News and opinions on the situation in Venezuela
Evangelicals in Venezuela: Robertson Only the Latest Controversy In a Long and Bizarre History
Council On Hemispheric Affairs
Monday, September 19, 2005
In a clear sign that the Chávez administration is more than a little concerned about the nature of missionary activities of the Protestant evangelical sects residing in the country, the Venezuelan government announced on August 29 that it would suspend all new applications for missionary visas. It is unclear how long the suspensions will last and and when asked to comment the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington would not elaborate. According to the head of the Justice Ministry’s religious affairs unit, Carlos González, the government was already weighing the suspensions even before the Robertson affair broke out on August 22, but “these declarations have made us speed things up.” He of course was referring to U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson, who remarked on his Christian television show “The 700 Club,” that if Chávez “thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it.” Robertson went on to say that Chávez was a “terrific danger” to the United States as he intended to become “the launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism.” Robertson added: “It’s a whole lot cheaper [assassination] than starting a war. And I don’t think any oil shipments will stop.”
Robertson Grabs the Headlines, But Venezuela’s Not Amused
Chávez and Protestant Groups
Robertson Shoots Evangelicals in the Foot
What then is the likely fall out resulting from the Robertson fiasco? Chávez has undoubtedly benefited from the controversy. By stating what U.S. policymakers are afraid to say openly, Robertson gave Chávez even more backing, both in his own country and in the region. Of course, Chávez would be wise not to alienate his Protestant constituency without considerable forethought. For missionary groups such as New Tribes, the situation has become more than delicate. In the short term, New Tribes may seek to lay low. For the time being the group would seem to have little to fear from more outbursts from Robertson: the minister has apologized for his remarks. However, if the U.S. government continues its confrontational policy towards Chávez, U.S.-affiliated missionary organizations like New Tribes could experience further problems by way of reaction.
Washington Versus Caracas
Rumsfeld and McCormack’s disclaimers notwithstanding, the Bush administration’s tepid response lacks credibility, perhaps because Robertson’s remarks did not markedly stray from the spirit of official U.S. policy towards Caracas. Venezuelan chancellor Alí Rodríguez suggested that McCormack criticized Robertson only for his style, not substance. “It would appear that in their subconscious what they are condemning is imprudence and not the call for assassination,” Rodríguez tartly remarked.
Perhaps it’s an overstatement to say that Bush and his immediate team would countenance the violent demise of Hugo Chávez (although in April 2002 they sanctioned an attempted coup against the Venezuelan leader which could easily have ended with his death.) For many months now, the Venezuelan president has claimed that the White House has targeted him for assassination. In March, the State Department retorted that Chávez’s spate of accusations regarding a CIA plot to assassinate him were “wild.” However, serious doubts emerged over the weight of the administration’s latest display of supposed indifference to Chávez’s fate when Felix Rodriguez, a former CIA operative in Central America and influential Bush-backer in South Florida, claimed in a Miami TV interview that regarding Venezuela, the administration has “contingency plans.” When pressed to explain, Rodriguez said the plans “could be economic measures and even at some point military measures.”
Rodriguez’s views must be given some weight because in the past he has been linked to such Bush hemispheric ideologues as Otto Reich and Roger Noriega. As the Washington Post has noted, Rodriguez “is well known in Latin America for his role advising a Bolivian military unit that captured and executed Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara in 1967. He was also well-connected with President Bush’s father during his tenure both as president and vice president.” Clearly, Chávez is not taking any chances: he recently beefed up his security detail.
Washington Fuels the Opposition
Clearly then, Rumsfeld’s distancing of the Pentagon from Robertson is not completely convincing in light of the administration’s consistently hyperbolic foreign policy towards Venezuela. The Robertson incident has now forced the U.S. media to address the exotic confluence of interests between the Bush White House and Christian fundamentalists. What the media has failed to report, even at this late date is that U.S. evangelical sects have played a long and often problematic role in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America. The Robertson incident is sure to bring back bitter memories for many Venezuelans of past religious intrusions in their country, further fueling anti-U.S. sentiment. To comprehend Venezuela’s alarm over Robertson’s outlandish remarks, one must be aware of the operation of various U.S. evangelical sects in the country, most notably, the New Tribes Mission.
The Evangelical Connection: The Arrival of The New Tribes Mission
From 1945 to 1948 a coalition of nationalist military officers allied to the anti-clerical political party, Acción Democrática, ruled the country. Nonetheless, New Tribes continued to reside in Venezuela in spite of the central government’s marked hostility to its members. Following a coup d’etat in 1948, Venezuela came under outright military rule. However, to the consternation of Antonio Justo Silva, the governor of the federal territory of Amazonas, “no one thought to ask why these missionary groups were staying in Amazonas.” But in 1954 their status was officially legalized thanks to a permit issued by the military authorities under the pro-U.S. General Marcos Pérez Jiménez dictatorship.
Curiously, in that same year, the New Tribes missionaries abandoned their villages along the Negro River and settled in the Guayana Shield, where deposits of radioactive minerals had been discovered. What is more, a tantalizing tidbit was provided by muckraking journalists Charlotte Dennett and Gerard Colby: “On Brazil’s border with Venezuela were uranium deposits that the [Brazilian] regime had targeted for the development of nuclear energy and, some feared, nuclear bombs.” They also claimed that the presence of uranium ore was found on the traditional lands of the Yanomami, the largest unacculturated tribe in the Brazilian Amazon. Also present in the adjoining area was the Summer Institute of Linguistics, a New Tribes ally as well as an evangelical missionary organization in its own right, that specialized in translating the Bible into local dialects. Its adherents could be found among the Yanomami in Venezuela, where they were studying the languages of the region from their Porto Velho base in Brazil. Writing to Venezuela’s Minister of Justice, Justo expressed his concerns about the New Tribes. In the course of six years of residence, according to the official, the missionaries had nothing to show for their work and had not accomplished anything for the Indians. Justo was openly suspicious of the evangelicals, who would inexplicably abandon sites and move to other areas. “It makes one suspect,” he wrote, “that they [the New Tribes missionaries] have another objective.”
New Tribes: A State within a State?
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 control. According to one investigator, “not even the armed forces can easily use those airports. In fact, the runways are constructed for specially equipped planes that can land on extra short runways.”
It was at this time that two anthropologists dropped a bombshell by charging that New Tribes was trying to create a state within a state by turning the Indians against the Venezuelan military. According to their findings, the missionaries had circulated flyers amongst the Panare Indians, written in the E’napa tongue but edited in the United States. The literature attempted to discredit the National Guard and sought to pit the Indians against its local units.
At the time, New Tribes was working with two aviation companies, Mission Air Force and Wings of Aid. In fact, the president of New Tribes, Jaime Bou, was also president of the latter. One of the principal tasks of the airlines was to transport supplies and missionary staff from Brazil to Venezuela and onwards to the U.S. From Puerto Ayacucho southwards, the Amazonas area was considered a transit zone prohibited to civilian traffic. However, New Tribes missionaries were allowed to circulate freely and the missionaries were not subject in the least to rigorous controls by Venezuelan authorities. In an overview of the New Tribes operations, one writer noted, “this adds up to a colonial enclave in the middle of the Amazon jungle.”
“I Speak To Caracas:” A Bombshell
But the public relations nightmare for New Tribes was just beginning. In late 1976, Carlos Azpurua released a new 18 minute short film, “I Speak To Caracas.” The film featured the historian and shaman of the Yecuana people, Barne Yavari, who tells the camera, “They [the missionaries] prohibit all our customs…our drinks, our mythology, music and our form of life. I don’t mean that no North American has helped me spiritually. We don’t need spiritual help because we have our religion.” Yavari goes on to tell the people of Caracas that his people have their own God, Wanadi. “It’s not known how he began nor who made him,” says Yavari. “Wanadi has been my beginning.” “I Speak To Caracas” became a sensation, hitting the country like a space shot. The film earned various prizes both in Venezuela and abroad. As a result of its screening, the role of New Tribes Mission and the plight of Venezuelan Indians hit the international stage. The film was shown at hundreds of forums held in universities, film clubs, unions, parishes, public libraries, legislative assemblies, and even border posts. Everyone from indigenous leaders to public law firms participated in the forums accompanying the film’s screenings. The organizers eventually published a document entitled, “Let Us Stop Ethnocide,” in which they called for an end to the war that “these missionaries carry out against culture and the lives of our Indians.”
For some prominent government figures, the issue of New Tribes and the abuse of indigenous peoples had become a matter of national pride. Simon Alberto Consalvi, the former Venezuelan chancellor, remarked that “The accusations about what is happening in Amazonas and some other Venezuelan regions…constitute a recurring theme. This is not a superficial matter…It’s not a secret to anyone that light aircraft go and come without oversight. Some time ago I accompanied the Mexican chancellor to a beautiful place in the Venezuelan Guayana. I was greatly surprised (certainly not very agreeably), when a Venezuelan Indian began to speak in English as if we were a group of tourists. The Indian was surrounded by Bibles…I had the impression that I was in some place in California, where they invent religions and cults in bulk.”
The Plot Thickens: New Tribes Accused of Espionage
Jaime Bou, the New Tribes Mission head in Venezuela, intervened on behalf of the Americans. After staff members from the U.S. Embassy later joined Bou’s efforts, the two were released and the case was closed. However, Antonio Mariño reported that the missionary organization had been financed by General Dynamics, which had sent funds and pilots from California. According to Mariño’s investigation, New Tribes was also linked to a shadowy California foundation called District 1355 as well as the evangelical sect, Summer Institute of Linguistics. All New Tribes missionaries had taken courses with the Summer Institute of Linguistics, an organization repeatedly accused of ethnocide and espionage in other Latin American countries. Antonio Mariño had determined that District 1355 had sought to acquire a concession in Colombia to cultivate rice and other crops, which it proposed flying out of the region in a fleet of C-141 planes.
The concession, located between the Meta and Tomo Rivers, was known to contain deposits of silica and cobalt. Bou along with some of his associates had traveled to Puerto Carreño in Colombia to meet with members of District 1355. Shortly thereafter, Colombian president Cesar Turbay Ayala prohibited the Summer Institute of Linguistics, New Tribes and District 1355 from operating on Colombian soil. The president declared that the missionary groups had lent support to unauthorized overseas transnational companies which were searching for strategic resources.
The Military Goes Public