Little-known Venezuelan evangelical pastor launches presidential bid

CARACAS (Reuters) - A little-known Venezuelan evangelical pastor on Sunday launched his candidacy for the upcoming presidential election, an illustration of the growing religious influence in Latin American politics.

“I want to make this nation great, I want to bring Jesus to this nation, because Jesus dignifies the heart of any believer,” said Javier Bertucci of the religious organization The Gospel Changes in an internet broadcast.

He is unlikely challenger to the unpopular President Nicolas Maduro, who is seeking re-election in an April vote that the international community has broadly described as stacked in Maduro’s favor, and the country’s opposition has not made a unified decision as to whether or not it will take part.

The success of evangelical singer Fabricio Alvarado in Costa Rica’s presidential vote, however, and the rise of religious candidates in upcoming elections in El Salvador have brought renewed focus to the role of evangelical leaders in Latin America.

Bertucci has no known political experience and does not enjoy any significant name recognition in Venezuela. The Gospel Changes describes itself as a non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to spreading Christian values.

Bertucci said the country’s economic crisis, which includes hyperinflation and chronic food and medicine shortages, can be solved “very quickly” and that he is willing to ask other countries for help.

“Jesus changed history, and so will we,” he said in a speech that was applauded by around a hundred followers, some of whom appeared to be on the verge of tears.

“Today we start a race that we will win.”

Maduro has boasted that he will win the April 22 vote and govern until 2025.

The opposition says the election was called without enough lead time to guarantee a fair campaign or to ensure mechanisms to prevent voter fraud or intimidation.

Neighboring Colombia has said it will not recognize the results of the election.

Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader, says the country is victim of an “economic war” led by the opposition with the help of Washington, which last year levied several rounds of sanctions against his administration.

Reporting by Ana Isabel Martínez; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Sandra Maler