CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — With two months to go before Venezuela's presidential election, the only challenger to jump in the ring against President Nicolas Maduro is a little-known television evangelist who was once arrested for fuel smuggling and has a range of business ventures.
Despite his questioned past and the steep odds against him, the Rev. Javier Bertucci claims that he uniquely speaks to the vast majority of struggling Venezuelans disillusioned with both the opposition and Maduro's unpopular government. He calls himself the "candidate of hope" and says that Jesus Christ would surely support his candidacy.
"I'm the only one who can guarantee the governability of the country," Bertucci said in an interview. "I've traveled the country for eight years, seen the tears of mothers. ... No other leader can awaken the aching hearts of the Venezuelans."
But some anti-government activists see his longshot candidacy, which so far doesn't have the backing of any party, as dividing the opposition and lending undeserved legitimacy to Maduro's re-election attempt. It also underscores the rising political influence of fast-growing protestant churches in Latin America, where a born-again singer is the front-runner to be Costa Rica's next president and an evangelical bishop is now mayor of Rio de Janeiro.
On Wednesday, Venezuela's opposition emerged from days of closed-door meetings to announce it would boycott the snap April 22 election unless the government met its demands for international observers and took other steps to ease fears the vote will be rigged.
While former Lara state Gov. Henri Falcon, a prominent opposition politician, said Thursday he's still weighing an independent run, the deadline to register candidates is five days away. Maduro's call Wednesday to push up elections for congress — the one branch of government he doesn't control — to coincide with the presidential vote is also likely to further entrench hardliners who say Venezuela has descended into dictatorship.
That leaves Bertucci, who announced his candidacy Sunday before a large television audience of shouting, crying worshippers at a mega-church in Valencia. With his wife, who is also a pastor, Bertucci leads the Venezuelan wing of the Maranatha church, a Panama-based Pentecostal movement that was started in 1974 and claims to have 500 churches spread across the world.
While hardly a household name, the social-media-savvy Bertucci has a loyal following. His bible-thumping TV show is broadcast daily on one of Venezuela's biggest networks. He also heads a well-known charity, The Gospel Changes, which organizes makeshift soup kitchens and Christmas toy giveaways in poor neighborhoods hardest hit by the worst economic crisis in Venezuelan history.
But the 48-year-old has no political experience and faces a constitutional ban on clergy occupying Venezuela's top office — something he claims to have gotten around by renouncing his religious affiliations.
Still, his outsider status may prove something of a draw.
Venezuelans are increasingly fed up with their political establishment, both the opposition and the government, who have spent recent years exchanging blame for the country's unraveling without resolving daily hardships suffered by voters like widespread food shortages and four-digit inflation. A January survey by local pollster Datanalisis showed that 34 percent of respondents favor an independent candidate in presidential elections, 10 points more than support a hypothetical government or opposition candidate. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.39 percent.
"There's a crisis of representation in Venezuela that Bertucci symbolizes," said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America who has lived on and off in Venezuela since 1992. "They reject Maduro, but the government has its thumb on the electoral scale and the opposition has a logical reason for not participating. That leaves people without many options."
Many in the opposition see Bertucci's candidacy as tailor-made to the government's wishes. Although he would seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund — long a boogeyman of Latin America's left — and lift currency controls put in place 15 years ago by the late Hugo Chavez, Bertucci said he won't seek revenge against Maduro or his inner circle.
"I don't want to chop off anybody's head or hunt down any group," he said.
There's also concern that he could take votes from the opposition if it changes its mind, although Venezuela's biggest evangelical party endorsed Maduro in the 2013 election. An estimated 17 percent of Venezuela's population of 31 million is believed to be affiliated to a protestant church.
Skeptics also suggest he may have also relied on the government to build a business empire and get out of some run-ins with the law.
In 2010, Bertucci was briefly detained after prosecutors charged a company he owned with smuggling a shipload of 5,000 tons of diesel fuel disguised as paint thinner. He's also listed as the officer of a Florida medical equipment company, owns a construction business and according to leaked documents once inquired with Mossack Fonseca, the law firm at the center of the so-called Panama Papers on the financial dealings of the world's rich and famous, about opening an offshore company valued at $5 million.
Bertucci has said all of his business dealings are connected to his pastoral work and the offshore company, which he never ended up opening, was part of an effort to import meat to feed hungry Venezuelans.
He also insists he's not doing the government's bidding.
"The opposition thinks that by not presenting a candidate the elections will be invalidated," he said. "But if nobody confronts Maduro, he'll continue in power and Venezuela's reputation will continue to be discredited."
Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.
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