Evangelical vote pushes Latin America to the right

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Bogota (AFP)

The rise of Evangelicalism in Latin America has brought new power to conservative political movements, visible most recently in the shock defeat of a peace referendum in Colombia, experts say.

More and more Christians in traditionally Catholic Latin America are turning to Evangelical Protestant denominations, which have built a media-savvy empire of mega-churches over the past several decades.

Whereas just 10 percent of Latin Americans were raised Protestant, today nearly 20 percent describe themselves that way, according to the Pew Research Center in Washington.

And that is changing the political landscape in the region.

"The growing Evangelical influence on Latin American politics is one of the engines driving the region to the right," said Andrew Chesnut, head of the Catholic studies program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Evangelical churches have exploded onto the scene with lively services and pulpits open to ordinary worshippers, deftly using TV, radio and social media to reach into the homes and pockets of the faithful.

In a region with millions of poor, they have upstaged the Roman Catholic Church with the promise of a better life here and now, instead of waiting for the afterlife.

"As incredible as it may seem, Evangelical churches have managed to 'Latin-Americanize' more in less than 100 years than the Catholic Church has in 500 years," said Chesnut.

That has played a part in a recent rightwing resurgence in the region, after a decade-plus "pink tide" of leftist governments.

- Sex and peace -

The latest political victory for the Evangelical camp came in Colombia, with the October 2 referendum on a peace deal to end five decades of war between the government and the Marxist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Surprising pollsters and the international community, voters narrowly rejected the deal, which was nearly four years in the making.

In a vote marked by low turnout, Evangelical opposition played a decisive role.

The decision by the Evangelicals "to reject the peace accord with the FARC was based on morality," said Fernando Giraldo, a professor at Universidad del Norte in the Colombian city of Barranquilla.

The right-wing opposition successfully capitalized on Evangelical recoil to certain aspects of the deal, especially on gender issues.

The FARC has many women members, and the peace negotiations included a "gender sub-committee" to ensure equal rights for women and sexual minorities during the peace transition.

But clauses in the final deal addressing the political participation of women and homosexuals became fodder for Evangelical attacks.

Conservatives also seized on the fact that the government's top peace campaigner, former education minister Gina Parody, is a lesbian.

"We're for peace, but not with this deal," said pastor Edgar Castano, the president of the Evangelical Confederation of Colombia, which has 266 member organizations.

After the accord was rejected, President Juan Manuel Santos -- who won this year's Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts -- met with Christian leaders to ask for their input as he seeks to renegotiate the deal.

- 'Evangelical caucus' -

Evangelicals now make up more than 30 percent of the population in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Puerto Rico, according to Pew.

In Latin American giant Brazil, they make up some 18 percent.

Brazil even has an "Evangelical caucus" in Congress, whose members played a key role in impeaching leftist president Dilma Rousseff this year.

In Argentina, new center-right President Mauricio Macri got a boost on the campaign trail last year from singer-songwriter Ricardo Montaner, a prominent Evangelical.

Chilean politicians also cater to Evangelicals, who make up 17 percent of the population.

President Michelle Bachelet won a second term in 2013 thanks in part to courting Evangelical voters with measures such as a "National Day of Evangelical Churches" on October 31.

Latin America's Evangelicals have been flexing their political muscle at least since 1990, when Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, then a political outsider, was elected with strong support from Evangelical churches.

He went on to make one of their pastors, Carlos Garcia, his deputy vice president.