Standing behind a table at the United Nations on September 20, 2006, the day after George W. Bush gave a speech at the General Assembly, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez told the audience, “The devil came here yesterday, and it smells of sulfur still today.” Then he made the sign of the cross with his hands, brought them together as if in prayer, and glanced upward, as if invoking heavenly witnesses.
The death of the populist Venezuelan dictator at the age of 58 on March 5, however, puts an end to his antics on the world stage. But back home, Venezuela’s 29 million people may be the ones turning to prayer as their circumstances look increasingly grim. For the South American nation’s 3.1 million evangelicals, the transition from the arbitrary rule of Chavismo represents both danger and opportunity.
Chávez ruled the oil-rich nation for 14 years, calling for a more equitable distribution of Venezuela’s bountiful resources. But the results belied his stated goals. About one-third of the economy depends on oil, of which Venezuela is the world’s fourth-largest producer. Yet the spike in crude prices in recent years has done nothing to help the masses. Poverty appears to be growing while living standards are falling.
“A formerly strong middle class was reduced by falling oil prices,” says Operation World, “but the recent boom has enriched only a small minority. Despite massive fuel exports, the nation struggles with energy shortages. High economic growth is accompanied by high inflation and unemployment.”
More than mismanagement is to blame, many observers say. Chávez consolidated his rule with help from Cuba, Iran, and other authoritarian actors. While many in the lower classes supported Chávez’s vision for “21st-century socialism,” his abuses also sparked mass protests — and brutal reprisals.
“Violence was his medium,” says National Review. “A junior army officer, he did not hesitate to mount a coup, and once in power to devise a constitution that made him leader for life. He drove thousands into exile, expropriating their land and property. Venezuela depends on its oil, and nationalization of the oil companies gave him funds with which to buy popularity.”
It also gave him the resources to shut down his opposition. The State Department’s Human Rights Report noted “government actions to impede freedom of expression and criminalize dissent.” This included government harassment and intimidation of privately owned television stations, other media outlets, and journalists. “The government,” the report says, “did not respect judicial independence or permit judges to act according to the law without fear of retaliation.”
How have evangelicals fared under such misrule? Operation World reports that their breakthrough in this majority-Catholic nation occurred in the 1980s, later than in many other Latin American countries. But the movement has continued to grow at a modest and sustainable pace (currently over 3 percent annually). Evangelical influence in society has waxed, too, even while Catholic influence has waned while Chávez sought to consolidate his power. His exit could spell changes in that equation, especially if citizens return to their Catholic roots amid economic and social uncertainty.
In good times and in bad, evangelicals have been working to plant 25,000 churches and fellowships, from 2002 to 2015. Most tribes now have heard the gospel, though Bible translation work continues in 11, while 14 groups have no Scripture at all. Only 3 percent of Venezuela’s people groups are classified as unreached, though in many the Christian presence is still small. The poor remain very responsive to evangelical outreach.
But ministry among 30 indigenous tribes by groups such as New Tribes Mission and Mission Aviation Fellowship has met with opposition from “anthropologists, leftist politicians, the government and some Catholic priests. The work of NTM and MAF was effectively ended by government decree in 2005.” Much of this kind of work is being turned over to Venezuelans. Other key areas of need include the upper and middle classes, young people, and prisoners.
Missionary vision is growing, according to Operation World: “Pray for the Lord to prosper this young but accelerating missions movement.”
With the passage of Chávez, Venezuela faces a fork in the road, sulfur, or no sulfur: the consolidation of arbitrary and authoritarian divisiveness, or a return to a more peaceful, democratic government. Will the expected unrest in Venezuela in coming months open new doors — or close them?
One thing is certain. The country’s evangelicals have shown the ability to make gospel progress in either case.
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. His latest book, A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy: 60 Predictions Everyone Should Know, is scheduled for release this July. Stan blogs at http://stanguthrie.com/blog.
Publication date: March 8, 2013