The Holy Marriage Between OId Copei and an Evangelical Party

The rump version of one Venezuela’s oldest parties, the Catholic-influenced Copei, just established an alliance with an evangelical party to oppose abortion, sex-ed and gay marriage. Will Christian conservatism grow within the opposition too?

In early September, primaries pre-candidate Roberto Enríquez received the complete backing of Nueva Visión Para Mi País (Nuvipa), an Evangelical political party founded in 2012 that advocates for Christian nationalism –or the establishment of a Christian theocracy– in Venezuela. Enríquez is the president of the Christian-democratic party Copei-ODCA, the branch of old Copei that was recognized by the Christian Democrat Organization of America and the mainstream opposition after the party was forced to split under governmental pressure.

Later, Enriquez withdrew his candidature from the primaries, but his alliance with Nuvipa isn’t limited to that election. In fact, Copei-ODCA and Nuvipa created a movement called Life, Family and Liberty (Vifalip) to consolidate their political agenda – making this alliance an explicit attempt to join conservative Catholic and Evangelical movements in Venezuela. In fact, while Copei has a strong Catholic influence and Nuvipa was born out of the evangelical Centro Cristiano para las Naciones (CCN) megachurch, both Enríquez and Nuvipa have vociferously opposed abortion and “gender ideology.” Political Evangelism has grown its influence within Chavismo; now, this movement marks the beginning of a front within the opposition too. 

The movement’s inaugural event was attended by more than two thousand people in a room at the CCN’s headquarters in Los Chaguaramos, in Caracas. Members of both parties were in attendance, as well as the CCN’s president and leading pastor Raúl Ávila, who was at the forefront of the event. 

Copei’s secretary-general, Robert García, assured that “the intention of this movement is not for the purpose of an electoral situation, but rather to advance in the defense of the family, life and political freedom, through the religious and political spheres of civil society”. He emphasized the importance of “uniting the spiritual and political fight” in order to, once again, raise the “flags of principles.”

“I won’t allow the entrance of gender ideology to Venezuela”, Enríquez, who is a member of the opposition’s negotiation delegation in Mexico and Barbados, said during the official launching of Vifalip in early October. “This fight isn’t for a primary. This fight isn’t for [elections in] 2024. This fight is because those of us with Christian values must raise the alarms and tell Venezuela it must look for God again.” Of course, a religious campaign didn’t give him much leverage in a campaign to choose the opposition’s candidate that will tentatively face Nicolás Maduro in 2024. But it won him unexpected allies. 

Although most Venezuelans are Roman Catholic, the radical force of the evangelical churches is not wasting time to provide divine revelations for those seeking meaning. The CCN federation, for example, has risen to become one of the broadest evangelical powers in Venezuela: born in Caracas, it has more than 168 churches across the country and the region. The congregation is also present in Argentina, Spain, the United States, Colombia, Chile and eight other countries. Its founder, Caracas-based Argentine sociologist and speaker-influencer Raúl Ávila, is popularly known as “el Apóstol” by most church members. 

Although their activities are focused on congregational expansion through an endless network of pyramidally-articulated networks throughout Caracas and other states, political aspirations have always been part of CCN’s agenda. Messianism is part of the menu: the pastor’s family is fully convinced that Ávila’s 13-year-old grandson will one day become the president of Venezuela.

Fragmentation and reconfiguration

Both members of Life, Family and Liberty come from a history of splits in the context of the political fragmentation that started in the 1990s and increased with the judicial persecution of the Maduro years.

CCN’s political aspirations crystallized in 2012 with the founding of Nuvipa under the motto “there is a future for my country.” The Christian nationalist party then nominated Eusebio Méndez as a candidate for the 2013 presidential elections, where he obtained 0.13% of the votes.

But the party eventually suffered the same fate as the majority of the opposition parties, enduring a judicial intervention in 2020 in which the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) imposed a government-friendly board. Now, the party –like Copei– is also divided in two branches: one recognized by the Maduro government and led by Humberto Padilla, which joined the Alianza Democrática coalition of co-opted or loyal opposition parties in 2021, and one that follows the original statutes and endorsed Enríquez in the mainstream opposition’s primaries. 

Vifalib’s explicitly expressed main goal is to have parliamentary and societal influence over same-sex marriage, abortion and sexual education – all of which it opposes. In fact, Enríquez has surfed a wave of conspiracy theories and Evangelical-led movements against supposed “gender ideology” indoctrination in schools, despite Venezuela barely having any sex-ed.

Copei –heavily influenced by Catholic social teaching and one of the two parties that ruled democratic Venezuela before the rise of Hugo Chávez– has followed a similar fate. After winning the presidency in 1968 and 1978, the party is now a minor force within the Unitary Platform. In fact, it fragmented ad infinitum following both the 1993 schism in which its founder Rafael Caldera left to create Convergencia to win the 1993 elections, and a 2015 judicial intervention in which the TSJ imposed a new board. Another intervention followed in 2020, deepening the divisions. 

Currently, like Copei-ODCA, Convergencia belongs to the Unitary Platform and backs Maria Corina Machado. Another post-copeyano party, Proyecto Venezuela, is also a member of the Platform. In fact, part of the founding stock of Primero Justicia –including Henrique Capriles– comes from Copei’s youth branch. Thus, at least four parties of the ten that compose the Unitary Platform have direct or indirect origins in old Copei. 

Meanwhile, the branch created after the judicial interventions –Copei ad hoc– has its own presidential candidate outside the primaries, follows the TSJ’s ruling and is led by Juan Carlos Álvaro. Similarly, there’s Unión y Progreso (UT), a party founded by former 1988 copeyano presidential candidate Eduardo Fernández and Mercedes Malavé, who led Copei after the 2015 intervention and before the 2020 intervention. UT is against the Unitary Platform and its leaders are rabid critics of the primaries, advocating for a consensus candidate. Finally, César Pérez Vivas –another primaries’ pre-candidate and former copeyano governor, now supporting Machado– leads the Concertación Ciudadana platform and ran against Enríquez.

Roberto Enríquez with militants of rump Copei in his campaign for the primaries.

In fact, a group of “historic copeyanos” –made up of old guard former governors and lawmakers as well as relatives of former copeyano presidents– endorsed Pérez Vivas in the primaries, even when ODCA recognizes Enríquez’s Copei as the legitimate party. According to Nelson Chitty La Roche, a copeyano lawmaker between 1984 and 1999 and Concertación Ciudadana’s campaign manager, the support of the group is the result of Pérez Vivas’s attempt to reestablish Christian democratic influence in the country. “His speech is nutritious from the perspective of the social doctrine of the church, but above all it is an attempt to update that position”, he says. 

Creating Vifalib

Meanwhile, Copei-ODCA and Nuvipa’s rapprochement dates to the creation of Frente Amplio Venezuela Libre (FAVL) in 2018, a movement created by the coalition Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD) alongside civil organizations to restore democracy, following the deadly 2017 protests and the sham elections for the illegitimate Asamblea Nacional Constituyente. FAVL, which comprised parties, universities, and religious representatives that opposed Chavismo, provided a first common space for Copei-ODCA and Nuvipa. “Talking about values and principles led to a natural approach of religious leaders and subsequent meetings”, Robert García, secretary-general of Copei-ODCA, says. 

Vifalib’s explicitly expressed main goal is to have parliamentary and societal influence over same-sex marriage, abortion and sexual education – all of which it opposes. In fact, Enríquez has surfed a wave of conspiracy theories and Evangelical-led movements against supposed “gender ideology” indoctrination in schools, despite Venezuela barely having any sex-ed. For example, in June, Enríquez stressed the necessity of a “people’s front” against “so-called gender ideology which seeks to destroy the family and motherhood and attack the integrity, innocence and dignity of children.”

The new movement now hopes to tour various areas of Caracas and Venezuela in the following months, using CCN’s nationwide network of churches. On October 17th, for example, a similar event to the movement ‘s inauguration was carried out in Guarenas-Guatire. 

Similarly, Enríquez’s Copei now hopes to grow its legislative influence in the upcoming parliamentary elections. “Our goal is to support the person who triumphs in the primaries on the way to the presidential election in 2024”, García says, “and subsequently to have a good parliamentary faction in the National Assembly.” Currently, the other branch of original Copei –led by a board imposed by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice and not recognized by the mainstream opposition– currently has three lawmakers in the disputed 2020 National Assembly.

Yet, for Chitty La Roche, Nuvipa’s support is not for Copei but rather for Enríquez’s personal ambitions. “He is not a candidate for each of these organizations, since he makes his way following his opinions and criteria. There’s no future for Enríquez anymore.” Meanwhile, the Vifalib chimera will continue slouching towards the churches –and social media accounts– of Venezuela.