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Venezuela's leftist leader Maduro makes a play for evangelical voters

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro gestures as he speaks on Dec. 3.
Pedro Rances Mattey
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AFP via Getty Images
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro gestures as he speaks on Dec. 3.

BARINAS, Venezuela — Evangelical pastor Wenceslao Méndez operates on a shoestring.

To draw people to his sermons, he pedals around this western Venezuelan city on a bicycle, speaking through a PA system mounted on the handlebars. He holds forth from a one-room shack still under construction.

But over the past year, Méndez's church has received a boost from the Venezuelan government. It provided him with free bags of cement, concrete blocks and cans of yellow paint to spruce up the building. Also on the way are 60 plastic chairs to seat the faithful.

"Before, we didn't even have a roof," Méndez says as he shows off his freshly painted altar.

The donations are part of an aggressive campaign by Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela's authoritarian leader, to secure the support of evangelical Christians ahead of a crucial presidential election later this year in which he will seek another six-year term.

Venezuelan evangelical pastor Wenceslao Méndez draws people to his sermons from his bike using a speaker system.
/ John Otis for NPR
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John Otis for NPR
Venezuelan evangelical pastor Wenceslao Méndez draws people to his sermons from his bike using a speaker system.

A program, called "My Well-Equipped Church," is refurbishing thousands of evangelical churches across the country. The Maduro government is also providing small cash stipends to 13,000 pastors and has pledged to build an evangelical university.

Maduro's son, also named Nicolás, was appointed vice president of religious affairs for the ruling Socialist Party and regularly meets with evangelical pastors. The regime has allowed evangelical political parties, like El Cambio ("Change"), to operate even as it cracks down on opposition parties. In January 2023, Maduro held a televised summit with evangelical pastors, at which he declared: "I am also a pastor; the grand pastor of Venezuela."

This outreach to evangelicals, who make up 13% of the population, according to a 2020 survey, may seem odd given the faith's longtime connection to conservative politicians and social causes. In neighboring Brazil, for example, evangelicals helped elect right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro in that country's 2018 presidential election and were a key part of his coalition when he narrowly lost his 2022 reelection bid.

By contrast, the left-wing Maduro claims to be leading a socialist revolution, one that has cozied up to communist Cuba. What's more, Maduro's mentor and predecessor, the late President Hugo Chávez, often clashed with religious leaders — though he aimed most of his fury at Roman Catholic clerics who criticized his government's efforts to grab more power.

In a 2007 speech, for example, Chávez called the country's Catholic bishops "devils" and "vagabonds."

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro delivers his annual address at the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 15. Behind is an image of late President Hugo Chávez.
Ariana Cubillos / AP
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AP
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro delivers his annual address at the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 15. Behind is an image of late President Hugo Chávez.

Chávez died of cancer in 2013. Since then, Maduro has rolled back democratic freedoms in Venezuela and led the country into its worst economic crisis in history. All this has made him deeply unpopular at a time when Maduro is pledging to hold a free and fair presidential election later this year.

Should that happen, it could convince the U.S. government to permanently lift sanctions against his government that crippled the country's vital oil industry. The U.S. temporarily lifted most of those sanctions in October, but the Biden administration has threatened to reimpose them if Maduro fails to hold a clean election.

Analysts say that in a head-to-head contest against opposition leader María Corina Machado, who is battling government efforts to keep her off the presidential ballot, Maduro would be the underdog — which is why he's reaching out to evangelicals.

After burning its bridges with many Catholics, who make up 71% of the population, according to the 2020 survey, "the government needs some kind of religious credibility," said Iraní Acosta, director of Fe y Alegría (Faith and Joy) radio station in western Venezuela, which is affiliated with the Catholic Church. "This is a country of believers."

Javier Corrales, a professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts who has studied the connection between evangelicals and politicians in Latin America, points out that despite the Maduro government's leftist revolutionary rhetoric, it appeals to many evangelicals because it is actually quite conservative on social issues.

Venezuela has one of the region's most restrictive abortion laws while same-sex marriage remains illegal, even as more nations across Latin America are legalizing such unions. Citing family values, the Maduro government raided a gay men's club in July, has launched a war against illegal drug use and has even outlawed e-cigarettes. Until this year, gays were outlawed from Venezuela's armed forces.

Members of several evangelical churches take part in a demonstration called by different religious groups "in defense of the traditional family" and against same-sex marriage in Caracas on July 13, 2023.
Yuri Cortez / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Members of several evangelical churches take part in a demonstration called by different religious groups "in defense of the traditional family" and against same-sex marriage in Caracas on July 13, 2023.

"This is an old fashioned, militaristic, homophobic government," Corrales says.

In addition, evangelicals can be a reliable voting bloc as pastors hold huge sway in their communities.

"As long as [politicians] are feeding them this type of social conservatism ... these pastors will get you votes," Corrales says. "They are super organized and it's very vertical. So, candidates don't have to talk to a lot of people. They just need to get the pastors on board."

At Maduro's evangelical summit, the pastors were squarely in the president's camp. Enrique Villalba, who heads one of Venezuela's largest evangelical churches, told Maduro: "We are praying for you and your family."

So is Méndez, the pastor at the half-built church in Barinas.

He admits that Venezuela has weathered extremely hard times under Maduro, but he thinks that most of his churchgoers will cast their ballots for him. The fact that Maduro is still in power, he says, proves that "God is on his side."

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