Venezuela’s War of Religion

In a move that is surely bound to alienate the United States yet further, Chavez decided to expel an American missionary group, the New Tribes Mission. What was merely a war of words has seemingly escalated into a religious battle. Or has it? What is truly behind Chavez’s decision to expel New Tribes and where is the conflict likely to lead?

Reportedly, hyperactive Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has cut down on his espresso intake, from a full 26 cups a day to 16.  Judging from his actions, however, you’d never know that “Hurricane Hugo” has slowed down.  In a move that is surely bound to alienate the United States yet further, Chavez decided to expel an American missionary group, the New Tribes Mission, on October 12th.  In an inflammatory speech, Chavez proclaimed that New Tribes constituted a “true imperialist invasion” and was working with the CIA.  Remarking that he didn’t “give a damn,” what people thought about his decision in Venezuela or “other imperialist countries,” Chavez said the missionary group would shortly have to abandon its jungle bases.  The decision comes in the wake of a long and simmering war of words between Chavez and Reverend Pat Robertson, who called for the Venezuelan president’s assassination on his TV Show “The 700 Club” back in August.  In response, Chavez blasted Robertson as “a terrorist,” and said his government was interested in pursuing extradition of the U.S. minister.  Now, however, what was merely a war of words has seemingly escalated into a religious battle.  Or has it?  What is truly behind Chavez’s decision to expel New Tribes and where is the conflict likely to lead?

New Tribes: A State Within A State?

Though Chavez’s move was certainly dramatic, it is not as if the issue of New Tribes is a novel one in Venezuela.  For years, accusations have swirled that the evangelical outfit was involved in espionage and committed ethnocide while carrying out its missionary work amongst indigenous peoples.  However, the missionaries were able to count on high-level support from the corrupt two party system, the Venezuelan Evangelical Council, as well as the U.S. Embassy in Caracas.  Though Congress and the military launched separate investigations, high-level action was never taken.  In August 1981, José 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, Rangel was particularly incensed by the case of New Tribes.  Though the Ministry of Justice and Interior Relations ultimately heeded Rangel’s calls and carried out another investigation, the results were never made public.  Despite the investigations and media attention, no missionary was ever put in jail (for a more complete accounting of New Tribes and their long and tangled history in Venezuela, see my report for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, “Evangelical Protestants in Venezuela: Robertson Only The Latest Controversy in a Long and Bizarre History”).

Initially, Chavez is Partial to New Tribes

The tide however was beginning to turn.  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.  Increasingly, New Tribes was becoming more vulnerable and isolated in Venezuela.  Formerly, the missionaries could count on the support of many members of the traditional two party system.  But those parties, by the time of Chavez’s rise to prominence, had fallen into disgrace.  What is more, while New Tribes had earlier lobbied the U.S. Embassy in Caracas to protect its interests, American diplomats now had little sway over Chavez.  Indeed, by April 2002 relations had sunk to a new low, with Chavez accusing the CIA of having helped to force his ouster in an attempted coup d’état.

On the other hand, until the controversy with Pat Robertson erupted in August, Chavez’s relations with evangelical groups had been smooth.  In fact, Chávez was initially somewhat partial to Protestants and evangelical groups.  Before Chávez came to power in 1999, Christian radio and TV were outlawed, a policy reversed by Chávez.  Even Robertson was allowed to broadcast his show 700 Club to Venezuela over TV station Televen.  Though Venezuelan officials declared that they had grown suspicious of U.S. evangelical organizations before Pat Robertson’s remarks, the record suggests that the government did not view New Tribes as a threat.  Indeed, the missionary group was allowed to continue its work in Venezuela, with over 160 missionaries operating within the country.  New Tribes worked with 12 indigenous groups in Amazonas and several other states.  According to Venezuelan officials, the missionaries had 29 landing strips within the country.

Robertson’s Fatwa Results in New Tribes Expulsion

The situation shifted drastically however when Pat Robertson put out his fatwa on Chavez’s head.  Robertson, a former presidential candidate in 1988, said that the U.S. government should kill Chavez to protect American petroleum interests and because the Venezuelan president “has destroyed the Venezuelan economy, and he’s going to make that a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent.”  Though Robertson later apologized, the Venezuelan government was alarmed and suspended missionary visas.  Shortly after, Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, a politician who has had a long and combative history dealing with U.S. evangelical groups, remarked that Venezuela was weighing court action against Robertson.  The indefatigable Robertson, forgetting about his earlier apology, continued his tirade.  Appearing on CNN he remarked that Chavez was “negotiating with the Iranians to get nuclear material.  And he also sent $1.2 million in cash to Osama bin Laden right after 9/11.”  The preacher offered no evidence to support his startling accusations.  Venezuelan officials dismissed Robertson’s remarks as totally false and “crazy.”

Robertson’s attack alarmed David Zelenak, Director of the Resource Department for New Tribes.  Speaking to me over the phone, Zelenak remarked that Robertson‘s strong words “did not help us in Venezuela.”  The missionary added that other missionary groups were concerned about Robertson‘s comments and worried that the war of words might escalate.  New Tribes later condemned Robertson’s statements on its website, but such efforts would not save the missionary group.  According to New Tribes, Venezuelan officials stepped up investigations of its activities in the wake of the controversy.  Retired general Alberto Müller Rojas, a military advisor to the Chavez government and former governor of Amazonas state, was not surprised by the increased pressure on New Tribes.  Within the missionary organization, he commented, “there are distinct [religious] denominations, principally those Protestant groups of the Baptist tendency which Pat Robertson belongs to.”  According to Muller, Robertson and New Tribes were “tightly linked.”  New Tribes and Robertson, he continued, were part of the same Protestant movement that so strongly supported President George Bush.

As it turns out, Zelenak’s fears were not unfounded.  Amidst the escalating war of words between the Venezuelans and Robertson, Chavez expelled the Florida based New Tribes altogether.  The president announced that he would sign the official expulsion order as soon as he had received a definitive report from the Ministry of Interior, and that the decision was “irreversible.”  In a further barb, he added “We don’t want the New Tribes here.  Enough colonialism!  500 years is enough!”  Chavez said he had become aware of New Tribes’ espionage through his own military intelligence, though officials have offered no concrete proof of the allegations.  Chavez confided that he had seen an “incredible” report and video concerning the matter.  The Venezuelan president did not set a fixed date for the expulsion.  However, he did say it would occur in an orderly fashion and that the missionaries would be allowed sufficient time to “gather their stuff.”  Recently, Venezuelan military officials remarked that they were studying how to remove New Tribes’ missionary bases.  However, according to New Tribes the Venezuelan military has already swung into action, occupying some of its facilities in areas inhabited by the Pume tribe.  The governor of Amazonas state, Liborio Guarulla, has sought to comply with the expulsion order.  Within Amazonas, Guarulla will request the withdrawal of missionaries operating in the Upper Orinoco, home to Yekuana and Yanomami Indians.  Guarulla added that he will comply with the law without resorting to force. 

New Tribes Responds

For its own part New Tribes offered a measured response on its website, remarking “We would welcome any opportunity to address the President’s concerns and help him better understand our organization and the work of New Tribes Mission in Venezuela.”  The missionary organization added, “We hope that President Chavez will reconsider his decision and allow us an opportunity to clarify misunderstandings and misinformation that exists regarding the work of New Tribes Mission in Venezuela.  New Tribes Mission is not and has never been connected in any way with any government agencies.  Our goal is to serve indigenous people.”  Meanwhile, New Tribes representatives took to Venezuelan TV and radio airwaves to present their point of view.  Additionally, the missionaries have declared that they will take their case to the country’s Supreme Court of Justice.  A lawyer for New Tribes implied that Chavez was being dishonest and had no video or military report about missionary activities.  New Tribes has also appealed to the Venezuelan Evangelical Council for support.

The question remains though: why did Chavez decide to make this decision now?  It’s not as if the charges against New Tribes are anything new.  On a certain level, it would seem that Chavez has simply been opportunistic.  Robertson’s inflammatory comments made Chavez look like a persecuted martyr and allowed the Venezuelan president to place the issue of Protestant missionaries front and center.  In fact, Chavez may have calculated that he had nothing to lose and everything to gain by expelling the missionaries. 

Playing on Wounded Pride

The case allows the regime to play on nationalist sentiment.  Take for example the reaction of Jose Vicente Rangel, who has been gunning for New Tribes for twenty-five years.  Speaking with the press, Rangel remarked that the government’s decision was designed to restore national sovereignty.  That kind of remark plays well in Venezuela, a small country that was pushed around by the European powers in the 19th century and the United States in the last century.  Playing to Venezuelans’ sense of wounded pride, Chavez said that New Tribes had set up a state within a state, made unauthorized flights, and set up luxurious settlements in the midst of poverty.  “These violations of our national sovereignty have to stop,” he thundered. 

Moving Ahead on Indigenous Policy

Chavez announced the expulsion order while handing over indigenous land titles, boat motors, vehicles and credits in the village of Barranco Yopal.  The settlement is located 500 kilometers south of Caracas within the remote plains state of Apure.  Chavez too is from the plains region and was born in the neighboring state of Barinas.  The president has never sought to distance himself from his ethnic heritage. “My Indian roots are from my father’s side,” he remarked. “He [my father] is mixed Indian and black, which makes me very proud.”  What is more, Chávez has boasted of his grandmother, who he says was a Pumé Indian.

For the president, Barranco Yopal carries personal meaning.  In his youth, Chavez used to visit the town.  In an interview with Marta Harnecker, he explained, “I used to go to Barranco Yopal and bring cans and sticks to the Indians, because they made houses with those materials to spend the winter season there, but in the summer they used to go away.  They were nomads: hunters and gatherers, as they were 500 years ago.  I saw Indian women giving birth there…The majority of those babies died of malaria, tuberculosis, of any type of illness.  They [the Indians] used to spend the time drunk in town.  The Indian women used to prostitute themselves, many times they were raped.  They were ghosts, disrespected by the majority of the population.  They used to steal to eat.  They didn’t have any conception of private property: for them it wasn’t robbery to go into an area and grab a pig to eat it if they were hungry.”

The announcement of New Tribes’ expulsion was timed perfectly to coincide with Columbus Day, which Chavez has renamed Indigenous Resistance Day.  Alexander Luzardo, a sociologist and longtime New Tribes critic, remarked that Chavez‘s decision “complies with what is stipulated in the constitution of 1999, which establishes indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination and to respect for their beliefs, values and customs.”  Indeed, helping the nation‘s 300,000 indigenous peoples has been a great priority for Hugo Chavez.  Article 9 of the new constitution states that while Spanish is the official language of Venezuela, “Indigenous languages are also for official use for Indigenous peoples and must be respected throughout the Republic’s territory for being part of the nation’s and humanity’s patrimonial culture.” In chapter eight of the constitution, the state recognizes the social, political, and economic organization within indigenous communities, in addition to their cultures, languages, rights, and lands. What is more, in a critical provision the government recognizes land rights as collective, inalienable, and non-transferable.  Later articles declare the government’s pledge not to engage in extraction of natural resources without prior consultation with indigenous groups. Three long time indigenous activists have been elected to the Venezuelan National Assembly, and prominent leaders hold positions in government.  In a novel move, Chávez has even had the constitution translated into all of Venezuela’s languages.

While Chavez was in Barranco Yopal, he distributed 1.65 million acres to indigenous communities in the states of Apure, Anzoategui, Delta Amacuro, and Sucre.  The move forms part of the so-called Mission Guaicaipuro, which shall provide land titles to all of Venezuela’s 28 indigenous peoples.  By the end of 2006, Chávez’ Mission Guaicaipuro plans to award land titles to 15 more indigenous groups.  In Barranco Yopal, Chavez granted titles recognizing collective ownership of ancestral lands to the Cuiba, Yuaruro, Warao and Karina tribes.  It was in fact the second such land transfer, the first having been decreed in August.  Chavez awarded those communal lands during the 16th World Festival of Students and Youth in Caracas.  At the ceremony, Chavez handed out 313,824 acres to six Kariña indigenous communities living in the states of Monagas and Anzoategui.

Some Indians at Barranco Yopal felt that the government still needed to provide more assistance.  “We want the government to help us with hunger, with credit,” remarked Pedro Mendez, a Yuaruro Indian.  He related that his community had requested an electrical generator and loans to help plant more crops.  On the other hand, some Indians clearly applaud the government’s moves.  Present during Chavez’s ceremony in Barranco Yopal was Librado Moraleda, a 52-year-old Warao Indian from a remote village in the Orinoco River Delta. “Previously,” he declared, “the indigenous people of Venezuela were removed from our lands. This is historic. It is a joyful day.”  Moraleda received a land title and government pledge of $27,000 to construct homes as well as plant cassava and plantains.

Attacking Protestants, Appeasing Catholics

By expelling New Tribes, Chavez also appeases prominent Catholics.  For years, church leaders have been a thorn in Chavez’s side.  During the April 2002 coup, prominent Catholics such as Cardinal Ignacio Velasco sided with the opposition against Chavez.  Velasco even offered his residence as a meeting place for the coup plotters.  What is more, he, as well as top Catholic leaders and members of Opus Dei later signed a decree that swept away Venezuela’s democratic institutions.  Senior Catholic bishops also attended the inauguration ceremony for Pedro Carmona, Venezuela’s Dictator-For-a-Day.  Chavez has shot back against the church hierarchy, saying that the Church is a “tumor.”  In a further jibe, he stated that “there are bishops from the Catholic Church who knew a coup was on the way, and they used church installations to bring coup plotters together … those clerics are immoral and spokesmen for the opposition.”

Chief amongst the president’s critics on the right has been Monsignor Baltazar Porras, who has backed efforts to recall Chavez as president and helped draft anti-Chavez statements by the Venezuelan Catholic Church Episcopal Conference.  Another leading figure leading the charge has been Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, who has called Chavez “a paranoid dictator” in need of an exorcism.  He has accused Chavez of encouraging “Cubanization” of the country and receiving direct orders from Cuban leader Fidel Castro. “Venezuela,” he continued, “is the richest country in Latin America, but the impression that I have is that Chavez wants to end this…He wants, like Castro, to eliminate social distinctions so that we are all poor.”  Chavez has shot back, calling Castillo Lara an “outlaw, bandit, immoral Pharisee, and a pantomime.”

While Chavez’s recent move expelling New Tribes is unlikely to totally appease these Catholic leaders, it may buy him a slight respite.  The Catholic Church has long viewed the growing Protestant presence in Latin America with concern; in Venezuela Catholics joined anthropologists and others who criticized New Tribes as far back as the 1970s.  Even some of Chavez’s arch enemies such as Castillo Lara hailed the government’s decision.  “We have the blessing of the Cardinal in this decision,” Rangel announced proudly. 

And meanwhile, what of Protestants?  Though the Evangelical Council of Venezuela has defended New Tribes, Chavez has little to fear.  Protestants only number 2% of the population and have historically constituted a loyal working class Chavez constituency.  What is more, according to Samuel Olson, president of the Evangelical Council of Venezuela, Protestants have not bought into anti-Chavez propaganda.  Olson says that Protestants didn’t give much credence to Pat Robertson and viewed the minister as “goofy.” 

The Fall Out For U.S.-Venezuelan Relations

Speaking with the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, U.S. ambassador William Brownfield noted that he would seek to facilitate negotiations between New Tribes and the Venezuelan government.  Brownfield categorically denied any link between the CIA and New Tribes.  The Department of State is apparently following the matter with concern, and holds out hope that the missionaries may be yet be allowed to stay as the Venezuelan government has not given any official expulsion order. 

What does this incident portend for the future of U.S.-Venezuelan relations?  Though Chavez’s moves have proven destabilizing, the issue of New Tribes on its own is unlikely to produce an irrevocable breach.  On the other hand, the cumulative effect of Chavez’s actions seems to be moving the two countries towards greater and greater confrontation.  In August, Chavez suspended cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency; the president said DEA agents were spying.  And just this month, Chavez sold off Venezuela’s foreign currency reserves, held in U.S. treasury bonds, and deposited them in European banks.  “We have had to withdraw our international reserves from U.S. banks, due to the threats we have,” Chavez remarked. 

These are only two incidents but they demonstrate the extent to which relations have soured in recent days.  Chavez might calculate that President Bush and the Republican party are too distracted with their own internal scandals and the mess in Iraq to focus much attention on Venezuela.  It’s also true that the Venezuelan opposition is fractured and as a result the United States has precious little leverage in the country.  As Bush’s popularity plummets, Chavez becomes more and more emboldened.  For the time being, he seems to be politically secure, but he is surely playing a dangerous game.

Nikolas Kozloff received his doctorate in Latin American history from Oxford University in 2002.  His book, Hugo Chavez and His Vision For South America, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press.

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