Venezuela leftist President Maduro courts evangelical Christians before election Evangelical Christians are often courted by right-wing politicians. But in Venezuela, left-wing President Nicolás Maduro is trying to secure the church's support in the run-up to elections.

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

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Latin America's growing evangelical Christian movement is often courted by right-wing politicians who share the faith's conservative social agenda, but things are different in Venezuela. As the country gears up for a crucial presidential election, Venezuela's left-wing regime is making a play for the evangelical vote. Reporter John Otis has more.

WENCESLAO MENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

MENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Here in the western city of Barinas, evangelical pastor Wenceslao Mendez operates on a shoestring.

MENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: To attract people to his sermons, he pedals around on a bicycle, speaking through a PA system mounted on the handlebars. His church is a one-room shack still under construction.

MENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But over the past year, Mendez has received free bags of cement from the Venezuelan government as well as concrete blocks and cans of yellow paint.

MENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Before the building materials arrived," he says, "this church was just a roof. But now all four walls have gone up." The donations have come through a government program that is refurbishing thousands of evangelical churches across Venezuela. The government is also providing small cash stipends to 13,000 pastors. And it has pledged to build an evangelical university.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP #1: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: He says at a televised summit with pastors last year, an upbeat affair with plenty of music, Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's authoritarian leader, vowed to do even more for evangelicals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "I am also a pastor," Maduro said, "the grand pastor of Venezuela." This outreach to evangelicals, who make up about one-fifth of Venezuela population, may seem like an odd development. Evangelicals are often family values conservatives who support right-wingers. In neighboring Brazil, for example, they helped elect conservative Jair Bolsonaro in that country's 2018 presidential election. By contrast, Maduro leads a socialist regime that has cozied up to Cuba. What's more, Maduro's predecessor, the late President Hugo Chavez, often clashed with religious leaders who criticized his government.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUGO CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: This is Chavez in a 2007 speech calling Venezuela's Roman Catholic bishops devils and vagabonds. Chavez 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. This could convince the U.S. to fully lift economic sanctions against his country. But in a clean election, analysts say, Maduro would be the underdog, which is why he's reaching out to evangelicals.

JAVIER CORRALES: Those pastors will get you votes because those pastors do direct their church members to go in a certain direction, and they follow.

OTIS: That's Javier Corrales, a Venezuela expert at Amherst College. He points out that the Maduro regime is actually quite conservative on social issues. Venezuela has one of Latin America's most restrictive abortion laws, while same-sex marriage is illegal.

CORRALES: This is an old-fashioned, militaristic, homophobic government. And then there is the political marriage with evangelicals. They know that as long as you're feeding them this type of social conservatism, they will not abandon you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP #2: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: At Maduro's evangelical summit, the pastors were squarely in the president's camp.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ENRIQUE VILLALBA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Enrique Villalba, who heads one of Venezuela's largest evangelical churches, told Maduro, we are praying for you and your family. So is Mendez, the pastor at the half-built church back in Barinas.

MENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He admits that Venezuela has weathered extremely hard times under Maduro.

MENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "But the fact that Maduro is still in power," he says, "proves that God's on his side." For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Barinas, Venezuela.

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