Are evangelical politics reshaping Central America into the new Bible Belt?

Presidential candidate Fabricio Alvarado Munoz with the National Restoration Party gives his victory speech on Feb. 4, 2018, after general elections in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Presidential candidate Fabricio Alvarado Munoz with the National Restoration Party gives his victory speech on Feb. 4, 2018, after general elections in San Jose, Costa Rica. AP

In tiny, peaceful Costa Rica, a country that lives on its reputation as a laid-back vacation spot, the political ascent of a conservative evangelical pastor has caught many by surprise.

On Sunday, Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz — who has said he’ll challenge the rights of same-sex couples, consider withdrawing from the Inter-American Human Rights Court and uphold the country’s rigid anti-abortion laws — hopes to win the presidency.

His popularity is part of the growing tide of evangelical political power in Latin America — a force that is helping make Central America one of the most socially conservative swaths of the hemisphere.

“The conservative message of evangelicals regarding reproductive rights and marriage is going mainstream,” said Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College. “The most important flagships of the evangelicals, including their homophobic and pro-life discourse, is not that extreme to Costa Rican voters and voters in other countries.”

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Latin America remains predominantly Catholic, and Catholicism is the official state religion of Costa Rica. But Protestantism has been making deep inroads in the region. According to the PEW Research Center, about 20 percent of Latin Americans now identify as Protestant, up from just 3 percent just a few decades ago.

And many of those converts subscribe to fundamental forms of Pentecostal Christianity — and that’s being reflected in local politics.

Driven by conservative values, Central America has adopted some of the most restrictive reproductive laws on the books.

In Costa Rica, women can only have abortions if they can prove their life or health is at risk. In Guatemala, Mexico and Panama abortions are only allowed to save a mother’s life. And in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, abortion isn’t legal under any circumstance.

There are more than a dozen women in jail in El Salvador for abortion crimes, and last year the high court upheld the 30-year murder sentence of a woman who said her baby was stillborn.

The fact that El Salvador and Nicaragua are both run by former leftist guerrillas, illustrates how conservative social views transcend political leanings.

Not all of the conservative attitudes can be attributed to the evangelical wave — the Catholic Church remains powerful. But evangelical Christianity “has added fuel” to the conservative push in the region, Corrales said.

Alvarado Muñoz, a 43-year-old pastor, singer and congressman, emerged as the unexpected winner of the first round of Costa Rica’s presidential election in February, narrowly beating Carlos Alvarado Quesada — a writer, former ruling-party minister and would-be successor to President Guillermo Solís. As both men head into Sunday’s runoff, polls give the pastor a slight lead.

Alvarado Muñoz, was able to capitalize on his role as outsider and as an anti-corruption crusader. But much of his campaign focused on the contentious issue of gender roles.

The first round vote came just weeks after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is based in San José, ruled that its 25 member nations must allow same-sex marriage. It also ruled that Costa Rica has an obligation to extend property rights to same-sex couples, and allow transgender citizens to change their name on identity documents.

While the Costa Rican government agreed to comply, Alvarado Muñoz and his National Reformation Party (NRP) campaigned on resisting that ruling and threatening to break with the regional body altogether.

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That rhetoric has sparked alarm in civil rights circles.

“The homophobic campaign promises on behalf of the NRP represent a potentially dramatic change for Costa Rica, from a place of safety for LBGT persons to a potentially hostile environment,” Carlos Ponce, the director of Latin America programs at Freedom House, a U.S. based non-profit, said in a statement.

Costa Rica is often viewed as one of the more progressive and liberal countries in the region, said Constantino Urcuyo, a television commentator and political science professor at the University of Costa Rica.

The nation, famously, has no standing army, is seen as a regional peacemaker, an eco-tourism pioneer and a staunch advocate for human rights. It’s also something of a magnet for U.S. retirees.

“But on issues that start from the waist down, the country is very conservative,” he said. And evangelical movements have done a better job than the Catholic Church of harnessing those views on abortion, divorce and same-sex marriage, he said.

“The Catholic church has failed as a business in terms of retaining its clients,” Urcuyo said. “Its marketing tools are primitive and old, but [the evangelicals] are very good at religious marketing.”

In particular, evangelical churches have pushed into poor and lower middle-class areas that the Catholic Church neglected. And they’ve turned those populations, traditionally excluded from politics, into a voting bloc.

“Evangelical churches today can be found in almost every neighborhood in Latin America — and they are transforming politics like no other force,” Corrales, the Amherst professor, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed. “They are giving conservative causes, and especially political parties, new strength and new constituencies.”

In Mexico and Brazil — just as Republicans have done in the United States — presidential candidates are actively courting the evangelical vote. And throughout Latin America, evangelical parties are seeing growing representation in congress.

Ana Chacón-Mora, a Costa Rican political analyst, called the rise of Alvarado Muñoz and the NRP a dangerous precedent and a threat to the separation of church and state.

She said there are clear indications that evangelical pastors are ordering their faithful to go to the polls this Sunday and vote for Alvarado Muñoz.

“There’s a very strong sense of faith in the country and now we have a candidate who is presenting himself as chosen by God, and the vote comes exactly on Easter Sunday,” she said. “Many people see that as a sign.”

For Chacón-Mora, however, it’s a sign that election authorities were “negligent” in scheduling the vote for such a symbolic date, and during a week when all but the most committed voters are likely to be at the beach on vacation.

Alvarado Muñoz’s NRP party is already the second-largest force in congress and Chacón–Mora said that, if he wins, there are concerns that he’ll try to reshape the government “into who knows what.”

Urcuyo, the political science professor, doesn’t share those concerns. He said the country’s constitutional court, and other checks and balances will keep Alvarado Muñoz’s faith out of the constitution.

And once in power, he’ll have to face more earthbound issues like building roads, reducing the deficit and reining in public spending.

“I’m a little surprised when I hear people worry about this idea that we’re going to turn into a theocracy,” he said. “Yes, this is a polarized campaign, but we’re not facing an apocalypse.”