"Venezuela will expel the US evangelical group New Tribes Mission, which has been active in indigenous communities along the southern border with Colombia and Brazil since 1946.
"'They will leave Venezuela,' President Hugo Chavez Frias said. '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 organization 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."
"Since the 1970s, New Tribes has drawn heavy criticism from many quarters, including leftist political groups, environmentalists, indigenous organizations, 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 Chavez' 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.'"
"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 organizations 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 defense 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 Chavez, 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."
"Chavez stressed that 'we are not going to run roughshod over anyone, we will give New Tribes time to pack up their things and go.'" ...
New Tribes Mission had no comment on the announcement.