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Holy Handouts: Venezuela’s Maduro Woos Evangelical Voters with Gifts and Cash

As the presidential election approaches, the incumbent government seeks to win support with aid to churches and pastors.
Holy Handouts: Venezuela’s Maduro Woos Evangelical Voters with Gifts and Cash
Image: Ariana Cubillos / AP Images
Government supporter rides on the back of a motorbike holding an image of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

In many countries, politicians try to win over religious voters by highlighting areas of shared interest between their agenda and the faithful’s priorities. In Venezuela, the current president is offering pastors cash.

With less than three months until Venezuela’s presidential elections, incumbent Nicolás Maduro is expanding two initiatives specifically aimed at the evangelical community, which represents 30.9 percent of the country’s population.

Bono El Buen Pastor (“The Good Shepherd Bonus”), created last year, and Plan Mi Iglesia Bien Equipada (“My Well-Equipped Church Plan”) offer resources to pastors and their churches, including cash, chairs, construction materials, and expensive sound equipment—no strings attached. Mi Iglesia Bien Equipada exists under Misión Venezuela Bella, a government program that invests in recreation and arts spaces, which has remodeled nearly 3,000 churches since 2019.

At the beginning of March, Maduro gathered 17,000 people in a pastors-only event in the northern city of Carabobo and announced that 20,000 additional pastors had become beneficiaries of the Bono El Buen Pastor program, which would deliver a monthly stipend of 495 bolivars (around $14 USD) to each new member. (Venezuela’s minimum legal monthly wage is 130 bolivars or $3.50.)

Officially, the government says the program aims to give churchgoers dignified spaces where they can develop their faith. There are, however, those who view the state’s generosity with some suspicion.

César Mermejo, president of the Evangelical Council of Venezuela and a leader of the Federación de Iglesias Mizpa de Venezuela, called these efforts by Maduro an attempt to buy the souls of evangelicals.

“As is the norm for political processes, [politicians] search for votes in every sphere of society,” he said. “Evangelical churches can’t escape this.”

The search for support from evangelicals dates back to the time of Hugo Chávez’s socialist revolution.

While those outside of Venezuela might be surprised to see a socialist ruler reaching out to evangelicals, its political leadership has long turned to evangelicals in search of political support.

In 2004, when confronted with a referendum about whether he should remain in office, then-president Chávez reached out to evangelicals. At one point, representatives from 2,000 churches gathered, petitioning for divine protection for the leader. In 2006, after clashing with Catholic church authorities, Chávez even declared himself an evangelical.

Maduro, who served as vice president starting in 2012, assumed the presidency when Chávez died the following year after battling cancer. He continued to court churches and their leaders in efforts that seemingly have culminated in the two initiatives he is now expanding.

The electoral success of the endeavor is uncertain, says David Smilde, professor of sociology at Tulane University, who has studied the relationship between “Chavismo”—the populist ideology associated with Chávez—and evangelicals for 30 years.

“No matter how much money the Venezuelan government spends on these programs, there is no evidence that Maduro has managed to control evangelicals,” he said.

For Smilde, the denominational diversity of the evangelical church in Venezuela makes it difficult for it to be manipulated by politicians. “Evangelicals have free will at the core of their beliefs. This includes the freedom to vote for whoever they believe is best for their country,” he said.

Leading this part of Maduro’s reelection strategy is his son, Nicolás Ernesto Maduro Guerra, who has personally delivered chairs and sound equipment to churches, as some government officials have enthusiastically posted about on social media. In March, he celebrated a new ruling that Venezuela would no longer tax new religious civil organizations, including church startup taxes.

“President Nicholas Maduro continues strengthening the spirituality of our people and facilitating the loving work for those in need in every corner of the country,” he wrote on Instagram.

One of the beneficiary churches of these government programs has been the family ministry called Ministerio Familiar Fe Renovada (also known as Miffer). It operates in the center of Caracas in an old building that was donated to the church by the local government.

Edgard Martínez, who pastors Miffer, is grateful for what the programs have offered—and doesn’t believe they have hurt his ability to speak his mind politically.

“I believe that one cannot curse those things that are a blessing to you,” he said. “Because we have received this aid, we have not abandoned the ministerial approach, and we will not stop calling the good, good, and the bad, bad.”

But the government is not the only one to blame for wanting to manipulate the evangelical church in these elections.

Mermejo believes that opposition candidates are not innocent and are also trying to woo churches for political support.

“For me, the most worrying thing in both cases is the ease with which the opposition and government discourse tend to create the conditions to achieve this conquest, trying to turn the evangelical people into ‘useful fools,’” he said.

For similar reasons, Gabriel Blanco, who pastors a young church in Valencia called Comunidad de Fe Valientes, has sought to keep his church’s independence.

“We pray for the authorities, we bless the authorities—but we have made the decision not to get involved in anything that has to do with politics or to receive assistance from the government,” he said. “Thank God our people contribute to the social events that we do as a church. It allows us to maintain our independence.”

Blanco also directs Festival Juventud Libre, a youth conference, where he’s booked international Christian artists like Alex Campos, Christine D’Clario, and Montesanto. Politicians often covet appearances at events like this one, which draws tens of thousands of young people. But Blanco has decided that it’s not worth opening the stage to political leaders.

“In our organization, we have always stated that our events are for lifting the name of Jesus and are not platforms for lifting the name of a party,” he said.

Martínez explains his church’s decision to receive government resources by comparing his case with that of Nehemiah.

“Many times the enemy also works for God without realizing it. Just as Nehemiah received help from King Artaxerxes to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, we are using these resources in the moral reconstruction of Venezuela,” he said.

Despite this courting, Maduro may not need the evangelical vote, thanks largely to a recent decision of the supreme court of Venezuela to ban the candidacies of María Corina Machado and Leocenis García, two of the main opposition candidates.

“The government has committed two despicable acts,” García told CT. “First, a misogynistic act by removing María Corina, the only woman who could stand up to them in these elections. And also a racist act, by removing me from the race, the only black candidate in the race.”

These allegations of fraud have become increasingly common during presidential elections in Venezuela.

In 2018, numerous voters boycotted the elections, and outside observers, including those in the US, claimed the elections were fraudulent.

Only about 60 percent of Venezuelans plan to vote in the 2024 elections, according to a survey from March from the Venezuelan pollster Datanálisis. Of them, 15 percent said they were supporters of the current government, 36 percent said they were supporters of the opposition, and 41 percent said they did not identify with either side.

“Evangelicals from the poorest neighborhoods supported Chávez when he democratically came to power in 1999,” explained professor Smilde. “But the economic crisis generated by Maduro’s bad government has made him a tremendously unpopular president. That’s why he desperately needs evangelicals if he wants to win reelection without leaving any room for doubt.”

The economic and social crisis in Venezuela has spurred the most significant migration movement in Latin America this century. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, as of November 2023, there were more than 7.7 million Venezuelan migrants or refugees scattered across the world, mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean. The country’s population stands at 29.4 million.

A pastor running for presidency

Following the supreme court’s controversial decision to remove Machado and García from the ballot, eight candidates now vie for the Venezuelan presidency. Among them is Javier Bertucci, an evangelical pastor and deputy in the National Assembly who is running for the second time with the Christian center-right Hope for Change Party. In 2018, Bertucci finished in third place, winning more than 1 million votes and capturing 10 percent of the total.

In the past, Bertucci faced legal proceedings and was even briefly detained on charges of smuggling. He was also mentioned in the Panama Papers scandal, which exposed individuals from the political and business realms operating in offshore tax havens.

Bertucci noted that, through the two initiatives, the government has focused on delivering aid to churches in the poorest neighborhoods of Venezuela’s largest cities. But just because churches eagerly accept these donations doesn’t mean the congregations now support Maduro, he says.

“Although the pastors are receiving the things that [politicians] are sending them, these pastors are not actually being bought off,” he said. “[Politicians] are not managing to convince pastors to [accept] their socialist political ideology.”

Smilde believes the Venezuelan government is using Bertucci to divide the opposition’s votes.

“[Bertucci] believes in what he is doing and is convinced that he can become the first evangelical president of Venezuela,” he said. “However, Maduro is taking advantage of his candidacy to have a weak rival to beat easily on July 28.”

Bertucci has an answer to those who criticize him for participating in these questioned elections.

“The opposition has historically made a mistake by calling for a boycott. That has only served to continue socialism,” Bertucci said. “Surveys indicate that more than 60 percent of Venezuelans want to go out to vote because they want a change from this terrible government. Not [running for office] would be to fail those people who believe in the possibility of a return to democracy.”

Whether or not Maduro is reelected in July, the recent strategies launched by the government prove the political importance of the evangelical people in Venezuela. In 2023, Venezuela’s evangelical population grew faster than in any other Latin American country, according to a Latinobarómetro survey.

“With faith in political leaders—both government and opposition—disappearing, people have increasingly clung to religious beliefs,” said former presidential candidate García. “That is proportional to the levels of poverty and inflation. Politicians cannot move anyone today, but churches can.”

Hernán Restrepo is a Colombian journalist who lives in Bogotá. As of 2021, he manages the social media accounts for Christianity Today in Spanish.

[ This article is also available in español. ]

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