Liberation theology is a radical, pseudo-Marxist school of Catholic social thought that first emerged in Latin America during the mid–20th century. On March 5, one of its strongest advocates died in Venezuela. Eight days later, one of its strongest critics was named pope. Each event could represent a watershed moment for Latin America.
The late Hugo Chávez frequently clashed with Venezuela’s top Catholic authorities, who broadly opposed his efforts to create a socialist dictatorship in their overwhelmingly Catholic country. In 2005, for example, Archbishop Baltazar Porras of Mérida, who was then serving as head of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, said that Chávez and his allies in the priesthood were trying to “debilitate the Church” by promoting liberation theology. Eighteen months later, during his January 2007 inauguration ceremony in Caracas, Chávez called Jesus Christ “the greatest socialist of history.” In 2010, he responded to criticism from Venezuela’s Catholic bishops by thundering, “You all can dress like cardinals and bishops but you belong to the devil. You are the defenders of the most corrupt interests.”
Venezuela is not the only Latin America nation where left-wing autocrats have butted heads with the Church. During the 1980s, Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas espoused liberation theology to help justify their dictatorial, Soviet-backed rule in Nicaragua. More recently, it has contributed to the socialist policies of Bolivian president Evo Morales, who in 2006 appointed a liberation theologian as his deputy interior minister and also denounced his country’s Catholic leadership as “an instrument of the oligarchs.”
Meanwhile, in Ecuador, Chávez acolyte Rafael Correa claims to have drawn inspiration from Leonidas Proaño, a prominent Catholic priest and liberation theologian who died in 1988. Predictably, Correa’s authoritarian governance and efforts to undermine the Church have led to conflicts with Catholic officials. In 2008, he said that certain bishops wanted “to leave [Ecuador] in the darkness in which it has always existed,” and he urged young Ecuadoreans to resist being taught by them.
The death of Chávez has deprived Correa and Morales of their ideological mentor. With any luck, says the Economist, it will also “help break the deadlock that has stalled Latin American integration.” Indeed, now that Venezuela has lost its charismatic demagogue, it will be harder for government officials to camouflage the disastrous effects of Chavismo, such as 22 percent inflation, enormous capital flight, crumbling infrastructure, the world’s second-highest murder rate, an elected autocracy, and a demolition of civil liberties. Therefore, it will be harder for other Latin American populists to implement the Chávez model.
While Venezuela’s petro-dictator was trampling democracy and confiscating private property, center-left governments in Brazil, Peru, and other countries were demonstrating a better formula for fighting poverty — one that combines economic freedom and democratic stability with generous social programs.