A truck carrying chairs, sound equipment and paint pulled up at one of the complexes that the Venezuelan government constructed years ago inside the Fuerte Tiuna military base in Caracas. The materials were for the evangelical churches Unción de Dios and Salmo 32. There were speeches from officials, people prayed with their hands raised to the heavens, and a group of young people dressed in white performed Christian dances. The event was the first under a new government program announced a few days ago by Nicolás Maduro and took place to mark the Day of the Evangelical Pastor, decreed by the Venezuelan president himself in 2019.
Maduro has been deepening his ties with a sector of the Evangelical Church that in turn has formed a political movement to support him. Maduro has described it as “the true church of God,” in a challenge to the Catholic hierarchies, with which Chavism has traditionally locked horns, and the more traditional sectors of the Pentecostal congregation. The president’s son, Nicolás Maduro Guerra, who pastors refer to as “brother” during public acts, keeps his finger on the pulse of this relationship, which has been installed as a government priority, through his role within the Vice Presidency of Religious Affairs of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
The majority of Venezuelans are Catholic. It is estimated that some 17% of the country’s population identify as Evangelical, a number that has been on the rise as the humanitarian crisis in the country has worsened. “We pray a lot for the president, who has carried a very heavy burden. We pray for him because he is the man God placed here to govern Venezuela. We are subject to the authorities put in place by God and he, seeing our support, has devoted himself to blessing the Christian church,” Pastor Isabel Molina de Fernández said recently in an interview with state broadcaster VTV.
Chavism has been navigating turbulent political waters and after cornering the opposition, Maduro’s government has seen a slight uptick in approval ratings amid a fragile and uneven economic recovery and the county’s repositioning on the international stage via the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with some nations. Polls conducted last November showed that support for the ruling party stands at 28.7%. As of last year, Maduro has been campaigning and has even proposed bringing the presidential elections forward to this year instead of holding them in 2024, when they would be constitutionally required.
During events staged with the Evangelical Christian Movement of Venezuela (Mocev), Maduro often claims that the group consists of eight million evangelicals, a figure that leaders of the church question and view as an attempt to politicize the faith and use religious ceremonies as a stage for propaganda. Last year, 2,500 houses of worship were remodeled with government aid while 13,000 registered pastors received a bonus equivalent to almost $10 in early January through the Sistema Patria (or Homeland System). The bonus was called The Good Shepherd.
“We believe in the separation of church and state, so the church does not give figures. This has been a historical principle since 1517, from the Protestant Reformation until now,” Pastor César Mermejo, president of the Evangelical Council of Venezuela, which was founded in the 1940s and groups together more than 3,000 churches in the country, told EL PAÍS. “Public funds should not be made available for the advancement of particular religious or ideological creeds. The churches build their own temples, and we sustain social programs with resources and donations from the churches themselves. What is being done is to catapult a particular community in a pre-electoral scenario and in a moment of tension between the government and the Catholic Church.”
These government contributions to churches have come at the same time that the teachers’ union, health workers and core state industry employees are protesting over precarious salary conditions. The Venezuelan Episcopal Conference addressed the issue in a statement: “More than worrying about requesting the construction and/or fitting out of our temples, our prayers go out to the public clamor for the provision of equipment to hospitals and schools, salary adjustments for teachers and doctors, among others, and other issues that are priority issues for the good of the Venezuelan population.”
In 2018, in the widely disputed presidential elections after which Maduro’s legitimacy began to waver, he had an evangelical pastor as an opponent. Javier Bertucci campaigned by handing out soup at his rallies and drew almost one million votes, slightly over 10% of the total cast. Today Bertucci is a deputy in the National Assembly, which also contains 20 other parliamentarians who are evangelicals, four of them belonging to Maduro’s PSUV.
Bertucci represents a moderate opposition that has made a pact with the government, and he also aspires to run as a presidential candidate again. This is how Maduro – who in his youth declared himself an atheist then subscribed to Eastern beliefs such as the cult of Sai Baba and later declared Venezuela a Christian country – has gone about rapprochement with these sections of the church. While Chavism has cozied up to the Evangelical Church, it also provided a nod to Catholics by pushing for the 2021 beatification of the popular physician José Gregorio Hernández.
“There is a sense of growth in the evangelical movement’s power of influence, but this is not monolithic,” says political scientist Guillermo Aveledo. “Chavism and Nicolás Maduro are also rebranding around the figure of the stable family. He is selling himself as the candidate of order and peace, who survived Covid and the interim government. Reaching out to the religious community and, above all, the evangelical movement is designed to achieve this. Maduro is the candidate of the conservative status quo.”
Aveledo points out that this approach also makes sense amid “the conservative and authoritarian path” that other countries in the region are already taking, especially in Central America. According to the political scientist, winning over evangelicals can help Maduro mobilize voters, especially as these religious groups are becoming more ingrained in Venezuelan society. “If the PSUV brand becomes worn out, there are the Pentecostal churches,” he adds.
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