Final Deadline Passes for US Missionaries to Leave Venezuela

The deadline for missionaries from the New Tribes evangelical group has passed, causing most of them to leave Venezuela. Last November, accusing them of spying and of imposing values on indigenous populations, President Chavez gave the group three months to leave the country.

14 February 2006, Caracas, Venezuela – The majority of the US evangelical missionary group New Tribes, have left Venezuela. The few remaining in the country are being urged to get out straight away by the government. They have been accused of spying and exploiting the indigenous people they claim to help.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ordered the New Tribes out of Venezuela in November, 2005, calling them, "agents of imperialist penetration." Chavez said they had 90 days to leave. The New Tribes were using their activities as a cover to prospect for precious minerals and provide military intelligence for the US, Chavez said.

The New Tribes are an evangelical group whose headquarters are in Florida. They work to find native groups that have not encountered Christianity and convert them to it. The missionaries have been working in remote areas of Venezuela for 60 years. Before they left they were involved with 12 indigenous groups in Venezuela.

All of the 160 New Tribes operatives have left the tribal areas of Venezuela. In the Venezuelan city of Puerto Ordaz 30 remain in the group’s headquarters. Marco Brito, speaking for the New Tribes, said the missionaries are, "all shattered, some of them depressed."

The evangelical missionaries are appealing to the Venezuelan Supreme Court to overturn Chavez’s decision. When the appeal will begin has not yet been announced. So far the New Tribes has held back from criticising Chavez and has said, "We have the highest regard and respect for the people, laws and country of Venezuela.".

The Venezuelan President has said there are videotapes to support the claims against the New Tribes. These have not been shared with the public. The areas where the New Tribes were most active were also very rich in precious minerals such as uranium, used for the nuclear industry.

The New Tribes built 29 airfields in these remote locations and used flights that circumvented Venezuelan customs, Chavez said. Other evidence included them using high-technology equipment that was unrelated to their missionary work.

Chavez said last October the New Tribes, "gather sensitive and strategic information and are exploiting the Indians." The Venezuelan president also added, "we don’t need new tribes, we are an old tribe."

For several decades the activities of the New Tribes have been criticised for their actions in Venezuela by leftist and environmental groups. The Environmentalist and Sociologist Alexander Luzardo published a report in the 1980s criticising New Tribes’ activities.

Luzardo has supported the Venezuelan decision to expel the group. The New Tribes have been accused of forcing North American culture on the indigenous peoples they work with.

Although the New Tribes is independent of the US government and sponsored by "individuals", past sponsors have included General Dynamics, a defense industry contractor, and the Ford motor company.

The Colombian government previously banned The New Tribes. In the 1970s the missionaries were charged with giving multinational corporations direct access to mineral resources in Colombia.

See also: Venezuela’s War of Religion and Evangelicals in Venezuela: Robertson Only the Latest Controversy