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domingo, noviembre 06, 2005

New Tribes, old problems?

Chavez's announcement on Oct. 12 that he's expelling the New Tribes missionaries from Venezuela continues to be all over the news. But from the media coverage, it's been tough to get a straight story on why they're being kicked out, much less whether the charges against them are true. To start with, the missionaries are still in Venezuela. They haven't yet been actually expelled, and given the nature of Venezuelan politics, after all the sound and fury is exhausted they might just end up staying. Regardless, a message will have been delivered to far-right Protestants, and indirectly, to the Bush administration.

Venezuela is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, with a Protestant population of only about two percent. New Tribes is an evangelical Protestant group headquartered in Florida which sets up missions to reach indigenous Latin American populations.

According to Kozloff, New Tribes is a powerful continent-spanning organization which has a long and checkered history in Venezuela:

In 1946, members of the North American based New Tribes Mission, a
fundamentalist Protestant sect, entered Venezuela from across the Colombian
border. Posing as tourists and “curious explorers,” they settled along the Negro
River in the region known as Casiquiare. At the time, the area was used for the
exploitation of natural rubber which had not yet been replicated as a synthetic
fiber and was, as such, still a vital strategic material. The arriving
missionaries were not given a particularly warm welcome by the indigenous
peoples living in the immediate area. The Aquencwa Indians, then led by their
leader Horacio Acisa, soon began to violently resist their unwelcomed northern
visitors. . . . To carry on its ambitious work, the organization had a staff of
more than 150 including missionaries, linguists, pilots, engineers, technicians
and others. It also had its own communication network. By 1980, God’s soldiers
had 2 Bible institutes, 6 basic training camps, a linguistic institute, a radio
station, a medical center, and a housing complex for retired missionaries. Even
more impressive, New Tribes built 29 air strips from which their light aircraft
fleet operated. The airstrips and settlements all fell under their exclusive

In the late 1970s, New Tribes came under heavy fire for its actions among Venezuela's indigenous populations in Amazonas. They were charged with systematically working to destroy the cultures of the Amazonas peoples. Then New Tribes personnel were accused of economic espionage: using their missions as cover to search for exploitable mineral deposits. A groundswell of Venezuelans concerned for their nation's sovereignty, including indigenous leaders, demanded that New Tribes be expelled. The government investigated the matter, but then let it drop, in part due to political pressure.

I don't know if the charges against New Tribes were ever definitively proved. At any rate, they have continued to proselytize in Venezuela and in 16 other nations. According to the New York Times, New Tribes has 3,200 staff worldwide, including 160 in Venezuela.

So, why go after New Tribes right now? Chavez accuses them of espionage in cooperation with the CIA, saying he's seen a report and video with proof. He also accuses them of eroding indigenous culture and livelihoods and of violating Venezuelan sovereignty by essentially operating as a private state. They're also said to have engaged in industrial espionage by scoping out mineral-rich areas for foreign mining companies, or 'bioprospecting' for pharmaceutical companies.

New Tribes denies all these charges, and evangelicals in the U.S. have sprung to their defense. Some indigenous Venezuelans who work with New Tribes have also spoken out against the expulsion, and even held a march in protest of Chavez's announcement.

Certainly, with dozens of private airstrips and bases throughout Amazonas and several other states (although New Tribes now says they don't have any airstrips - I'm not sure what to make of that, where did they go?), New Tribes seems well equipped to set up a secret operation, but did they? And if so, are their allegedly colonialist and illicit activities now any different than in the past? Some say it may have more to do with Pat Robertson, who set a resoundingly bad example of evangelical Protestantism when he called for Chavez's assassination on national television, than with any recently discovered actions by New Tribes.

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