- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2006

TAMATAMA, Venezuela

Dionicio Guerra looks at the photographs of American missionaries he keeps on his dining room wall and hopes for their return.

The Ye’kuana Indian wants the Florida-based New Tribes Mission to bring back the spiritual guidance, medical care and education he says his people have sorely missed since the missionaries left this community in the Venezuelan Amazon in November on orders from the national government.

But Mercedes Maldonado is happy to see New Tribes go. A Ye’kuana raised just upriver from here, she accuses them of bullying her into converting to Christianity.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s order to expel New Tribes in October has left indigenous people in this isolated jungle divided — even across family lines — over the leftist leader’s accusation that the Protestant evangelists were “exploiting the Indians” during 60 years of preaching the Gospel.

“They brainwash you by saying there’s a devil, a frying pan, a hell that kills you,” said Miss Maldonado, who was baptized by the New Tribes but later split from the group.

“They said the angels were white just like them, with blue eyes, while the devil was black. But I said no, respect my culture. If you have your religion, I respect it. But don’t mess with ours.”

Medicine and bitter pills

Yet Mr. Guerra has nothing but praise for New Tribes. He thanks them for making Ye’kuana a written language, teaching his people to read and write, and bringing medicine to a malaria-infested area long neglected by the central government.

“When the missionaries were here, they helped us a lot, so when they left it was a bit painful,” said Mr. Guerra, who teaches Bible class in their absence. “They taught us about work, social development and health care. Now we don’t have that.”

The debate over how New Tribes treated the people they proselytized is provoking more heated debate in indigenous communities than the government’s more publicized accusation — that the group used its presence in a remote area rich in minerals such as gold and uranium to collect strategic information for the CIA.

“The [New Tribes] movement is promoted from the United States because there is geopolitical interest in having positioning in the biosphere reserve, water and minerals that exist there,” said Interior Minister Jesse Chacon.

This accusation further soured relations between the United States and Venezuela, which is quickly becoming the Bush administration’s greatest critic in Latin America.

No indigenous people interviewed could provide evidence that the proselytizers worked for the U.S. government or sought minerals. New Tribes flatly denies the charge.

Homes of the faithful

That organization sends missionaries to convert 3,000 ethnic groups in 18 countries and considers its work unfinished until “the day there are believers from every tribe, tongue and nation worshipping God together.”

Arriving in Venezuela in 1946, the group founded Tamatama three years later to house a school for missionaries’ children and to convert the nearby Ye’kuana and Piaroa Indians to Christianity.

Despite being surrounded by the untamed Amazon, the living quarters the missionaries built for themselves are reminiscent of a hamlet in the Midwestern United States. Tall trees stretch over expansive lawns, and spacious but unadorned farmhouse-style homes boast luxuries including hot water and blenders.

Mr. Guerra and other New Tribes supporters have moved into the missionaries’ former homes. But Mr. Guerra’s cousin Ruben Guerra, whose father is the chief of Tamatama, still lives in a mud-walled house in the more modest native part of the community.

Despite being baptized by New Tribes, Ruben Guerra left the church and now works for the local government allied with Mr. Chavez. Like the president, he says the evangelists separated their comfortable living quarters from ramshackle Ye’kuana housing and were reluctant to share luxuries such as electricity and the schooling they gave their own children.

“I didn’t understand it when the Americans went on Sundays to preach evangelism, to talk about God and friendship,” Ruben Guerra said. “Then one meter away from church they started talking about having to divide the town.”

Jaime Miller, a spokesman for New Tribes in Venezuela who grew up in Tamatama, said the proselytizers never intended to segregate the community and points out that they lived in more integrated fashion with indigenous peoples in other areas.

Religion vs. politics

Nita Zelenak, a spokeswoman at New Tribes’ headquarters in Sanford, Fla., adds that the group treated all indigenous people equally regardless of their willingness to adopt Christianity.

“If they needed medicine, their needs had nothing to do with whether they chose to believe the Bible or not,” Mrs. Zelenak said. “It would show that you don’t care about the people if you only serve a select few.”

Anthropologists and politicians in Caracas have lobbied for decades to expel New Tribes. They liken the group to the European colonists who converted indigenous people in North, Central and South America centuries ago, and charge that their religious teachings prohibit and eventually wipe out local religious traditions.

Mr. Chavez is the first president to act on these accusations, all of which New Tribes denies. Mrs. Zelenak said New Tribes has not had any direct communication with Venezuelan officials and still does not know why the government wanted the group out.

Leaders of other missions working in the Amazon say the government’s motives are rooted in its diplomatic spat with Washington, which accuses Mr. Chavez of turning authoritarian and destabilizing the region.

“When President Chavez talks against Bush, Venezuelan officials think he is also talking against the American people, and they put the missionaries in that category, too,” said Euclives Fuguet, president of Mission Padamo, a group of evangelists who split from New Tribes in 1989 and now work independently. “So they accuse the missionaries, too.”

Hopes for return

In recent months, Mr. Chavez has called President Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world,” and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has compared Mr. Chavez to Adolf Hitler. American televangelist Pat Robertson recommended in August that the Bush administration assassinate Mr. Chavez.

Missionaries are waiting in Venezuelan cities and their home countries for Venezuela’s Supreme Court to set a date to hear their case challenging the government’s order. If they lose, they will be unable to return to the country’s tribal areas.

Local supporters of Mr. Chavez such as Ruben Guerra insist that the government is undertaking a $23.5 million plan to install infrastructure and social programs, which they say will replace assistance from New Tribes.

But Ye’kuana who want New Tribes back are skeptical that the government will replace the help they received from the proselytizers.

“We have a government that says it will do these things, but we haven’t seen it yet,” said Dionicio Guerra. “Hopefully, God willing, [New Tribes] can come back to the Amazon.”

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