In late January, standing before a crowd of more than a hundred evangelical Christians and pastors, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro affirmed his faith in Christ. “I believe in Christ the Redeemer, the Christ of the peoples that faced the Pharisees, the brave Christ that sought justice and equality,” he said to great applause. Maduro then publicly ordered his staff to prioritize evangelical churches’ access to radio stations and announced that his government would start a welfare program to renovate churches and give bonuses to pastors.
It’s not the first time Maduro has tried to court Venezuela’s evangelical Christians. But his efforts—which critics say violate the country’s separation of church and state—are ramping up ahead of the 2024 presidential election, when the mainstream opposition will participate for the first time since 2013. The election is crucial to Maduro, who has struggled to gain international legitimacy since the disputed 2018 election. For Maduro, evangelical support could be key to shoring up his base—and finally regaining international recognition.
This might seem like a strange political tactic in a country where more than 70 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, according to a 2020 poll. But the minority religion has grown in the country in recent decades, and the same poll reported that 13 percent of Venezuelans considered themselves evangelical Christians.
Evangelical Christians have become more influential in politics throughout Latin America. But in most of the region, they have largely supported conservative governments and coalitions, which have seen less success in recent years amid the region’s left turn. For instance, evangelical churches were among the most important allies of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, while an evangelical Christian music singer almost won Costa Rica’s 2018 presidential elections with a campaign opposing gay marriage.
In Venezuela, however, evangelical Christians have largely aligned themselves with Chavismo, the far-left movement of Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. This unusual convergence could be a product of the country’s authoritarian system. In neighboring Colombia, evangelical parties mobilized the population against a 2016 proposal to sign a peace treaty with Marxist guerrilla groups. But in Venezuela, people don’t want to “be arrested or harassed,” said David Smilde, a sociologist and senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. “You won’t see evangelicals mobilizing against a government like that.” In Smilde’s view, churches have simply sought to gain as much as they can under the current system.
Maduro’s approach, Smilde said, could also be a tactic to fight the influence of the Catholic Church, which has been openly critical of Chavismo since the early 2000s. While the Catholic Church isn’t one of the main political actors in Venezuela, it has influenced public opinion and has been critical of authoritarian governments since the 1950s; Jesuit institutions have also long influenced the country’s progressive and democratic movements.
In fact, Maduro announced the new church welfare programs to evangelical leaders a few days after Catholic authorities criticized him for reassuring the country that an economic recovery was taking place while a series of teacher-led protests against low salaries and working conditions raged on across the country.
“The government is seeking alliances that mobilize people and win support,” said Alfredo Infante, the Jesuits’ representative in Venezuela. “We could be in front of a new political phenomenon—for me, not positive at all—in which religious sectors are allied with political sectors.”
It’s not the first time that evangelical Christians have loosely allied with Chavistas. Their relationship started to develop as Chávez rose to power in 1999. “Chavismo was a moral rejection of technocracy,” said Smilde, an expert in the history of evangelical Christianity in Venezuela. “[Chávez] reached out to progressive Catholics, evangelicals, feminists, ecological movements”—basically “anybody who was critical” of the neoliberal Venezuelan governments of the 1990s.
When he came to power, Chávez gave evangelicals access to some of the privileges the Catholic Church had—for example, by letting them influence religious education in public schools—as part of his efforts to loosen Catholicism’s grip on the country, Smilde said. His government’s relations with the Catholic Church hit their nadir in 2003, when Chávez’s supporters threw rocks and set off fireworks at the funeral of an anti-Chavista cardinal and later decapitated a statue of the Virgin Mary in a square associated with the opposition.
Chávez’s close ties with some evangelical churches reached their peak in 2004, when 2,000 evangelical churches organized the “A Million Prayers for Peace” rally to pray and support Chávez in a recall referendum. Then the relationship came to a “screeching halt” in October 2005, when Chávez expelled New Tribes Mission (NTM) from Venezuela, Smilde said. NTM was a U.S. evangelical organization preaching among the Indigenous tribes of the Venezuelan Amazon, but Chávez accused its missionaries of being imperialist agents and CIA collaborators a few months after U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson publicly called for Chávez’s assassination.
It wasn’t until the late 2010s that evangelical pastors and churches made a political comeback. Maduro started to see the value of evangelical support when Chavismo’s popularity collapsed amid Venezuela’s severe economic and humanitarian crises. Since at least 2019, when he proclaimed a National Pastor Day, Maduro has organized events with thousands of pastors associated with the Christian Evangelical Movement for Venezuela (MOCEV), a group that claims 17,000 evangelical churches under its leadership. MOCEV is led by Moisés García, a pastor who is also a lawmaker from Maduro’s party.
“Many [evangelicals] have their own aspirations and see an opportunity,” Smilde said, and want to “stitch” themselves into the government’s clientelist networks. According to state media, 2,500 churches have received government aid and 13,915 pastors have been registered to receive aid since 2022. (The denomination was not specified, but evangelical churches are more likely to receive aid, since Catholic churches tend to have other sources of funding.) The share of money earmarked for “religious development” in Venezuela’s 2023 national budget approved by the Chavista-controlled National Assembly is equal to the funding for science and culture combined.
Maduro, who remains deeply unpopular, may need evangelicals’ support. If he manages to negotiate the conditions for free and fair elections in 2024 in exchange for sanctions relief, and thus make the elections legitimate in the eyes of the international community, the playing field could get competitive. While evangelicals’ vote may not be decisive, Smilde said, their churches and associations could mobilize members and bring considerable support to Maduro’s coalition ahead of a close election.
Yet while some evangelical Christian groups back Maduro, they are not united in their support. Some evangelical organizations—especially the oldest, most established ones, such as the Evangelical Council of Venezuela—have been mildly critical of his regime. Moreover, some evangelicals have tried to chart their own path separate from Maduro and the mainstream opposition, though they’re not revolutionary—they still follow the Chavista system’s rules.
In 2018, evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci, the leader of the Christian democratic party Hope for Change, ran for a president in an election boycotted by the mainstream opposition and not recognized by Western and Latin American democracies. Bertucci won more than a million votes—more than 10 percent of the vote.
Hope for Change, which considers itself an opposition party, has evangelical Christians in its ranks but is not part of MOCEV. Recently, it has engaged in its own talks with the government, which have been separate from the mainstream opposition’s negotiation process. Alfonso Campos, an evangelical congressman from Hope for Change, said his party believes “that the only way to achieve change is through the democratic way—the institutional way.” But these side negotiations end up helping the Maduro regime put on a democratic facade and weakening the mainstream opposition by dividing it. Members of the party “don’t question the government’s institutionalism, even if it’s unfair or illegal,” said Hector Briceño, a sociologist and researcher at the Central University of Venezuela.
Hope for Change’s strategy of participating within the Chavista system hasn’t turned it into a major party in Venezuela, but it has helped it win local elections. While its three gubernatorial candidates in the 2021 regional elections lost (the most successful won more than 22 percent of the vote), 79 municipal councilors and 17 state legislators running on the party ticket were elected. Still, it only won fewer than 105,000 votes—less than 2 percent of the state vote—mostly in rural areas and the state of Carabobo, which is home to Bertucci’s Maranatha Church.
While evangelical politicians’ electoral results are still meager, evangelicals close to Chavismo have had more success influencing Chavismo on social issues—particularly abortion and gay marriage, both of which remain illegal in Venezuela. Evangelical lawmakers in the National Assembly have established an evangelical pastors’ subcommittee, which openly opposes laws that seek to legalize abortion and gay marriage. “Evangelicals have completely paralyzed the [LGBT and women’s] rights agenda because they now represent an important mobilization force for Maduro,” said Rafael Uzcátegui, the general coordinator of PROVEA, Venezuela’s oldest human rights organization. When the mayor of the town of El Tigre tried to create a legal union for gay couples last year, evangelical pastors marched in protest and then said they would file a complaint against the mayor.
Although Campos, the evangelical lawmaker, hopes evangelical forces will unite and “rescue human society,” it’s unlikely for now that evangelical Christianity will rise as a political force of its own. But it can continue to grow its influence within Venezuela’s dominant party—and if Maduro does stay in power, evangelicals’ ability to stifle progressive social movements shouldn’t be underestimated.
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