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Evangelical Protestants in Venezuela: Robertson Only The Latest Controversy In a Long and Bizarre History

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  • Vice President Rangel leads a campaign for anti-evangelical vigilance as the Robertson affair reminds him and the nation of the suspect activities of the New Tribes Mission decades ago.
  • 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
    Robertson’s explosive comments managed to inflame Venezuelan public opinion and led to strong statements from incensed officials. Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, with a long and conflictual history of dealing with evangelicals, remarked that Venezuela was weighing court action against Robertson. “There is a legal measure in the United States that condemns and punishes statements of this nature,” Rangel observed, referring to broadcasting regulations dealing with calls for the assassination of another nation’s leader.

    Chávez and Protestant Groups
    On the other hand, according to David Zelenak, Director of the Resource Department at the evangelical New Tribes Mission which operates in Venezuela, Chávez was initially somewhat partial to Protestants and evangelical groups like his own. Zelenak says that before Chávez came to power in 1999, Christian radio and TV were outlawed, a policy reversed by Chávez. Robertson in fact broadcasts his 700 Club to Venezuela over TV station Televen. Ironically then, “Robertson’s program would never have been there if it wasn’t for Chávez.” Zelenak suggests that Chávez conducted a pro-Protestant policy as a way of sparring with the Catholic Church. Some Venezuelan Catholic bishops have accused Chávez of trying to create Cuban-style communism in the country. Chávez has countered by saying that he is a Catholic and that the bishops are siding with the rich to bring down his regime. What is more, Chávez accuses the Catholic hierarchy of supporting the aborted coup d’etat against him in April 2002.

    Robertson Shoots Evangelicals in the Foot
    There is no question that after the Robertson outburst, the evangelical groups now have less leverage in Venezuela and that the pendulum has swung against the militant wing of protestantism. Even before, Venezuelan Protestants were not the most likely group to have opposed the president. Indeed, they only number 2% of the population and by and large are a working class pro-Chávez constituency. What is more, leading Venezuelan Protestants in the country have flatly denounced Robertson’s fatwa against Chávez, complaining that his statements haven’t made their work any easier. Zelenak says the Venezuelan government has put a hold on foreigners trying to acquire visas. Not only are U.S. missionaries headed to Venezuela being delayed, but those who already are present in Venezuela are wondering if they should return home on leave. Though New Tribes Mission did not put out an official statement about the Robertson controversy, he says Robertson‘s strong words “did not help us in Venezuela.” Indeed, Robertson‘s offensive hardly stands to benefit New Tribes, which has fallen under attack in the past and presents a vulnerable target. Zelenak adds that other missionary groups were concerned about Robertson‘s remarks and worry that the war of words might escalate.

    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
    Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld offered a mild rebuke to Robertson’s provocative comments regarding Chávez, declaring, “Certainly it’s against the law. Our department doesn’t do that type of thing.” Both Rumsfeld and State Department spokesman Sean McCormack were careful to state that the remarks regarding a possible assassination of Chávez came from a private citizen and did not represent official U.S. policy. “Private citizens say all kinds of things all the time,” Rumsfeld remarked. It was noteworthy that McCormack did not forcefully condemn the evangelist’s statements, although he noted that they were improper. “Any accusations or any idea that we are planning to take hostile action against Venezuela or the Venezuelan government – any ideas in that regard are totally without fact and baseless,” said McCormack.

    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
    While the accuracy of such Chávez misgivings is unclear, it’s not as if the Venezuelan leader is entirely unjustified in feeling somewhat hunted: In the run up to the April 2002 failed coup d’etat against the Chávez regime, the Bush administration funneled U.S. taxpayer money to the anti-Chávez Venezuelan opposition through the National Endowment For Democracy and USAID. As the coup was being carried out, Chávez was taken prisoner by elements within the military. The civilian opposition who helped spring the coup invented the tale over the television networks which it dominated, that Chávez had willingly resigned. As he watched the announcement from inside the military headquarters of Fuerte Tiuna, Chávez thought to himself, “Now they are going to kill me.” An officer lent Chávez a phone and he called his wife, bidding his last farewells. Fortunately, Chávez narrowly escaped death. “The order to kill me had been given,” he remarked later. “What happened was that the generals that were up in arms did not have true leadership and some generals, but above all the young officers that were taking care of me, neutralized that order.”

    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
    One strand of the often unsavory and arcane history of U.S. evangelicals in Venezuela goes back decades. 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.

    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?
    New Tribes was fast on the road towards becoming a veritable transnational organization spanning much of Latin America. Operating in remote, far-flung areas, usually distant from the effective reach of the central government, the missionaries could count on every form of communication and transportation equipment, including aircraft. What’s more, New Tribes at the same time was indoctrinating indigenous tribes in other South American countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. In 1959, Acción Democrática returned to power and President Romulo Betancourt authorized the missionaries to operate in Amazonas. Eventually, the missionaries would be active in an immense zone encompassing not only this territory but also the states of Apure, Bolivar, and part of Monagas. In total, New Tribes had access to 30% of Venezuela’s national territory.

    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
    Perhaps due to New Tribes’ far-flung infrastructure, by the 1970s the missionaries had come under widespread public fire. The first salvo came from Pablo Anduza, the former governor of Amazonas, who remarked in 1973 that missionary education was alien to Indian traditions and “…missionary teachings encourage the creation of an artificial society which separates children from parents.” The second blow came from Julio Jiménez, a Guajibo Indian. In 1976, Jiménez publicly disclosed that in 1958 he was sent by New Tribes to the U.S. to undertake specialized courses with the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Jiménez then disclosed that to his observation, missionary work had a pernicious effect upon the indigenous lifestyle. He remarked that, “New Tribes has done more harm than good, and they should be expelled.” On the main campus at the Central University of Caracas, things were heating up against the New Tribes Mission. At a seminar held at the School of Sociology and Anthropology, various indigenous leaders called for its expulsion.

    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 bombshell. 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
    Though New Tribes had come under fire from leftist university professors and the capital’s intellectual elite, criticism would shortly come from yet another, but unexpected quarter: the military. In 1976, Tomas Antonio Mariño Blanco, a navy captain and commander of the Federal Territory of Amazonas military garrison, ordered the detention of two American engineers bearing identification cards from Westinghouse, a leading U.S. defense contractor, and General Dynamics, which produces military jet aircraft. The engineers were carrying out mineral prospecting and were in the company of a missionary working for New Tribes Mission.

    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
    With accusations now escalating against New Tribes from not only leftist university faculties but also members of the Venezuelan armed forces, the Chamber of Deputies agreed to open an investigation. Particularly damning was the report filed by Antonio Mariño who headed the Amazonas military command in 1978. The report, whose startling findings were corroborated by Colonel Luciano Mujíca Herñandez, a senior National Guard officer in Amazonas who had independently conducted surveillance of New Tribes, found that the evangelical group had not remained in its own demarcated jurisdiction, nor had it complied with Venezuelan aeronautical regulations. Rather, it apparently had conducted scientific espionage on behalf of transnational companies, had tried to impersonate Venezuelan military officers by appearing in their uniforms when meeting with the Indians, and had even attempted to bribe military authorities. Antonio Mariño further declared that in 1977, New Tribes had been able to cultivate the support of Julio Yañes Marchan, the ex-governor of the Federal Amazonas Territory. Marchan invited the missionaries to a forum about the mineral potential in Amazonas. The event was also sponsored by the armed forces, and when Mariño saw Jaime Bou there, he promptly escorted the missionary from the premises. Word of Antonio Mariño‘s explosive report was picked up in the Venezuelan press and New Tribes became notoriously famous amongst the Venezuelan public.

    Congress Investigates
    Growing public resentment had begun to put pressure on the government to rein in the evangelicals. Local grassroots’ organizers working against New Tribes submitted a petition to the Venezuelan legislature with 15,000 signatures. Organizers of the petition, entitled “We Accuse,” demanded the expulsion of New Tribes from Venezuela and urged greater regulation of religious sects operating in the country. The debate over New Tribes encouraged fiery polemics in the Venezuelan congress in 1979. One deputy charged that the missionaries had subjected the Indians to a system of “internal colonialism.” The deputy, Alexis Ortiz, called for the creation of a special sub- commission which would investigate the activities of New Tribes missions operating in the Federal Amazonas Territory. Some deputies viewed New Tribes’ activities there as an affront to Venezuelan sovereignty. One remarked, “The decision of the government must be to expel the New Tribes.”

    By December 1979, a congressional investigative commission had been formed and its members traveled to Amazonas, where they visited the Piaroa community of Chivapure. They also interviewed evangelical missionaries in the region. The commission additionally met with tribal leaders at Pariña, a New Tribes mission along the Brazilian border. In its final report, the commission’s conclusions echoed Antonio Mariño’s document. The officials stated that they had heard accusations that New Tribes had carried out compulsory evangelization and that ethnocide of the indigenous population had resulted. What is more, the body received complaints of economic espionage. In response to these various charges, the commission recommended that the Venezuelan state take over the supervision and operation of the missions and provide housing and education for the Indians.

    New Tribes defended itself from the accusations being made against it by claiming it had only offered, not demanded, religious and educational assistance to the Indians. Meanwhile, the evangelical group had cultivated supporters such as the ex-Amazonas governor of the Federal Territory of Amazonas, Pablo Anduza. It also attracted support within the Venezuelan Evangelical Council. Luzardo reports that the latter body had threatened the country’s two main political parties, warning that 500,000 voters would punish any Venezuelan political party which attempted to foil New Tribes. Meanwhile, U.S. Embassy officials also lobbied politicians of both parties to lay off New Tribes. “Unfortunately,” writes Alexander Luzardo, “the report was not taken into consideration by AD [Acción Democrática] and Copei [the two main political parties]. With the exception of a few deputies, the others did not show up when the report was to be approved. Apparently pressuring by New Tribes proved effective in influencing some members of AD.”

    Coming Full Circle: Jose Vicente Rangel and New Tribes Mission
    The story of New Tribes Mission refused to die. In August 1981, Jose Vicente Rangel, then a deputy in Congress, requested that the investigation into New Tribes be reopened. Rangel, a long time fixture of Venezuelan politics, had unsuccessfully run for president twice on the MAS [Movement Towards Socialism] ticket, in 1973 and 1978. An aggressive opponent of U.S.-backed military regimes in Venezuela (the military ordered his arrest after a coup d’etat in 1948 and he was later expelled from the country), Rangel was particularly incensed by the case of New Tribes. He personally wrote the introduction to a book attacking New Tribes Mission, remarking on that occasion, “What this is fundamentally about is a security problem and national defense. It’s about the abandonment of immense frontier territory.” Rangel went on to praise those who had campaigned against New Tribes, which, in his opinion, had set up a colonial enclave in the country. In the face of the missionary presence, Rangel insisted that Venezuela needed to reaffirm its national identity. Though the Ministry of Justice and Interior Relations ultimately heeded Rangel’s calls and carried out another investigation, the results were never made public.

    To this day, New Tribes Mission operates in Venezuela, with over 100 missionaries operating within the country. New Tribes works with indigenous peoples in Amazonas and several other states. David Zelenak considers the historic accusations against his group as bogus. He also says that no missionary was ever put in jail, notwithstanding all of the investigations and media attention. He says that there was never any concrete proof against New Tribes, and claims that missionary efforts helped to make indigenous peoples healthier. As for Rangel: “he has never liked Protestants…He was a fringe communist candidate before, now he’s thrilled to be an international player.”

    In 1999, after Hugo Chávez was elected president, he named Rangel as Minister of External Relations. The veteran politician went on to serve as Minister of Defense under Chávez and later as his vice president. Judging from his recent comments regarding Pat Robertson, Rangel is still highly suspicious of American fundamentalist organizations.