Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is still working hard on behalf of the people of South America -- even though he died last week, according to Acting President Nicolas Maduro.
Maduro, who stands an excellent chance of winning the presidential election scheduled for April 14, made his statement after he learned that Jorge Bergoglio, an Argentine cardinal, had been selected as the new leader of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis is the first South American ever to ascend to the papacy -- and Maduro thinks the spirit of Chavez might have had something to do with that.
“We know that our commander [Chavez] ascended to the heights and is face-to-face with Christ," joked Maduro in front of a cheering crowd on Wednesday, according to Reuters. "Something influenced the choice of a South American pope, someone new arrived at Christ's side and said to him: 'Well, it seems to us South America's time has come.'"
Chavez, who died at 58 after a long battle with cancer, was a polarizing figure whose socialist policies helped to raise standards of living for many poor Venezuelans, but whose low tolerance for dissent led him to muzzle the press and target political opponents. His approval ratings in Venezuela topped 50 percent -- the most recent estimate from the left-leaning website VenezuelanAnalysis.com pegs the figure at 64 percent.
Convincing heavenly figures to stick up for Latin America wouldn’t be out of character for Chavez. In life, he often used religious language to criticize Western powers and capitalist systems, calling former U.S. President George W. Bush a “devil” on several occasions. He even used his Christian beliefs to defend his economic philosophies.
“Capitalism is the way of the devil and exploitation,” he said in 2006. “If you really want to look at things through the eyes of Jesus Christ -- who I think was the first socialist -- only socialism can really create a genuine society.”
Furthermore, this isn’t the first time unbelievable papal news has come from Venezuela. Last year, Venezuelan journalist Nelson Bocaranda reported on his blog that Pope Benedict XVI had visited the ailing Hugo Chavez while the two were in Havana, Cuba.
“A personal relationship with Venezuelan diplomats, who had gone on a mission to The Vatican, helped to establish contacts among the highest-level cardinals. As in everything, friendship moves mountains and opens doors. That is how [Chavez’s] objective was achieved,” wrote Bocaranda.
The news of this meeting was never confirmed by Chavez, and it was flatly denied by Vatican spokespersons.
But now that an Argentine pope is seated at the Vatican, a closer relationship with Venezuela wouldn’t be so surprising.
The ascension of Pope Francis would have certainly been welcomed by Chavez, who was born and baptized a Roman Catholic and frequently championed Latin American sovereignty. Maduro noted that the late leader may use his new heavenly position to keep on pushing for change.
“One of these days he is going to call a constitutional congress in heaven to change the church in the world, so that the people, only Christ's pure people rule in this world," Maduro said.