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Chavez Attacks Ex-Vatican Official

December 13, 1999

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ President Hugo Chavez stepped up his attacks on the Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchy Sunday, saying the Vatican’s former representative in Venezuela is allied with the country’s corrupt political elite.

Chavez criticized Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara after a newspaper quoted the cardinal as saying Chavez’s aggressive campaign to win approval for a new constitution is immoral. Venezuelans vote next Wednesday on whether to approve the constitution, the centerpiece of Chavez’s attempts to clean up some of the world’s worst corruption.

Speaking on his weekly radio program Sunday, Chavez said Castillo Lara was an intimate friend of former Venezuelan presidents Rafael Caldera and Carlos Andres Perez, whom Chavez called symbols of a bankrupt political system.

He accused the cardinal of failing to speak out against a host of injustices, including the 1989 killing of hundreds of people by soldiers putting down mass riots and a 1994 banking scandal that nearly crushed the country’s financial sector.

``Those bankers took the money from here and bankrupted thousands and thousands of Venezuelan families. Wouldn’t that be immoral, Cardinal Castillo?″ Chavez said.

Chavez, a former coup leader, has called church leaders who oppose the constitution ``degenerate priests″ and has attacked the country’s ``rancid oligarchy″ for resisting his reform plans.

His harsh rhetoric has provoked criticism that he is polarizing the nation and trying to intimidate his detractors. Monsignor Baltazar Porras, the country’s top Roman Catholic Church leader, said Saturday that Chavez is fomenting ``fear and hate″ in Venezuela.

Critics warn that the proposed constitution is a blueprint for installing a Cuba-style regime, with power concentrated in Chavez’s hands. Chavez says it will help break up political mafias, reduce poverty and strengthen democracy.

So far, he has strong public support, mainly among millions of poor people. Polls show that up to 70 percent of Venezuelans favor the new constitution.

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