CARACAS, Oct 12 (IPS) - Venezuela will expel the U.S. evangelical group New Tribes Mission, which has been active in indigenous communities along the southern border with Colombia and Brazil since 1946, President Hugo Chávez announced Wednesday.
"They will leave Venezuela," said the president. "They are agents of imperialist penetration. They gather sensitive and strategic information and are exploiting the Indians. So they will leave, and I don't care two hoots about the international consequences that this decision could bring."
New Tribes, an evangelical organisation that has long had close ties with the U.S.-based Summer Institute of Linguistics, is active in a number of countries in Asia and Latin America, and in Venezuela has focused its efforts on the Yanomami, Ye'kuana and Panare indigenous groups and other ethnic communities in the southern part of the country.
The Summer Institute of Linguistics was founded in 1934 with the declared purpose of translating the Bible into indigenous languages.
Chávez was delivering collective land titles, boat motors, vehicles and credits to indigenous communities in the plains region in southern Venezuela on Wednesday, the date he had declared "day of indigenous resistance," when he made the surprising announcement on the New Tribes Mission in a nationally broadcast speech.
"I have seen reports and videos on the activity of these New Tribes. We don't want them here; we all form part of an old tribe," Chávez quipped.
Since the 1970s, New Tribes has drawn heavy criticism from many quarters, including leftist political groups, environmentalists, indigenous organisations, academics, Catholic Church leaders and even members of the military. The controversial group has been accused of prospecting for strategic minerals on behalf of transnational corporations and of the forced acculturation and conversion of indigenous people.
Sociologist and environmentalist Alexander Luzardo, who 20 years ago published a report on the New Tribes Mission's operations in the Amazon jungle, welcomed Chávez's decision.
He told IPS that the 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.
He also said the expulsion of the group would be in line with the recommendations of numerous government and parliamentary reports that had warned about the group's activities in Venezuela.
"New Tribes has westernized indigenous people by force, while spreading a sense of shame and guilt, disguised as teaching the gospel: they taught the Panares that Satan had turned into a Panare Indian and that they were guilty of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ," said Luzardo.
However, New Tribe missionary Richard Bruce said in an interview with the local press four years ago that "we want to respect the way of life and customs of indigenous peoples, not change them overnight. This is not a corner of the United States."
During the group's most active period, roughly 20 years ago, New Tribes missionaries from the United States numbered close to 200, said Luzardo. They were mainly concentrated in Tama-Tama, a spot where several rivers meet in the heart of the southernmost Venezuelan state of Amazonas.
This area is believed to be rich in minerals like uranium. For many years, New Tribes built airstrips and modern installations that contrasted sharply with the rustic constructions in the indigenous communities they ministered to.
The now defunct National Identity Movement, which grouped together cultural, environmental and indigenous organisations in the 1980s, maintained that New Tribes acted as a cover for the prospecting of geological and mineral wealth coveted by corporations that provided funding for the Summer Institute of Linguistics. These included General Dynamics, a defence industry contractor, and Ford.
Nevertheless, the demands made at the time for the expulsion of the New Tribes Mission from Venezuela eventually faded into oblivion, as did public concern over the activity of the group, which has also experienced divisions in recent years, Luzardo commented.
But that changed with the announcement made by Chávez, who noted that "while indigenous people live in extremely difficult conditions, New Tribes have power plants, radio systems and airstrips well maintained with tractors and mowers, where planes fly in from abroad without going through any kind of customs check."
His reference to the potential consequences of the measure is likely due to the fact that New Tribes belongs to the Evangelical Council of Venezuela and could accuse the government of religious persecution.
But it is also an organisation based in the United States, and the Venezuelan and U.S. governments have been caught up in an escalating political and diplomatic confrontation for the last two years.
What's more, in August, U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson publicly called for the Venezuelan leader's assassination, and last Sunday accused Chávez of providing funding to Osama bin Laden, leader of the Al Qaida terrorist network.
Chávez stressed that "we are not going to run roughshod over anyone, we will give New Tribes time to pack up their things and go."
Although Luzardo believes the measure is a positive one, he added that "just today there were new indigenous protests, because Chávez is opening up indigenous lands to coal mining (in northwestern Venezuela) by other ‘new tribes', this time from Brazil," an allusion to joint ventures formed for this purpose by Venezuelan and Brazilian companies, whose activities are scheduled to begin next year.
See also: Evangelicals in Venezuela: Robertson Only the Latest Controversy