Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez celebrated his country's "Indigenous Resistance Day" on Oct. 12 by delivering a surprising blow to hundreds of indigenous Venezuelans.
In a nationally televised speech from a village in the southern state of Apure, Mr. Chavez announced he would expel missionaries from New Tribes Mission (NTM), a Florida-based organization that has provided Bible translation and humanitarian relief in remote regions of Venezuela for nearly 60 years.
Calling NTM a "true imperialist infiltration," Mr. Chavez accused its missionaries of "colonialism" and of spying for the United States: "We have intelligence reports that some of them are CIA." Mr. Chavez also accused NTM staff of living in "luxurious camps," and said the group's ouster was an "irreversible decision that I have made."
The president's announcement came less than two months after U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson suggested that Mr. Chavez should be a candidate for assassination. Mr. Robertson later apologized for his remarks, but within four days Venezuelan authorities had frozen all missionary visa applications and placed restrictions on some evangelical pastors.
NTM spokeswoman Nita Zelenak told WORLD that the organization doesn't know if there is a connection between Mr. Robertson's remarks and Mr. Chavez's expulsion of NTM, but said: "We believe that Mr. Robertson's comments were inappropriate, and we disassociate ourselves from them." She added that NTM-one of the largest mission organizations working in Latin America-was "shocked and saddened" by Mr. Chavez's announcement, and said the president's allegations are false.
Ken MacHarg, president of Latin American Mission, a Miami-based mission organization, said trouble has long been brewing for missionaries in Venezuela, where relations with the United States are poor. (Mr. Chavez accused the United States of backing a 2002 coup attempt against him, and recently alleged that U.S. drug agents were spying on his government.)
But Mr. MacHarg believes that Mr. Robertson's remarks worsened the problem: "It is unfortunate that a careless remark from someone who is widely perceived by Latin Americans as an important evangelical leader has led, as predicted, to the pressure and persecution of evangelicals in Venezuela."
Ms. Zelenak said she doesn't know why Mr. Chavez has singled out NTM, but that the organization is eager to "clarify the misinformation." Two days after the president's announcement, two NTM missionaries appeared in an interview on GloboVision, a national television network in Venezuela. The men refuted the president's allegations against NTM and described the organization's mission: translating the Bible into tribal languages, establishing indigenous churches, and offering medical aid in remote regions.
The country's leading evangelical organization-The Evangelical Council of Venezuela-issued a statement supporting NTM's work and denying the group has any ties to the U.S. government.
In Amazonas-one of the remote Venezuelan regions where NTM works-members of an indigenous tribe blasted Mr. Chavez's actions against NTM, saying the president was acting against his own people. Jose Kayupare of the Puinare tribe told reporters: "This is really a decision that the majority of indigenous people in Amazonas don't support." Mr. Kayupare said NTM had been "a very important source of support" to impoverished Indian communities stricken with malaria and other diseases when the government had abandoned them.
Domingo Gonzalez, an indigenous Venezuelan working with the group, said the indigenous Venezuelans "need to be heard, not to be spoken for," and accused the government of being "the ones who really harm and oppress them."
One week after Mr. Chavez's announcement, NTM's Ms. Zelenak said the organization had not yet received a written directive from the government demanding the group's departure, and she hopes NTM will "be able to stay and serve the indigenous people." She said the prospect of being forced out is "very unsettling and very distressing" to the 160 missionaries on NTM's multinational Venezuelan team, many of whom live in mud homes with tin roofs in one of 12 remote communities: "The missionaries form very deep relationships with the people . . . the love goes both ways."