As Venezuela Falls Apart, Its People Build a New Faith
A freefalling economy shakes society's foundations
In ways large and small, Venezuelans have felt the effects of the unfolding political and economic crisis there. Grocery store shelves are barren, and few dare to use their phones in public for fear of theft or worse. Car windows are tinted as much as possible for the same reason. The Venezuelan bolivar loses value by the day. Gangs control neighborhoods. Inmates control prisons.
In July 2017, the Constitutional Assembly election results gave Pres. Nicolás Maduro the power to make constitutional changes and further stifle the opposition. Smartmatic, the maker of the advanced electronic voting machines used in the country, says that the result was manipulated by as many as one million votes. In the meantime, opposition leaders have been taken from their homes. Venezuelans at home and abroad wonder if this is the end of Venezuelan democracy.
The situation there has provoked numerous irrevocable changes in the country’s civil society. One such change is in Venezuela’s religious landscape.
Faced with their country’s insecurity, Venezuelans are making intensely personal choices about their faith and where they can turn for help and comfort. They are abandoning their faith, deepening their faith or converting. The sum of these individual choices is altering the nation’s religious makeup, but because the same insecurity that’s provoking the shift has made it nearly impossible to collect data, no one knows exactly how.
In 2011, according to a poll taken by Venezuela’s Social Investigation Group XXI, 71 percent of Venezuelans identified as Catholic. It’s a number that the Pew Research Center, according to their religious composition forecast, expects to hold steady through the next few decades. But in the years since Hugo Chavez ushered in his brand of Bolivarian socialism, popular attitudes toward the Catholic Church have already shifted.
Alexander Campos works in Caracas for the Centro de Investigaciones Popular, which conducts research on the personal and family lives of Venezuelans. He says the changes in attitudes toward the Catholic Church are not homogeneous.
“In the intellectual sector, there’s been more respect toward the institution for its critical position toward the government,” he says.
With regards to the working class, he continues, the Church hierarchy’s anti-government stance hasn’t provoked an exodus among pro-government church members, despite the ideological difference.
Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1999. Called the “poor people’s president,” he built his administration around “Bolivarian socialism,” with a focus on wealth redistribution and expanding government welfare. These policies won him support, and while some efforts saw success, many proved to be economically unsustainable. He frequently railed against institutions he believed oppressed Venezuela, especially American capitalism and imperialism. Another one of his targets was the Catholic Church.
A former altar boy, Chávez’s personal relationship with the Church was fraught. His regime’s relationship with the Church was similarly tumultuous, and the two often clashed. He frequently criticized the Church as yet another institution that benefited the rich over the poor. In 2007, after Pope Benedict said that the Roman Catholic Church had purified South America’s indigenous people, Chávez demanded an apology. It was the first time he took aim at the Pope himself.
“With all due respect, your Holiness, apologize because there was a real genocide here and, if we were to deny it, we would be denying our very selves,” Chávez said.
For its part, the Church has encouraged resistance to the Bolivarian government. Venezuelan bishops have endorsed peaceful protest, and a statement read from pulpits across the country read in part, “never before have so many Venezuelans had to eat garbage.”
It was meant literally. In 2016, news reports came out that Venezuelans facing starvation were turning to garbage for food. Others reported that, in desperation, some Venezuelans were killing flamingos and anteaters to eat.
In response to the Church’s criticisms, pro-government groups known as colectivos disrupted Masses in Caracas.
When Chávez was diagnosed with cancer, his rhetoric toward the Church changed significantly. He took to holding a crucifix in television appearances. Increasingly sallow in these appearances, the president beseeched Jesus Christ to intervene in the illness that was slowly draining him of life.
Millions of Venezuelans marching on May 20, 2017 during the We Are Millions March. Photo via Wikipedia
After Chávez’s death in 2013, his handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, won the presidency by a narrow margin. As it was intended to be, Maduro’s tenure has been a continuation of Chávez’s uniquely Venezuelan brand of socialism, and the Bolivarian socialist tension with the Catholic Church has continued apace.
Despite the clash, the Church has maintained influence with Venezuela’s working classes, a traditionally chavista demographic. Campos says this is because Venezuelan people have seen concrete evidence of the Church’s attempts to help the country’s deteriorating situation.
“The Church’s attitude, in general, has been understanding, and those who suffer the most have found support from it materially as much as spiritually. Caritas [an organization fighting child malnutrition], food pantries, clothing exchanges, soup kitchens and neighborhood pharmacies are Catholic Church initiatives that are increasingly stronger and give concrete answers to those most in need,” he says.
For some, though, these efforts are not enough. Many are looking for answers elsewhere. Alejandro Gutierrez, who has written about Venezuelan folk religion for Caracas Chronicles, says the main change to the country’s religious landscape under chavismo has been diversification.
“The combination of additional exposure — one of the tenets of chavismo was giving a platform to people who had been ignored for generations – and overall higher emotional stress [resulting from] higher crime rates, poor healthcare [and] poor access to education/information have created a perfect opportunity for many ‘alternative’ religions to gain prominence, since people are looking for new social structures to replace the ones that crumbled down,” he says. “The result is that a lot of different subgroups have emerged, both within the spirit religions like santería or espiritismo and within evangelical Christianity.”
Jorge Orozco Zambrano is a Venezuelan expatriate. He and his wife have worked as Christian missionaries to Venezuela and his father-in-law is a pastor and teacher there. His observations reflect Gutierrez’s theory of diversification.
“There has been a significant increment in dark practices such as witchcraft, santería, palería, Yoruba beliefs and its different branches and subdivisions. Prosperity gospel and super faith churches have become popular as well,” he says. “And among those who do not want to be labelled or want to project a more ‘intelligent’ image, new age is quite popular.”
Born in Cuba, palería and santería are hybrids of traditional West African Yoruba beliefs and Roman Catholicism. Santería includes occult rituals and animal sacrifice, and practitioners, known as santeros, believe that appeasing the gods will lead to healing and protection. In Caracas, the city with the highest homicide rate outside active war zones, protection is coveted. Others look for that elusive security in other folk religions and Afro-Venezuelan beliefs, including in the cult of María Lionza.
The cult arose around the belief that adherents could find guidance from the souls of the dead channeled through living mediums. Believers steal away to Sorte Mountain, believed to embody María Lionza herself. There they practice elaborate blood rituals in search of purification and answers.
Chávez himself was known to incorporate aspects of María Lionza worship into his beliefs. Campos says that during the Bolivarian government’s tenure, more credence has been lent to folk beliefs in an effort to diminish the Catholic Church’s influence. Other Venezuelan expatriates agree that Afro-Venezuelan beliefs have become trendy and more widely accepted by the general population, especially the working classes.
“I’ve noticed that people talk with less fear about practices like witchcraft and palería,” says Virmely Hernandez, an expatriate living in North Carolina. “Before there existed a bit more reluctance to say that you belonged to these religions.”
Orozco Zambrano agrees that the perception among Venezuelans of folk religions has changed in the years since Chávez came to power. “In the past, being a santero was considered something pretty evil and something only very ignorant people would do,” he says.
This belief – that folk religion is the province of the ignorant – hasn’t entirely changed. Members of the opposition tend to be wealthier and more educated than the chavistas’ working class base, and Venezuela’s expatriate community for the most part supports the opposition. A fact evidenced by the government’s periodic efforts to depress expatriate voting turnout.
As in the United States, supporters of the government and members of the opposition are bitterly divided, and failures of understanding exist on both sides. Dr. David Smilde, a scholar of Venezuela, warned against taking expatriate reports of conversions to folk religion at face value. He said those reports could be, intentionally or unintentionally, another way for members of the opposition to paint chavistas as base and ignorant.
What’s clear is that the insecurity wrought by Venezuela’s political crisis and freefalling economy has shaken the foundations of society and threatened the influence of institutional heavyweights like the Catholic Church. From the threads of the unraveling social fabric, Venezuelans are weaving a new tapestry of religious belief. But until the country’s crises are resolved, no one is quite sure what it looks like.