Sunday, February 12, 2006

Some 40 U.S. Missionaries Leave Venezuela: Feb 12;_ylt=AsUS6lQ1vHJQgpnnI0Vd8YC9IxIF;_ylu=X3oDMTA2ZGZwam4yBHNlYwNmYw--

Some 40 U.S. Missionaries Leave Venezuela
By NATALIE OBIKO PEARSON, Associated Press Writer
Sun Feb 12, 10:14 PM ET

CARACAS, Venezuela - As their plane engine started, two American missionaries looked back at the Joti Indians watching from the grassy airstrip — an abrupt and bitter goodbye after nearly three decades in Venezuela's     Amazon rain forest.

Susan and Dave Rodman were among some 40 missionaries who pulled out of their remote outposts ahead of a Sunday deadline from President Hugo Chavez, who has accused the U.S.-based New Tribes Mission of spying for the  CIA and exploiting indigenous communities.

Denying any wrongdoing, the missionaries have gathered in an eastern city and are wondering what comes next — for themselves and the tribes.

"My heart is torn," Susan Rodman said Friday from Puerto Ordaz, where the missionaries have moved into a guesthouse and acquaintances' homes. "We knew one day we'd have to leave, but we didn't want it to be so abrupt."

Rodman, 57, spent more than half her life with the Joti Indians, who speak no Spanish and have little concept of money. Raised in Wisconsin and Brazil, Rodman said she and her husband are unsure what to do next.

They left their outpost earlier this month and New Tribes flew its last two missionaries out of their jungle camp on Thursday.

Marg Jank — a 67-year-old Canadian who spent 44 years with the Yanomami Indians — said the tribe handed her its last stash of bolivar bills so she could send a final shipment of cornmeal, rice and other staples from the nearest city.

Jank left most of her belongings in the simple home that she offered to a Yanomami family, taking her computer and printer to finish her translation of the Bible into the Yanomami tongue.

Chavez said that the indigenous people will be better off without the Sanford, Fla.-based missionary group, which he accuses of collecting "strategic information" for the CIA and spying for foreign mining and pharmaceutical interests in isolated, mineral-rich tracts of Venezuela.

The government has not backed up the accusations with evidence.

Chavez, who often accuses the U.S. of plotting against him, said Friday the government would take over the abandoned missions from "that organization of imperialist penetration" and was investing in airplanes, communications equipment and other supplies to provide water and electricity to the tribes.

Chavez has also accused the missionaries of destroying indigenous cultures by proselytizing — criticism Jank acknowledged was tougher to counter.

But she believes some of the changes are difficult to argue with: Populations around the missions grew as education and medical care helped combat disease, and tribes learned to transcribe their languages to preserve them.

Alexander Luzardo, a professor of anthropology at Venezuela's Central University, has denounced the missions for what he calls "cultural genocide," accusing them of terrorizing Indians into adopting Western practices and beliefs.

But he acknowledges the group filled a void left by the government during decades of neglect that "hopefully now will be repaired," he said Sunday.

It remains unclear whether the government will insist that the missionaries leave the country, though Chavez, when asked Friday, said: "Of course, it's decided."

New Tribes has appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn the government's expulsion order, but most missionaries appear resigned to moving on with their lives.

"Our one prayer is that we can keep some kind of contact," said Rodman, who left behind most belongings in her home nestled among huts on a river bend.

She said the villagers promised her: "We'll take care of it until you come back."

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