Javier Bertucci, leader of the Maranatha Pentecostal Church, announced Sunday during his weekly religious television program that he is running for president of the South American country.
“I want to make this nation great, I want to bring Jesus to this nation, because Jesus dignifies the heart of any believer,” he told his congregation.
“The country will have to prepare itself to listen on national broadcast every Sunday the message of salvation,” added Bertucci, who has no previous political experience and his political views are largely unknown.
Originally from Guanare in Portuguesa state, the 48-year-old pastor is a controversial figure given his well-known ties to openly illicit business activities.
In 2010, the preacher was indicted for the contraband of five thousand tons of diesel, which he allegedly intended to smuggle to the Dominican Republic. He was subsequently released on house arrest and a final sentence in the case has yet to be handed down.
Bertucci is also named in the Panama Papers, a high-profile trove of leaked documents released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in relation to the operation of tax havens.
According to the documents, the pastor reportedly presides over a business empire spanning Panama, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Miami, dedicated to the sale of food, medicine, and building materials.
As reported by La Tabla, Bertucci allegedly has three registered companies in Panama alone, including Health Supply, Todo Salud, and Sky Suministros.
While Bertucci does not appear to have the backing of any political party, he is the head of a religious volunteer organization known as The Gospel Changes, which claims to have 100,000 members who participate in evangelizing activities involving the distribution of food.
US evangelical churches have made significant headway in Latin America in recent years, and around a quarter of Venezuelans currently identify with these denominations. However, their influence is not yet as powerful as in Central America, where evangelical singer Fabricio Alverado is the widely viewed as the favorite in Costa Rica’s presidential runoff.
It is nonetheless unknown if the Venezuelan preacher will ultimately be allowed to run on account of his criminal antecedents as well as the Venezuelan constitution’s prohibition on clergy running for president.
But Bertucci is not the only evangelical pastor throwing his hat into the race.
On Monday, Luis Alejandro Ratti announced his candidacy, promising to “represent the people with chivalry, bravery, and without fear, guaranteeing that they are going to have a different path than the last twenty years”.
A former Chavista, Ratti was the public face of the Hugo Chavez Bolivarian Front, before breaking with the government in 2016.
Little else is known about the preacher other than that, like Bertucci, he does not identify with the main opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD).
As they appear to lack the backing of registered political parties, both Bertucci and Ratti will be obligated to collect tens of thousands of signatures in the coming weeks in order to validate their candidacies before the National Electoral Council (CNE).
MUD leaning towards boycott
The unexpected evangelical candidates make their appearance as the principal opposition parties remain undecided on whether to participate in the upcoming April 22 elections.
The MUD, representing over a dozen opposition parties, has indicated it will announce its decision at the last minute before the 27 February inscription deadline.
However, inside sources say the coalition is leaning towards boycotting the presidential election.
Following a day of closed-door meetings on Monday, a source in the center-right Democratic Action party told Reuters, “we’re not going to the election.”
“They’ll explain why at the end of today or tomorrow. It’s a big mistake in my view, but that’s the decision.”
Leading the MUD’s more electorally-oriented wing, Democratic Action has been widely expected to participate in the race, with its leader Henry Ramos Allup repeatedly hinting at his candidacy. The historic party had the best showing of any opposition outfit in October 15 regional elections, winning four governorships, among them, the key border states of Merida and Tachira.
Meanwhile, the second largest party, First Justice, made public Tuesday that it will boycott the election, mirroring the decision of Popular Will party, announced last week. First Justice and Popular Will represent the far-right of the opposition groupings.
Both parties have called the April 22 election a “farce”, despite the date and electoral guarantees having been allegedly approved by the opposition in the context of an internationally mediated agreement the latter refused to ultimately sign.
Small parties may participate
However, not all opposition parties are in favor of abstention.
Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party President Segundo Melendez dismissed the proposed boycott as the “triumph of anti-politics”.
“We insist on… calling for participation. If we all call on the citizens to participate, we are sure that a majoritarian current will emerge,” Melendez said during a press conference on Monday.
MAS was joined in its call for electoral participation by Progressive Advance (AP), the party of former Lara Governor Henri Falcon and a member of the MUD coalition.
MAS and AP were among the few opposition parties that participated in December 10 elections, which were boycotted by the major parties of the MUD, leading to a landslide victory for the government.
April 22 could see a similar outcome in the event of another opposition boycott as well as left-wing unity around the candidacy of Maduro.
The Trump administration, as well as over a dozen conservative governments in the region, have already indicated that they will not recognize the presidential election result, despite Caracas vowing to implement guarantees agreed to with the Venezuelan opposition.