, Caracas, Venezuela, Feb 24 – Despite unpopularity and a deepening economic crisis, Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro seems such a certainty for reelection in April that only an evangelical pastor has found the faith to run against him.
“I am the light in the darkness,” said little-known pastor Javier Bertucci, without a hint of irony, so far the only opponent willing to try to unseat the leftist leader in a presidential election which Maduro’s opponents accuse him of rigging.
Mainstream opposition parties say they are boycotting the April 22 poll because they have no guarantees they would be free and fair.
A ballot wasn’t due until December but the Constituent Assembly, an all-powerful legislature stacked with Maduro loyalists, announced in January that the date was being brought forward.
Venezuela’s Supreme Court issued a ruling that excludes the opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable from running and banned several prominent opposition figures from participating.
The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on Maduro and his officials, with Washington calling him a “dictator.”
Bertucci scoffs at assertions from the opposition that he is merely a political stooge to legitimize Maduro’s election.
Other would-be candidates have only a few more days to register.
Analysts believe Henri Falcon, a polarizing figure in the opposition, will eventually emerge as Maduro’s main challenger.
Bertucci, 48, says Maduro is “beatable” in the ballot and criticized the opposition for effectively giving him a clear run to a second six-year term.
“It’s a mistake to leave the way clear (for Maduro) and continue with talk that everyone is cheating,” he said after preaching to a packed congregation at his church.
The government “continue to take all the space. They have always had the advantage, but more than 50 percent of the electorate wants to vote. Why deny them that right?”
— Fervent following —
There seems little doubt that the few thousand fervent followers who packed a hall to hear him preach this week would vote for him.
People in the congregation, young and old, held their arms up in supplication, tears streaming down their faces, as a suited Bertucci murmured into a microphone on a stage over a soundtrack of motivational music.
But it’s a stretch to believe Bertucci can make more than a tiny dent in the national vote. Most will say he hasn’t a prayer.
Still, he says his fusion of politics and religious faith is what the country needs to overcome its deep economic crisis, which has made food and medicine shortages the norm.
Evangelical movements, like Bertucci’s Maranatha Church, have gained ground against traditional churches in Venezuela and across Latin America in recent years.
Bertucci believes he can emulate anti-gay marriage pastor Fabricio Alvarado, who will contest a run-off vote for the presidency of Costa Rica on April 1.
“If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t be here. I can be the next president of this country,” he said.
“People want change, a leader with values, because politics in our countries has fallen very low.”
Bertucci added: “I don’t know what Nicolas Maduro communicates, but clearly I represent the good and the light,” bringing Christian values to the country.
“If I am the light someone must be the darkness, or evil.”
While Bertucci insists he has no political past, his name was mentioned in the Panama Papers scandal over tax evasion, but he denies wrongdoing.
“I met with a well-known importer and I asked him if we could import meat which would be financed with money from many volunteers,” in his church. But negotiations broke down, he said, “and nothing happened.”
Like Alvarado, his fellow preacher in Costa Rica, Bertucci makes no bones about rejecting the idea of gay marriage as a “social distortion”.
“I respect the sexual orientation of each individual, but I will never support a law of this kind.”
He will have to leave his role as pastor to contest the election, a decision that “pains my heart, but it’s the right one. God loves this country and it was necessary to make a sacrifice.”