VENEZUELA – Pastor fills presidential void left by opposition

With two months to go before Venezuela’s presidential election, the only challenger to jump in the ring against President Nicolas Maduro is a little-known television evangelist who was once arrested for fuel smuggling and has a range of business ventures.

Despite his questioned past and the steep odds against him, the Rev. Javier Bertucci claims that he uniquely speaks to the vast majority of struggling Venezuelans disillusioned with both the opposition and Maduro’s unpopular government.

“I’m the only one who can guarantee the governability of the country,” Bertucci said in an interview. “I’ve travelled the country for eight years, seen the tears of mothers. … No other leader can awaken the aching hearts of the Venezuelans.”

But some anti-government activists see his longshot candidacy, which so far doesn’t have the backing of any party, as dividing the opposition and lending undeserved legitimacy to Maduro’s re-election attempt. It also underscores the rising political influence of fast-growing protestant churches in Latin America, where a born-again singer is the front-runner to be Costa Rica’s next president and an evangelical bishop is now mayor of Rio de Janeiro.

On Wednesday, Venezuela’s opposition emerged from days of closed-door meetings to announce it would boycott the snap April 22 election unless the government met its demands for international observers and took other steps to ease fears the vote will be
rigged.

While at least one prominent politician is weighing breaking ranks with the opposition, the deadline to register candidates is five days away and Maduro’s call Wednesday to push up elections for congress — the one branch of government he doesn’t control — to coincide with the presidential vote is likely to further entrench hardliners who say Venezuela has descended into dictatorship.

That leaves Bertucci, who announced his candidacy Sunday before a large television audience of shouting, crying worshippers at a mega-church in Valencia. With his wife, who is also a pastor, Bertucci leads the Venezuelan wing of the Maranatha church, a Panama-based Pentecostal movement that was started in 1974 and claims to have 500 churches spread across the world.

While hardly a household name, the social-media-savvy Bertucci has a loyal following. His bible-thumping TV show is broadcast daily on one of Venezuela’s biggest networks. He also heads a well-known charity, The Gospel Changes, which organizes makeshift soup kitchens
and Christmas toy giveaways in poor neighbourhoods hardest hit by the worst economic crisis in Venezuelan history.

But the 48-year-old has no political experience and faces a constitutional ban on clergy occupying Venezuela’s top office — something he claims to have gotten around by renouncing his religious affiliations.

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