Missionaries’ Mission at Issue

Times Staff Writer

Earnest and God-fearing, jungle missionary Gary Greenwood may not look like a spy for the CIA. But Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says the lanky young man from central Michigan is no less than an advance scout for an imminent U.S. invasion of this South American country.

Last month, Chavez ordered the expulsion of about 200 evangelical Baptist missionaries from the country’s Amazon rain forest. He accused them of spying, mining, exploiting indigenous tribes and using jungle airstrips for “imperialist penetration.” Last week, the missionaries were given 90 days to leave the zone.

Greenwood laughed off the charges and said there was no time for espionage in Cuwa, the isolated Yanomami Indian village where he and his family lived for four years. Although he and other missionaries acknowledged that their primary goal was to convert Indians to Christianity, the 33-year-old said he spent most of his days helping them: drilling wells, fixing outboard motors and making their huts more livable.

As for the issue of U.S. intentions, Greenwood jokingly wondered why the Pentagon would launch an invasion from the dense jungle of the Amazon, where movement of troops or military vehicles would be problematic.


“Wouldn’t the Caribbean coastline make more sense?” he asked as he made his way out of the jungle from this Orinoco River port town.

The seemingly outlandish accusations illustrate the deterioration in Chavez’s relations with the United States, a once-close ally that still depends on Venezuela for 12% of its oil imports. Chavez blames the “imperialist” United States for a host of social ills in Latin America, rhetoric that polls show is resonating in a continent impatient for change.

Some observers see the expulsion, which targeted the Florida-based New Tribes Mission and its offshoots, as a part of a hardening attitude toward religious groups since U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson suggested in August that someone assassinate Chavez. The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints announced last month that it had withdrawn all 219 of its U.S. missionaries from the country because of increasing delays and difficulty in obtaining or renewing visas.

Chavez has also sparred with the Roman Catholic Church. Retired Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, a Venezuelan who was a confidant of the late Pope John Paul II, has accused Chavez of being increasingly autocratic.


“Chavez needs confrontation, because this allows him, among other things, to lessen tensions within his coalition,” said Javier Corrales, a political scientist at Amherst College and a Venezuela specialist. “He is also trying to weaken organized groups that are autonomous, especially if they are foreign.”

Some anthropologists and government officials cheered Chavez’s action, saying the expulsion was a welcome conclusion to a 60-year debate in Venezuela over whether the evangelicals threaten cultural diversity by forcing assimilation and modernity on the tribes, even as they deliver much-needed services.

They say the problems posed by the missionaries are not espionage or unbridled capitalism, but the religious and behavioral changes that the missionaries force on tribes in exchange for material and medical help. Those changes are destroying tribes’ primitive rituals and robbing people of what the United Nations has termed world cultural patrimony, the critics claim.

“New Tribes activity amounts to cultural genocide for which the state has to share responsibility,” anthropologist and former Sen. Alexander Luzardo said in an interview in Caracas, the capital.

“The state tolerated their presence in those areas too long and ceded to them its responsibilities in health and education services too long.”

But many of the estimated 45,000 indigenous people in the Amazon basin resent the expulsion order, saying the missionaries have improved their lives.

Ingrid Turon, a city council member and member of the Yeguana indigenous community in the village of Toki, six hours by outboard motorboat from here, said those who oppose missionaries want to deprive indigenous people of the advantages of modern life.

“For them, we are like animals in the zoo that people should pay to come see, so they can charge admission, publish their books and take pictures,” Turon said. “They want to deny us the progress that they want, that the entire world wants.”


Greenwood, the missionary, said living among the Indians as a “friend and neighbor” gives him a different -- and, he said, more caring -- perspective than that of the anthropologists who visit periodically to study the communities and their customs.

“That’s where we are a little bit critical of the scientists who look on the Yanomami as a classroom project. These aren’t objects -- these are people,” Greenwood said. “If you have a textbook approach to them, rather than relational, the Indians suffer as a result.”

Greenwood didn’t deny that he wanted to teach the Indians the Bible, which has been translated to the Yanomami language, and to show them the “way of the Lord.” Those teachings include discouraging Yanomami from taking alcoholic or hallucinatory substances, from committing polygamy and incest, and from engaging in inter-tribal violence.

But he insisted that none of the Indians in Cuwa were denied clothing, food or medicine for failing to follow his religious teachings.

The son of a contractor, Greenwood is a self-described Mr. Fix-It, and much of his work was to alter Yanomami living practices he viewed as unhealthy. For instance, he installed concrete floors and built tables and benches for many of the huts in Cuwa as part of an effort to dissuade the Indians from eating on the floor, which leads to diseases such as amoebic dysentery.

But he learned not to intrude in some areas, especially politics. “We never criticize the president. These people are very patriotic.”

A relatively small part of Greenwood’s day was dedicated to religion, he said. He spent most of his time helping the Yanomami stay fed, clothed and healthy, always a struggle in the unforgiving Amazon.

His wife, Sarah, a nurse, operated a clinic where she treated the dysentery, malaria and snake bites suffered by the 120 people who live in Cuwa, which in Yanomami means “you are here.”


Once a month on average, Sarah Greenwood radioed for help from the medical evacuation flight services sponsored and operated by the missionaries in the Amazon to fly a villager to Puerto Ayacucho for emergency medical care.

The future of those medevac services is now in doubt. Chavez alleged that the eight airstrips the missionaries built were designed to facilitate “imperialistic penetration,” a charge Greenwood denied.

“There has never been any hard evidence produced, no photos, uranium samples or gold nuggets that you would expect to see when you have been accused of something,” Greenwood said.

Some proponents of the expulsion view it as a positive sign that the Venezuelan government is finally assuming responsibility for the indigenous people. Chavez has sent outboard motors, food and generators to isolated Amazon communities.

Liborio Guarulla, the first indigenous governor of Amazonas state and a Chavez ally, said in an interview that Chavez was defending diversity in Venezuela. Guarulla called it a reversal of previous presidents’ policy of favoring “cultural unity,” a goal that he said the missionaries brought closer by speeding assimilation of the tribes.

“What you saw on analysis was a disconcerting picture -- the New Tribes Mission imposing an apocalyptic, compulsory view on the indigenous that the end of the world was near,” Guarulla said.

He said the Chavez government was making a commitment to provide the health and education services that missionaries had shouldered.

But anthropologist Isam Madi, who favors the presence of the missionaries, fears that the new government impulse will fade after local elections in December. He warned that death rates among the Yanomami and other tribes, which have fallen with the presence of missionaries such as Sarah Greenwood, would rise again, especially among newborns and infants, once the missionaries left.

“Yes, there is a cultural change that comes with missionaries, but I prefer the cultural change if it comes with a lower death rate,” said Madi, who runs a charity called Foundation for Indigenous Democracy in Santa Elena, Bolivar state.

The Greenwoods last month changed affiliation to a Venezuelan church in hopes of being allowed to stay. They are in Caracas, where they applied for a visa that would permit them to go to a different Yanomami community.

“We’ve prayed about it and we think that’s what the Lord wants, that we keep helping these people,” Gary Greewood said.