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Missionaries' Mission at Issue

Venezuela's president is kicking out evangelists he says are spying for the U.S. Their role among the indigenous tribes has been controversial.

November 20, 2005|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

PUERTO AYACUCHO, Venezuela — Earnest and God-fearing, jungle missionary Gary Greenwood may not look like a spy for the CIA. But Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says the lanky young man from central Michigan is no less than an advance scout for an imminent U.S. invasion of this South American country.

Last month, Chavez ordered the expulsion of about 200 evangelical Baptist missionaries from the country's Amazon rain forest. He accused them of spying, mining, exploiting indigenous tribes and using jungle airstrips for "imperialist penetration." Last week, the missionaries were given 90 days to leave the zone.

Greenwood laughed off the charges and said there was no time for espionage in Cuwa, the isolated Yanomami Indian village where he and his family lived for four years. Although he and other missionaries acknowledged that their primary goal was to convert Indians to Christianity, the 33-year-old said he spent most of his days helping them: drilling wells, fixing outboard motors and making their huts more livable.

As for the issue of U.S. intentions, Greenwood jokingly wondered why the Pentagon would launch an invasion from the dense jungle of the Amazon, where movement of troops or military vehicles would be problematic.

"Wouldn't the Caribbean coastline make more sense?" he asked as he made his way out of the jungle from this Orinoco River port town.

The seemingly outlandish accusations illustrate the deterioration in Chavez's relations with the United States, a once-close ally that still depends on Venezuela for 12% of its oil imports. Chavez blames the "imperialist" United States for a host of social ills in Latin America, rhetoric that polls show is resonating in a continent impatient for change.

Some observers see the expulsion, which targeted the Florida-based New Tribes Mission and its offshoots, as a part of a hardening attitude toward religious groups since U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson suggested in August that someone assassinate Chavez. The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints announced last month that it had withdrawn all 219 of its U.S. missionaries from the country because of increasing delays and difficulty in obtaining or renewing visas.

Chavez has also sparred with the Roman Catholic Church. Retired Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, a Venezuelan who was a confidant of the late Pope John Paul II, has accused Chavez of being increasingly autocratic.

"Chavez needs confrontation, because this allows him, among other things, to lessen tensions within his coalition," said Javier Corrales, a political scientist at Amherst College and a Venezuela specialist. "He is also trying to weaken organized groups that are autonomous, especially if they are foreign."

Some anthropologists and government officials cheered Chavez's action, saying the expulsion was a welcome conclusion to a 60-year debate in Venezuela over whether the evangelicals threaten cultural diversity by forcing assimilation and modernity on the tribes, even as they deliver much-needed services.

They say the problems posed by the missionaries are not espionage or unbridled capitalism, but the religious and behavioral changes that the missionaries force on tribes in exchange for material and medical help. Those changes are destroying tribes' primitive rituals and robbing people of what the United Nations has termed world cultural patrimony, the critics claim.

"New Tribes activity amounts to cultural genocide for which the state has to share responsibility," anthropologist and former Sen. Alexander Luzardo said in an interview in Caracas, the capital.

"The state tolerated their presence in those areas too long and ceded to them its responsibilities in health and education services too long."

But many of the estimated 45,000 indigenous people in the Amazon basin resent the expulsion order, saying the missionaries have improved their lives.

Ingrid Turon, a city council member and member of the Yeguana indigenous community in the village of Toki, six hours by outboard motorboat from here, said those who oppose missionaries want to deprive indigenous people of the advantages of modern life.

"For them, we are like animals in the zoo that people should pay to come see, so they can charge admission, publish their books and take pictures," Turon said. "They want to deny us the progress that they want, that the entire world wants."

Greenwood, the missionary, said living among the Indians as a "friend and neighbor" gives him a different -- and, he said, more caring -- perspective than that of the anthropologists who visit periodically to study the communities and their customs.

"That's where we are a little bit critical of the scientists who look on the Yanomami as a classroom project. These aren't objects -- these are people," Greenwood said. "If you have a textbook approach to them, rather than relational, the Indians suffer as a result."

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