembly and is trying to force a deeply-unpopular Maduro into a recall election.
For the Catholic Church, however, the question is what it can learn from populism’s failures. One step forward would be for the Church in different Latin American nations to ask itself some serious questions about the degree to which populist language and preoccupations have shaped its engagement with political and economic issues.
One example is the constant references to “neoliberalism” invariably found in documents issued by Latin American bishop conferences. Throughout Latin America, neoliberalismo often functions as a synonym for unfettered markets. But it is also a straw man. Unfettered markets simply don’t exist, including in the United States.
One might also ask if some Catholics’ constant invocation of “neoliberalism” (or “imperialism,” “the anonymous influence of mammon”, “neoliberal lords of capital,” “markets that kill,” or name-your-populist-slogan) as a primary cause of Latin America’s problems reflects an unwillingness to accept that many of the region’s difficulties have resulted from choices made by Latin Americans. After all, the Chávezs, Kirchners, Peróns, Morales, Correas and Maduros of Latin America were all democratically elected. Perón wasn’t imposed upon Argentina by foreign corporations. No Western government forced Venezuela down its present path to anarchy. And if anyone’s propping up the increasingly brutal Maduros regime, it’s surely the crony-Communist prison-camp otherwise known as Cuba.
It’s an open question how many Latin American Catholic leaders would be willing to engage in such soul-searching. In many respects, it’s easier to chase phantoms or excoriate anonymous actors “out there.” The work of helping societies which take liberty and justice seriously to grow out of the rubble of populism is harder, less glamorous, and very much a long-term project—one which requires acceptance that preserving and promoting freedom, rule of law, and social justice rightly-understood actually requires restraints on the popular will.
The sad irony is that as populist movements and governments falter in Latin America, they’re on the march throughout the rest of the world. Given their recent experiences, Catholics throughout Latin America have a unique opportunity to help the universal Church respond to a phenomenon that represents a significant threat to nations which aspire to be free and just. In light, however, of its recent past and some of its on-going preoccupations, Latin American Catholicism’s ability to do so is presently, at best, uncertain.