Chavez, Communism and Christianity

The Associated Press' Christopher Toothaker has a long and fascinating look at Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Let's get right into it. Here's the top of the piece:

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has spent much of his career praising the socialist ideas of famed atheists such as Karl Marx and Fidel Castro. Now in the thick of a prolonged battle against cancer, however, the leftist leader is drawing inspiration more than ever from a spiritual leader: Jesus Christ.

Chavez has been praying for divine intervention during increasingly infrequent appearances on television, holding up a crucifix while vowing to overcome his illness. He says living with cancer has made him "more Christian," talk that has coincided with speculation by some Venezuelans that cancer might cut short his bid for re-election in October.

Chavez's voice cracked with emotion as he bade farewell to aides and supporters in Caracas on April 30 before leaving for what he said would be his final round of cancer treatment in Cuba.

"I'm sure our Christ will do it again, continuing making the miracle," Chavez said as he raised his cross to his lips and kissed it, prompting applause from an audience of aides.

If Chavez survives cancer, political analysts say his increasing religiosity could pay election-year dividends in a country where Catholicism remains influential.

And it goes on like that for a while. The report is detailed and includes quite a bit of perspective from analysts (including of the skeptical variety). He's apparently become quite outspoken about his faith, even crying during a televised Mass with relatives. The article is illustrated with a picture of Chavez holding up a crucifix and kissing it.

Chavez's religiosity contrasts with the resolute secularism of his political father figure, Castro, and other leaders who have followed the socialist path Chavez lauds.

A large majority of Venezuelans practice Catholicism, and Protestant denominations have grown rapidly in some parts of the country. Many Venezuelans also practice folk religions and leave offerings at roadside shrines.

Mixing religion and politics isn't new in Venezuela, even if religious groups generally don't get directly involved in politics. Former President Luis Herrera characterized himself as spiritually pure and promoted social programs for the poor while leading his Copei Social Christian party.

We get comparisons to other Latin American leaders who employ religious language. We even get to drill down a bit on Chavez's eclectic religious views, such as his views on María Lionza. I do wonder if that was put accurately:

He has at times also expressed faith in folk deities such as Maria Lionza, an indigenous goddess venerated by some Venezuelans who pay homage through candlelit rituals and shrines.

Since Venezuelans tend to relate to her in rather different ways, it may be helpful to have a direct quote to explain what "expressed faith in" means here. Anyway, the one area I wanted to discuss related to conflicts between Chavez's Catholicism and his political practices. Here's how the article handles it:

Despite his recent expressions of faith, the president has had a rocky relationship with Catholic leaders. He has accused priests of siding with the country's wealthy rather than the poor and in a particularly heated clash in 2010, suggested that Christ would whip some church leaders for lying after Cardinal Jorge Urosa warned that democratic freedoms were being eroded in Venezuela.

Chavez insists his faith goes back to his days as an altar boy, and long before his illness, he was calling Jesus Christ "the greatest socialist in history." ...

Chavez has been receiving radiation therapy in Cuba over the past week, the latest phase in treatments that since June have included chemotherapy and two surgeries that removed tumors from his pelvic region, though he has not said what sort of cancer he has.

I guess what I found noteworthy is that nowhere do we discuss the persecution of Christians that has taken place under, among other political allies of Chavez's, Cuban rule.

The article does a nice job of reporting nearly every other aspect, but considering the strength of that relationship between Castro and Chavez and the reality of what life under Castro has been like for religious adherents, I'm surprised we didn't get more discussion of whether Chavez has problems with that friendship. And, if not, why not.

Chavez photo via <a href="Vitoriano Jr. /

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