Vatican City is frequently mocked for its tiny size. But no other sovereign state in the world is guiding a nation with a population 30,000 times its own through one of the worst crises in its history. That is what the Holy See is currently doing in Venezuela.

Why is Rome taking such an interest in a state 5,000 miles away? Venezuela is the 15th most populous Catholic nation on earth. A Venezuelan, Fr Arturo Sosa, has just been elected head of the Jesuits, the world’s largest religious order. Another Venezuelan, Archbishop Baltazar Enrique Porras Cardozo, will receive the red hat next week. Before he was appointed Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin served as nuncio to Caracas. And as the first Latin American pope, Francis is eager to help one of the continent’s most troubled nations.

In the late 1970s Venezuela was considered South America’s richest country. Today, it is in a shocking state. Electricity and water are rationed. People struggle to buy basic goods such as aspirin. Hunger, poverty, inflation and crime are all increasing. Transparency International rates Venezuela as the most corrupt country in the Americas and the ninth most corrupt in the world. The murder rate is the second highest on the planet after El Salvador’s.

Then there is the political crisis. President Nicolás Maduro, heir to the messianic Hugo Chávez, has an approval rating of just 15 per cent. The opposition won a landslide victory in last year’s elections and now dominates the National Assembly. Some 70 per cent of Venezuelans want Maduro to go and the opposition is threatening to put protesters on the streets until he leaves. But the president has a firm grip on the military and security services, so any riots are likely to be bloody.

The Holy See is certainly taking a risk by stepping into such a highly charged situation. Pope Francis is spending a great deal of his own political capital in pursuit of a peaceful transition. Last month he received Maduro at the Vatican – to the dismay of the president’s numerous critics. Later Maduro appeared on state television holding a crucifix and promising to ponder the Pope’s private words.

Talks between the government and opposition are due to resume today (November 11). This is probably the last chance to save the country from a bloodbath. If discussions break down, some will regard it as a catastrophe for Pope Francis. But Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, the Vatican’s hard-nosed negotiator, is surely right when he says that “If one delegation or the other ends the dialogue, it’s not the Pope but the Venezuelan people who will lose, because the path then could truly be one of blood.”

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