There are places where one channel-surfs and finds it hard to tell the difference between a political broadcast and a comic monologue. One of these is Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez spends countless (dozens, actually) hours in front of a camera every week ranting at his opponents––no matter who they are. This past week, when the country celebrated its bicentennial, it was the turn of Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, the Catholic Archbishop of Caracas.

Chávez took a few minutes from his speech at the celebrations on July 5 to lament that the Cardinal is a “troglodyte” for claiming that his government is leading the country down the road to a socialist-Marxist dictatorship. Elevating his gaze to include the whole assembly, El Presidente proclaimed that the Venezuelan people “don’t deserve this cardinal” and that “this man is unworthy of being a cardinal of the Catholic Church”, of which he proclaims himself a true member of the faithful.

Because of people like Cardinal Urosa, the Venezuelan people feel “distanced” from the hierarchy, while they continue to support and love the “people’s priests”, in spite of their bishops. Finally, fixing his gaze on Archbishop Pietro Parolini, the papal Nuncio, he instructed him to tell the Pope that he has his “own candidate” for Cardinal, Bishop Mario Moronta of San Cristóbal, who has been known to disagree with Cardinal Urosa on some social questions.

Within 24 hours both the Caracas council of the “people’s” priests and Bishop Moronta issued repudiations of Chávez’s savage attack, declaring full solidarity with Cardinal Urosa and all the Venezuelan bishops. Bishop Moronta acknowledged, as does Cardinal Urosa, that they don’t always agree on social issues, but he made it very plain that “the unity is not broken”.

The country’s bishops also issued their ownforceful condemnation through the secretary-general of the EpiscopalConference, Auxiliary Bishop Jesús González de Zárate of Caracas. The semi-official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano was quick to express solidarity with the Cardinal. But most importantly, people from all ove rVenezuela moved hurriedly to show their solidarity and support for Cardina lUrosa, who happened to be in Rome during Chávez’s rant.

The President’s attack came after Cardinal Urosa had denounced a recent scandal involving the decomposition and waste of over 20,000 metric tons of food supplies in a port close to the capital. Chávez’s government has progressively taken over the production of most basic goods, including food, and in this case, petty internal rivalries and the sheerineptitude of the enormous bureaucracy led to the loss of this colossal amount,with a dubious inquiry and unlikely prosecutions ensuing.

Cardinal Urosa took the opportunity of this lastfiasco to warn caraqueños that thegovernment, by excluding citizens and private companies from basic economicactivities, is taking one more step toward completely dependence on the publicsector (and on foreign producers).

The fact is that despite his anti-Colombianrhetoric (if it deserves such a noun), the destructive results of Chávez’seconomic policies have forced the country to import more and more from its neighbour, to the point where more than half of Venezuela’s food comes from abroad. And this is happening in a country that is considered by economists to be one ofthe world’s richest in natural resources. Oh, the bane of tropical politics!

Corruption, waste, and fear have been growing exponentially. Weekly revelations of gross misdeeds and open deceits by top officials are eclipsed in the next week by worse scandals. To calm the outrage Chávezhas shuffled around some ministers but with an eye on upcoming legislativ eelections. This is a procedure that he repeats once a year anyway.

But the problems of the Venezuelan people rundeeper. As he explained in an interview on June 30, before the President’s outburst,Cardinal Urosa has been forced into the public square because of what he and anincreasing number of his countrymen see as the true marks of a totalitarianscheme: brainwashing propaganda, deceit, an omnipotent state, and a grotesqueoligarchy.

The food scandal shows that the government isopenly violating its constitution––which guarantees private property andprivate initiative in the economy––and even the people’s mandate, which on December2, 2007 rejected a clear-cut statist remodelling of the legal system. It is merelyone more (albeit gross) symptom of how committed Chávez and his associates are toestablishing a full-blown communist totalitarianism.

All the signs are there: a grotesque personality cult around the leader, a burgeoning and all-encompassing bureaucracy on which people depend more and more for survival, and––what worries Urosa most––the use of religious symbols to further the official ideology.

The figure of Christ––“the world’s firstsocialist”, according to Chávez––is routinely referred to by the government tobring home their message to the people, in an attempt to separate people,priests, and bishops. The Cardinal knows what will result: the dissolution ofpluralism and the end of religious freedom.

Chávez calls himself a Catholic, just as hecalls himself a “people’s man”, a poor boy from the lower classes, a true Venezuelan, etc., who is trying to unite the experience of Boliviarian Catholicism, equality and Venezuelanness into a single symbol: himself. The personality cult, the ever-more violent curbing of the media, the expulsion of private citizens from the economy, and now, a direct attack against the Church, show how accurate Cardinal Urosa’s misgivings have been.

Thousands of Venezuelans have left the country in search of basic freedoms and to escape fear and uncertainty. As in other proto-Cubas in Latin America continent (Ecuador is the clearest runner-up), no one knows where the country is going. No one knows if their houses will be confiscated––Chávez strolled through downtown Caracas a few months ago and expropriated three or four private buildings with a single wave of his hand. No one knows if their business will be nationalized tomorrow or next week. No one knows if they might be put in jail for voicing a contrary opinion. Who knows when Chávez will want to nominate his own cardinal? Why not, after all, since he has already replaced most of his opponents with his toadies?

I am a Latin American. I am also a Westerner. Not because of race or politics, but because I believe in personal rights, inequality, in liberty, in pluralism, in the tradition that proclaims rationaldiscourse, critical thought, and committed freedom. I consider this (pace Samuel P. Huntington) a part of my heritage as a Latin American.

Why does no one turn their eye southward to our tropical republics other than to watch us play football and to hear our leaders heap creative insults upon each other?

Even raising this question suggests an answer: no one cares for that most anti-political, most childish of vices, self-pity. Iagree, and I think Cardinal Urosa agrees. I am a Catholic, and I defend the Cardinal’s right to preach and tend to his flock freely, and to remind Venezuelans that, notwithstanding Chavezian schools of theology, “Jesus Christis above all systems, ideologies, and regimes”.

But I especially celebrate the Cardinal as apatriot, as a citizen who is not afraid to speak truth to power, and who ismanly enough not to wallow in victimhood. How many Ciceros, how many ThomasMores, how many Jeffersons and Adamses, how many Havels and Mandelas arestifled by the sun-tanned defeat of Latin American self-pity!

Venezuela and Ecuador, like Cuba, are on theroad to tyranny. As Cardinal Urosa told his fellow Venezuelans, what they needis not a hero or a saviour––too many of those have been enthroned andtoppled––but fighters, thinkers, patriots, men and women of heart and hope whoare willing to sacrifice their comfort, their security, their nationalself-pity, and “with afirm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, mutually pledge to eachother their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honour” for the cause of homeand right.

Pedro José Izquierdo is an Ecuadorian PhDstudent at the University of Navarra (Spain). He is currently a visitingresearcher at Columbia Law School in New York.