Yes, Evangelical Chavismo Is Happening

The Maduro administration is seeking to build stronger ties with Evangelical pastors to populate its base for the 2024 elections. A growing conservative strain within chavismo shows its teeth. Its latest victim? Reggaetón

Last week, a group of scholars and musicians met with General Prosecutor Tarek William Saab to hand him a document calling for reggaetón to be banned in schools and regulated in the media. Saab, who was wearing a Dark Side of the Moon t-shirt, described reggaetón as part of a “domination plan” by “financial, ideologizing and transcultural elites” to “dissolve the family.” “It will lead us to bestialization,” he said—whatever that means. But Saab’s speech sounded eerily similar to the anti-globalization stance of the American populist right, which confabulates liberal values with economic ‘neoliberalism.’

A year ago, Saab hit several QAnon talking points when denouncing “a very powerful global elite that seeks to normalize pedophilia and make people believe it’s not a crime.” But Saab is not an Evangelical Christian: he was born in a Druze family, Levantine esoterics who believe in reincarnation, he professes Zen Buddhism and calls himself a “Siddhartha hippie poet.” Nevertheless, his current postures connect with the fast-growing conservative strain within Madurismo.  

The government of Nicolás Maduro banned vapes, Saab launched an anti-drugs campaign (because it “destroys the family”), and his Office temporarily prosecuted 33 men for allegedly organizing an orgy in a gay sauna. Major porn sites in Venezuela have been blocked for years by Conatel, the same agency that blocks independent media sites.

In mid-July, thousands of Evangelical Christians marched in Caracas to ask the 2020 National Assembly—controlled by Chavismo—to discard an anti-discrimination bill that banned discrimination on many grounds, including sex, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. As their banners showed, the protesters were vociferously opposed to gay marriage, sex education, abortion, adoption by same-sex couples and “the normalization of sin in Venezuela.” When the rally ended, some pastors handed a document to PSUV lawmakers Rodolfo Crespo (Commission of Integral Social Development) and Asia Villegas (Commission of Families and Religious Liberty).

In fact, “religious development” matches the funding for culture and science combined in the 2023 national budget. Chavismo, seeking to tap into evangelical organized networks to mobilize votes in 2024, has also created welfare programs designed for pastors and churches.

The influence of Evangelism—despite allying itself with the right-wing in most countries in the Americas—is growing within Chavismo, which has also allowed for Evangelical “systemic opposition” parties like El Cambio to exist within its tightly-held institutions. In the National Assembly, for example, a special sub-commission has been vocal in its opposition to any legislative initiative to approve gay marriage or reform Venezuela’s Criminal Code stance on abortion, barely modified since 1926. In fact, “religious development” matches the funding for culture and science combined in the 2023 national budget. Chavismo, seeking to tap into evangelical organized networks to mobilize votes in 2024, has also created welfare programs designed for pastors and churches: “My Well-Equipped Church” had renovated 1200 Evangelical churches by May 15th, more than double the amount of benefited Catholic churches (even though most Venezuelans are Roman Catholics). According to state media, more than 13,000 pastors have registered to receive aid from the State, such as the “bono del buen pastor.” Nicolás Maduro Guerra (aka Nicolasito), Maduro’s son and PSUV’s vice president for religious matters, has spearheaded this approach, regularly appearing in events with Evangelical churches. 

But the lawmakers who received the pastors’ manifesto weren’t the only Chavista politicians in the rally. Nahum Pérez, the head of government of Distrito Capital, stood on stage alongside Evangelical lawmakers from the 2020 National Assembly. And yet, the slogans seemed transplanted from the American Christian right: organizers of the rally, known as “the March for Family,” promoted by Evangelical pastors through Instagram ads, denounced an “agenda that wants to be imposed by different economic and political sectors.” In fact, during the previous days, some of these groups had marched outside the Ministry of Education to demand a halt of sex-ed and to oppose the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda despite Venezuelan schools barely teaching any sexual education.

While the biggest Evangelical organizations in Venezuela have maintained an independent position, the Maduro government has propped up new alternatives such as MOCEV: the Christian Evangelical Movement for Venezuela (MOCEV), a group that claims 17,000 evangelical churches under its leadership and is led by Moisés García, a pastor who’s also a substitute PSUV lawmaker. Meanwhile, the Evangelical Council of Venezuela (CEV)—which is the oldest Evangelical organization in Venezuela, dating back to 1948—has been somewhat critical of the Chavista governments of the last two decades and has publicly separated itself from groups like MOCEV. CEV has even questioned the number of churches MOCEV claims and has described the group as “a sort of new actor we discovered in the press.”

Maduro praying with Evangelical pastors on national television. January 19th, 2023.

Now, through its newfound influence within the Chavista state, evangelical lobbies are pushing to keep gay marriage and abortion illegal in Venezuela—despite most countries in South America doing exactly the opposite. In fact, barely two weeks before the March for the Family, a pride rally had broken attendance records in Caracas. The March for the Family was the Evangelicals’ response.

The influence of Christianity in Chavismo isn’t new. It actually took its “participatory democracy” concept from the Christian Democrats of COPEI and included some of them in its first coalition, such as Ricardo Combellas and Mayz Vallenilla. In fact, Copei’s former presidential candidate Oswaldo Álvarez Paz was, alongside Saab, a member of the Commission that called for the creation of the 1999 Constituent National Assembly. While these Christian Democrats soon broke off with Chávez, PSUV considers “liberation theology” and “the origins of Christianity” as part of its fundamental principles. Hugo Chávez also got close with neo-Pentecostal churches as his relation with the Catholic Church soured. By 2004, two thousand Evangelical churches were organizing the “A Million Prayers for Peace” rally to support Chávez. But relations froze after Chávez expelled an American Evangelical organization from the Venezuelan Amazon the next year.

Yet, Evangelism’s influence has grown under Maduro: ironically, a Sai Baba believer who affirmed who had encountered Chávez reincarnated as a bird. As Chavismo’s popularity collapsed with the crisis, Maduro found a possible source of voters in Evangelical churches and communities and has increasingly invited them into the government’s clientelist networks since at least 2019: a year after pastor Javier Bertucci managed to win more than a million votes in elections decried as fraudulent by the opposition and its Western allies. Indeed, with Chavismo becoming more prude—and Saab fulfilling the dream of any middle-aged reggaetón-hating comegato—Evangelicals are a growing force sidelining progressive sectors of Chavismo: for example, the PSUV youth group which marched in pride rallies in Caracas and Maracaibo.

Of course, Chavismo is contradictory. In March, four months before the arrest of the 33 men, Venezuela decriminalized homosexuality in the Armed Forces. Such contradictions reveal the ideological emptiness of such a chameleonic movement: which changes its position merely to survive and keep its political grip over Venezuela despite lacking popular support: from wokewashing its discourse, and win allies in the international progressive left, to allowing Evangelism to become increasingly influential. Call it Evangelical Chavismo, if you may.  

Tony Frangie Mawad

Tony (1997) is one of Caracas Chronicles' editors, where he writes since 2016. He graduated in Journalism and Political Science from Boston University in 2021. Since then, he has written at Bloomberg, The Economist, Politico and others.