Venezuelan Presidential Candidate Profile #2: Javier Bertucci

The pastor is definitely an underdog in the race, but could a regional upsurge in evangelicalism spell an upset for the frontrunners?

By Paul Dobson - Venezuelanalysis.com
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Evangelical preacher Javier Bertucci upon announcing his candidature for the presidential elections (Javier Bertucci / Facebook)
Evangelical preacher Javier Bertucci upon announcing his candidature for the presidential elections (Javier Bertucci / Facebook)

What is his background?

Bertucci (48) comes from a rural banana-growing family in Portuguesa state. Father of four (three by birth, one adopted), he converted to neo-Pentecostal evangelical Christianity in 1990 when he was 21. Shortly after his marriage to Rebeca Barrios in 1993, both he and his wife decided to become pastors following a “call from God”.

Bertucci founded the evangelical movement “The Gospel Changes” (Evangelio Cambia) which according to their website has 110,000 volunteers in Venezuela and representation in 34 other countries.

Bertucci entered politics for the first time in January 2018, claiming to be the “light in the darkness” when he launched his presidential bid. In concordance with the Venezuelan constitution, he left his job as a pastor at the Maranatha Church whilst he runs for president. He currently stands third in the polls.

Despite his claims to being “the light,” the pastor has been wrapped up in numerous corruption scandals.

In 2010, Bertucci was convicted of aggravated smuggling and criminal association when he allegedly tried to ship 5,000 tonnes of Venezuelan diesel to the Dominican Republic.

Bertucci was also infamously implicated in the Panama Papers corruption scandal in 2016. According to the leak, Bertucci was president of the Stockwin Enterprises Inc, a Panama-based import-export company with $5 million of capital created in 2012 which allegedly defrauded Venezuela through the subsidised foreign currency exchange system Cadivi. Bertucci has denied any involvement in the scandal, though the journalists investigating the case claim to have received internet-based harassment from the preacher and his followers.

He began his business career in 1987 when he founded the Agropecuaria Los Cedros firm, which now forms part of the Maranatha Wood Comercialisation and Exploitation Consortium. He also owns Bertucci Constructors, and in 2013 he was named as the CEO of a medical services import-export firm based in Miami by the name of Biometrix-Med Equipment Corp. He also has links with the oil industry through firms like Recicpetrol C.A., Minería H6 2.8 and Tecnopetrol C.A.

Which political parties are backing him?

His party called Hope for Change (Esperanza por el Cambio). He also held a press conference the week of May 7 with representatives of the Christian Democratic COPEI party who had originally backed Henri Falcon. In the conference, they revealed that the leadership of COPEI now supports Bertucci, whilst a faction of its membership continues with Falcon.

What are his proposed policies for Venezuela?

Bertucci himself describes his candidacy as “absolutely conservative”.

He has outlined twelve proposals for government which include: the opening of a “humanitarian channel” for Venezuela; reactivating the national productive apparatus; generating wealth through private initiative; diminishing crime through stressing family values; developing tourism so that “foreigners can come to the best beaches in the world”; and rebuilding the international image of Venezuela, including reviewing current international trade deals.

He also highlights free press, returning autonomy to the five powers of state and the universities, and deepening the existing social programs.

More specifically, he pledges to privatize the GMVV Housing Mission, do away with currency controls, “go out and ask other countries for help,” as well as “bringing multilateral credits to our country.”

In relation to one of the hot topics of the campaign, Bertucci has proclaimed to “not support dollarization [of the Venezuelan economy], but to use the dollar as a reference point for wages and goods and services.”

He has stated that with Christian values in government, the economic problems of the country can be solved “very quickly” and claims to be open to working with “anyone who has a heart” in Venezuela. He has however made statements in the past ruling out any alliance with Chavismo or the mainstream opposition.

In the social sphere, he has promised to eliminate the Homeland Card which the Maduro government is using to channel social benefits and programs as well as “depoliticise” the country through the spread of “Christian values”, including regular Sunday bible classes through the “cadena” system in which all television and radio outlets are legally obliged to cover live presidential activities on a time-to-time basis.

The preacher has described recent efforts to legalise same-sex marriage as “a social distortion”, clarifying that he “will never support a law of this type.”

Regarding abortion, which is currently illegal in Venezuela, he claims to support abortion only in “medical cases or when it risks the life of the mother,” opposing it at all other times.

Bertucci in a quote?

“The clamour of not just a Christian people, but of a hungry people has reached Heaven.”

Who is his typical voter?

The famously disciplined and militant evangelical Christian.

Despite Catholicism remaining dominant in Venezuela, there are now 1.8 million evangelicals in Venezuela (17%) with another 2% belonging to other Protestant denominations, according to the Evangelical Council of Venezuela (CEV). As a result of Venezuela’s economic, social, and political crisis, evangelical churches have experienced a boom in recent years, particularly in rural areas and amongst lower middle class and working class citizens.

What is his election slogan?

“Hope For Change”.

What will he try to make the elections about?

Values. And the economy. But mostly values.

Following the recent troubles of both the Bolivarian process and the side-lined right-wing opposition parties, Bertucci is well-placed to take advantage of the breakdown in traditional political allegiances in order to garner a noteworthy vote share.

As Venezuelan community TV station Tatuy TV claims, “the ex-pastor is presenting himself as the outsider and uses his charisma and public speaking, which he has learnt directly from the pulpit, to counterbalance his empty political history.”

His efforts to highlight traditional values in the campaign come amid a slew of recent corruption probes as well as a popularly perceived increase in other “vices” in Venezuelan society such as crime, smuggling, price speculation, politically-motivated street violence, and other “anti-values” which he claims the Bolivarian process has brought to Venezuela, including the possible legalization of same-sex marriage.

What are his main challenges?

Due to his lack of political experience, many may doubt his capability to lead Venezuela through the extremely complex situation the country is currently facing.

He must win over significant opposition and Chavista voters if he is to stand a chance of victory, a difficult feat for a man with a new and still small support base, without the backing of any of the country’s major political parties.

As with fellow right-wing candidate Henri Falcon, Bertucci faces accusations of being a Chavista “Trojan horse” on account of his willingness to participate in the election in defiance of a boycott by the main opposition parties of the Washington-backed Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD). As a result, the pastor’s natural allies in the US or amongst the Venezuelan business class may be more reluctant than usual to support his campaign out of fear of being seen to support an electoral process which the US government and its conservative allies have rejected.

He can however hope to draw on recent evangelical political success throughout the region, which has seen the rise of figures like ultra-right Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro as well as Costa Rican evangelical singer Fabricio Alvarado, who was defeated in a presidential run-off on April 1. However, unlike Costa Rica, Venezuela has a single-round electoral system meaning that Bertucci will need to win over more than 51% of the voters at the first attempt.

Finally, in what is still a predominantly Catholic country, Bertucci’s Protestant evangelism may alienate many voters who otherwise agree with his conservative politics. He will have to find a strategy to convince these voters and go beyond his limited but extremely loyal evangelical base.

Where can I read more about him?

https://esperanzaporelcambio.com/

@JAVIERBERTUCCI