(Bloomberg) -- The main attraction at Javier Bertucci’s presidential campaign rally wasn’t the Christian hip hop, the interpretive dancers or even the bouncy castle. It was the soup.
The 48-year-old Venezuelan televangelist came to the seaside community of Catia La Mar with vats of hearty beef stew that drew hundreds of hungry people carrying plastic containers and cups. He has spent months on house arrest after accusations of smuggling and he has amassed sprawling business ventures even while holding his Pentecostal pulpit. The sources of his campaign’s financial support are unclear. But food conquers all.
“I came to give out hugs, kisses, soup and hope,” Bertucci called out. “I’ve never been a politician, and thank God for that!”
With most opposition parties boycotting what they say will be a rigged vote May 20, Bertucci’s promise of a Christian crusade to restore the stricken nation has rising appeal. Despite never holding office, the newcomer is polling near 10 percent, underscoring how little faith Venezuelans have in traditional politicians to remedy their woes. And while Bertucci stands little chance of ousting President Nicolas Maduro, his campaign is sapping support from Henri Falcon, a one-time regime supporter turned critic.
The main opposition alliance shunned the election after the government failed to satisfy demands that included restaffing a compliant electoral authority and providing additional time for primaries. Falcon, a former governor and soldier, remains the most popular candidate, but analysts say polls don’t account for apathy brought on by an authoritarian incumbent and brutal economic collapse.
“For the first time, there is an overriding doubt about the legitimacy of an election since its inception,” said Carlos Romero, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. “The nation is asleep, occupying itself with survival.”
The strongest opposition figures, activist Leopoldo Lopez and two-time presidential contender Henrique Capriles, are banned from the ballot on dubious charges. The government has been sanctioned and isolated after being accused last year of a litany of electoral dirty tricks, from last-minute polling-station moves to stuffing ballot boxes. And hunger, mass emigration and general immiseration have created fertile ground for Bertucci’s pledge to replace bitter politics with “Christian values.”
His April 26 rally in Catia La Mar was carnivalesque. White-clad crowds danced and waved their arms under a fiery sun while volunteers painted children’s faces and provided medical services to the elderly.
“Both spiritually and politically, he’s the man best suited to bring change,” said Daniela Murga, 43-year-old poultry vendor. After years of the socialist government and opposition trading blame, “they’re all complicit in this mess.”
Bertucci, a broad-shouldered man with a booming voice and close-cropped hair, has a loyal following thanks to the megachurch he pastored in the central state of Carabobo. Until announcing his candidacy, he and wife led the Venezuela branch of the Maranatha church, a Panama-based, neo-Pentocostal movement that boasts more that 500 churches worldwide. His wife continues there as a pastor.
While Bertucci’s church began humbly in 1999, it now has a 16,000-member congregation. For those physically unable to attend, raucous sermons are broadcast on the radio and internet. Bertucci also preached twice a week on television and heads Gospel Changes, a charity that gives out food, medical attention and Christmas toys. He has made free soup a staple of campaign stops amid hyperinflation and chronic shortages of staples like cooking oil, chicken and sugar.
“How am I going to show up in a community with hunger, penury and say, ‘Vote for me’ without giving them anything?” Bertucci called out to the crowds in Catia La Mar, a destitute port 27 miles (43 kilometers) outside Caracas. “God will fight for us. I’m absolutely convinced of it!"
Still, some are leery of Bertucci’s intentions, suspecting he could conveniently torpedo any prospects of an opposition victory. Bertucci has publicly denied receiving money from the government or the opposition, relying instead on a network of “faithful donors.”
His background also fosters doubts. In 2010, Bertucci was placed under house arrest after authorities charged a company he owned with smuggling 5,000 tons of diesel disguised as paint thinner. He was never formally sentenced and was later allowed to leave his residence.
The pastor also has worldly business interests. He is listed as the director of a Florida medical equipment company and, according to an Armando.info investigation based on leaked documents from the Panama Papers dossier, contacted the law firm Mossack Fonseca in 2012 in hopes of buying a food importer. The venture never materialized.
A construction company bearing Bertucci’s name is listed as a former government contractor on Venezuela’s national registry. Bertucci says the company has closed and never worked with the government.
His devotees aren’t dissuaded. “Everyone has a past,” said Victor Sarria, 44-year-old bricklayer, shading himself with a Bertucci poster.
David Smilde, a Tulane University sociologist, says the appeal of Bertucci’s moralistic platform follows the rise of evangelicalism across a continent dominated for centuries by the Catholic church. In Venezuela, services are held everywhere from huge churches to small outdoor gatherings in plazas, slums and on beaches. Worship is lively, featuring singing and dancing, and in some churches speaking in tongues and faith healing.
According to a Pew Research Center poll, evangelicals account for about a fifth of the population in Latin America, even though only half of them were reared that way. The mayor of Rio de Janeiro is an evangelical bishop, while a gospel singer placed second in Costa Rica’s presidential election last month.
“They’re entrepreneurs and they’re selling hope,” said Smilde. “Maduro can’t do that anymore, except for people that are somehow connected to the state.”
At rallies, Bertucci slams his opponents for wasting resources on excesses -- such as billboards and posters -- when the nation is struggling to feed itself. He says he has invited Falcon to join forces, but only if Falcon serves as a No. 2.
It seems unlikely. In a press conference Tuesday, Falcon said he spoke with Bertucci and two other minor candidates about an alliance. Asked who would lead it, Falcon responded, “The statistics and polls speak for themselves.”
But in Catia La Mar, Bertucci said Falcon’s time has passed. “I’m rapidly rising in the polls, closing in not just on Falcon, but Maduro,” he said during an interview. “If Falcon joins me, I’ll win by a stampede!"
Many remain skeptical. Jose Francisco Exposito, 38, came to the event after being laid off from his job as airplane mechanic. “They all promise something, but no candidate can force this government out,” he said.
“I came for the soup,” Exposito said, bowl in hand.
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