THE SENTENCING of Venezuela’s opposition leader, Leopoldo López, to nearly 14 years in prison, on top of the 18 months he has already spent in mostly-solitary confinement, triggered a range of different reactions.
Amnesty International, a global human-rights lobby, said of the verdict: “The charges against [him] were never adequately substantiated and the prison sentence against him is clearly politically motivated. His only ‘crime’ was being leader of an opposition party in Venezuela.”
Human Rights Watch, another international watch-dog, spoke of “egregious violations” of due process. Mr López himself sent a hand-written note from jail saying that he had been fully aware of the consequences when he defied pressure from the regime to leave the country. “My soul, my ideals and my love for you are flying high in the skies above our beautiful Venezuela,” he wrote to his wife and two children.
What about the Vatican? Considering that this is an overwhelmingly Catholic country where the Holy See has strong connections (its secretary of state Pietro Parolin was serving there till 2013) and that Mr López himself is Catholic, people might have expected Pope Francis or at least a senior Vatican spokesman to issue an instant condemnation of the verdict. But for better or worse, that is not the current papacy’s way; it prefers to make its feelings known more discreetly, and to leave things to local bishops.
The Vatican and its representatives have certainly been watching Venezuela in recent days. Archbishop Roberto Luckert León, one of the country’s most outspoken hierarchs, has roundly condemned President Nicolás Maduro for expelling thousands of Colombians from the country. The pope, on a more emollient note and in keeping with his habit of delegating to local prelates, welcomed the fact that bishops from the two countries were conferring on how to mitigate a looming humanitarian crisis.
Francis does have some moral influence over Mr Maduro, as became clear in June when the president abruptly called off a meeting with the pope at the last moment, pleading illness but apparently in fear of a dressing-down over human rights.
Archbishop Luckert said the pope would not visit Venezuela unless human rights improve. Early last year, as the country was shaken by violent protests, the church offered its services as a mediator, and defenders of the Vatican’s discreet approach say that quiet ecclesiastical diplomacy has helped at several critical moments to fend off the spectre of civil war.
But religious leaders, like political ones, have to make hard choices between keeping relationships and channels of dialogue open, and openly telling hard truths. Exactly that dilemma will face Pope Francis when he heads for Cuba on September 19th, en route to the United States: one of the trickiest itineraries of his papacy.
This week Cuba announced that it would mark the visit by releasing more than 3,500 prisoners. This sounded like a rather dramatic gesture to defang critics and sweeten the atmosphere of the papal sojourn. But there may be less to it than meets the eye; it apparently includes those who were in any case due to be freed next year, and some foreigners, but not those whom the government considers guilty of threatening “state security”, a formula which could allow for political prisoners to remain inside.
Papal diplomacy played a vital role in paving the way for last December’s diplomatic breakthrough between Cuba and the United States. Jimmy Burns, author of a newly published biography of the pope, sees this as clearly the greatest diplomatic achievement of the papacy. And true to Francis’s style, the Vatican has followed the advice of Cuban bishops (who are perforce more cautious than their Venezuelan counterparts) and encouraged a gradual sort of change on the communist-run island.
But for some critics, the Holy See has paid for its cordial relations with Havana by treating the regime with undeserved leniency. Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega said in June that there were no political prisoners in the country: this was rejected as “betrayal” by some recently released inmates who insist that some prisoners of conscience remain inside. The “Ladies in White” movement of Cuban dissidents has asked for a meeting with the pope but recently they have found little sympathy from the Vatican.
In the course of his travels the pontiff, who has shown real eloquence in condemning the excesses of the capitalist north, can still expect some hard questions about his attitude to excesses of another kind. Will he denounce left-wing authoritarianism as much as he has denounced the right-wing variety?
In an Orwellian touch, Mr López was deemed responsible for “subliminally” fomenting violence even though he spoke only of peaceful protest. On the lips of clerics, however, the use of “subliminal” language is generally more acceptable; people half-expect clerics to speak in enigmatic terms as their faith’s founder sometimes did. So if there are diplomatic reasons why certain human-rights abuses can’t be condemned openly, people hope that the pope will at least condemn them subliminally.