In Venezuela today 87 per cent of people can’t afford enough food for their families. They are on the so-called Maduro Diet, named after the country’s unloved president, Nicolás Maduro, whom many blame for the shortages. Some are so hungry that they are surviving on wild animals such as flamingos and giant anteaters. Economists expect inflation to reach 1,000 per cent this year, setting an unenviable world record. Meanwhile, the nation has the highest violence levels in South America, with a murder rate of 120 per 100,000 people in the capital, Caracas.

Given these abysmal statistics, it’s not surprising that Pope Francis decided to make an unusual intervention there last year. He dispatched a Vatican mediator to resolve the country’s deepening political crisis. The move underlined the bond between the Church and Venezuela. According to the CIA Factbook, 96 per cent of the 30 million population is Catholic (at least nominally). The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, served as nuncio to Caracas, and the new superior general of the Jesuits, Fr Arturo Sosa, is Venezuelan.

But the Vatican mission has not gone smoothly, despite being led by the flinty Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli. The government has made few concessions to the opposition. Indeed, Maduro has tightened his stranglehold on Venezuelan society, while projecting a newly pious image.

Last week a Pulitzer Prize-winning Argentine journalist declared Vatican mediation efforts a disaster. Andrés Oppenheimer argued that the intervention had legitimised Maduro, “throwing him a lifeline when millions of protesters were demanding his resignation on the streets in October 2016”. The only way to restore democracy now, Oppenheimer said, would be for the Vatican to declare the talks a failure and for the members of the Organisation of American States (including the United States) to punish Venezuela with sanctions.

There are signs that the Vatican is coming to a similar conclusion about its mediation. Last month Archbishop Celli declined to attend talks between the government and opposition, sending Archbishop Aldo Giordano, the apostolic nuncio to Venezuela, instead. This was a clear sign of displeasure.

But it might not be as easy for the Vatican to abandon talks as Oppenheimer implies. It is certainly unpleasant for the Holy See to be accused of aiding one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes. But if the Vatican were to pull out now, it might be blamed for something even worse: sparking a civil war that claims hundreds of thousands of lives.

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