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Evangelicals in Venezuela: Robertson Only the Latest Controversy In A Long and Bizarre History
Demeaner of The Faith: Rev. Pat Robertson and Gen. Ríos Montt
While Pat Robertson’s recent remarks on the Christian Broadcast Network’s The 700 Club that the United States should “take out” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez certainly caught the media spotlight, the statement by the evangelical minister was only the latest episode in a long and troubled story. Since the 1970s Robertson has loyally served hawkish U.S. foreign policy objectives in Latin America and played a particularly pernicious role in the region. Christian organizations nation wide would do well to heed the history and to rigorously challenge Robertson on his record.
As a young man, Robertson dreamed about profitable business deals in Latin America. After graduating from college, he briefly worked for the W.R. Grace & Co. in New York. Robertson was specifically assigned to Grace’s Foreign Service School to analyze South American economic conditions in South America. There, Robertson collaborated with the company’s chief executives of the company. According to one of Robertson’s biographers, “during the months he worked with the Grace company he viewed Latin America as the ‘land of opportunity’ where he would find some way to enrich himself. Though Robertson left the company after only about nine months, he later achieved his dream by extending Christian televangelism to Central America. By the 1980s, Pat Robertson’s program “The 700 Club,” reached 3.1 million viewers in Guatemala. Robertson took a personal interest in the strife torn Central American nation, developing warm ties to General Efrain Rios Montt, a born again evangelical Christian. When Rios Montt took power in a military coup d’etat in March of 1982, Robertson immediately flew to Guatemala, meeting with the incoming president a scant five days after he came to power. Later, Robertson aired an interview with Rios Montt on “The 700 Club” and extolled the new military government.
Robertson’s visit came at a particularly sensitive time. Guatemala’s dirt poor indigenous peoples, who made up half the country’s population, were suffering greatly at the hands of the U.S. funded military. The armed forces had taken over Indian lands that seemed fertile for cattle exporting or a promising site to drill for oil. Those Indians who dared to resist were massacred. Rios Montt, a staunch anti-Communist supported by U.S. president Reagan, was determined to wipe out the Marxist URNG, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union rebels. However, according to Amnesty International, thousands of people with no connection to the armed struggle were killed by the regime. Not surprisingly, many Indians turned to armed resistance. To deal with the ever worsening situation, Rios Montt proposed a so called “guns and beans” campaign. Rios Montt explained the plan very succinctly: “If you are with us, we’ll feed you, if not, we’ll kill you.” For Robertson, however, Rios Montt’s extermination policy was of little account. Astonishingly, the televangelist wrote “I found [Rios Montt] to be a man of humilityimpeccable personal integrity, and a deep faith in Jesus Christ.”
One reason that Rios Montt may have appealed to Robertson was the dictator’s dislike of Catholic priests. In the 1980s, they had become an obstacle to the expansion of evangelical Protestantism. Working within indigenous communities, Catholic priests had been driven out or murdered. Protestant sects, on the other hand, allied to the Guatemalan military. They preached individual conversion, the importance of obedience to military and political authority, the merits of capitalism, and the value of inequality. Rios Montt’s own Church of the Word went so far as to define priests and nuns as the enemy. According to Walter LaFeber, a historian of Central America, three priests were killed within a thirty-six month period in just one province. With the Catholic Church out of the way, Rios Montt conducted a scorched earth policy. His forces massacred as many as 15,000 Indians. Whole villages were leveled and the army set up “Civilian Self-Defense Patrols” which forced 900,000 villagers to “voluntarily” aid police in tracking down suspects. Rios Montt created “model” villages, similar to concentration camps, which housed Indian refugees. However, when 40,000 survivors sought safety in Mexico, Guatemalan helicopters machine gunned the camps. Rios Montt justified the genocidal policy by claiming that the Indians were suspected of cooperating with the URNG, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union, or “might” cooperate in future. Amnesty International noted that extra judicial killings carried out the by the military “were done in terrible ways: people of all ages were not only shot to death, they were burned alive, hacked to death, disemboweled, drowned, beheaded. Small children were smashed against rocks or bayoneted to death.”
Far from denouncing such practices, Robertson rushed to defend Rios Montt. “Little by little the miracle began to unfold,” he wrote of the regime. “The country was stabilized. Democratic processes, never a reality in Guatemala, began to be put into place.” Robertson also praised Rios Montt for eliminating death squads, despite recent estimates that tens of thousands were killed by death squads in the second half of 1982 and throughout 1983. Most damning of all, even as Rios Montt was carrying out the extermination of the Mayan population, Robertson held a fundraising telethon for the Guatemalan military. The televangelist urged donations for International Love Lift, Rios Montt’s relief program linked to Gospel Outreach, the dictator’s U.S. church. Meanwhile, Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network reportedly sponsored a campaign to provide money as well as agricultural and medical technicians to aid in the design of Rios Montt’s first model villages. Rios Montt was ultimately overthrown in another military coup d’etat in August 1983.
Unfortunately, Robertson’s involvement in Guatemalan politics did not discredit his career. He also led efforts to back the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s, who sought to overthrow the Sandinista regime. More recently, he has been an important backer of President Bush and currently commands a captive audience of one million U.S. television viewers. Judging from his recent remarks, Robertson has not chosen to re-evaluate his hawkish views. The latest target drawing Robertson’s fire is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Unlike General Rios Montt, who came to power in a military coup, Chavez enjoys significant popular support. He has won two presidential elections, in 1998 and 2000, defeated an opposition led recall referendum in August 2004 and according to recent polls, has an approval rating of 70%. Not surprisingly, he is favored to win re-election in 2006. But to Robertson, the will of the Venezuelan people is of no account. Chavez, unlike Rios Montt, has not been compliant with U.S. interests. Not only has Chavez had the audaciousness to criticize the U.S. war in Iraq, but he also questions the fairness of Bush initiatives like the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. The world’s fifth largest oil producer, Venezuela has significant political and economic clout in the region, and Chavez has poured oil proceeds into health and education programs. To the ire of Robertson, Chavez has pursued an independent course by providing oil to Cuba. In exchange, the island nation has sent thousands of doctors who have assisted the Venezuelan poor. Unfortunately for Bush and the Christian right, Chavez has not been easily dislodged from power. Though the U.S. provided material assistance to Venezuelan opposition figures seeking to topple Chavez, a coup d’etat in April of 2002 proved a miserable failure when popular protest led to Chavez’s reinstatement. Since that time, Chavez has consolidated power and has become a hemispheric leader. Robertson’s attack surely will not alter the political equation in Venezuela. Though the televangelist has a presence in Venezuela, broadcasting in Spanish over Venezuelan station Televen, Venezuelan Protestants only number 2% of the population and are by and large a working class Chavez constituency. Nevertheless, Robertson’s remark has cast a pall over U.S.-Venezuelan relations, which had in recent months already hit a record low.
Though some Protestant ministers have criticized Robertson, arguing that the televangelist has demeaned the faith, this trickle needs to turn into a torrent. By all reckoning, Robertson’s career should have been destroyed as a result of his support for genocidal dictator Rios Montt. Now, Protestants nation-wide have the opportunity to voice their dissent over Robertson’s most recent outburst. Hopefully, they will act soon or Robertson will continue to make un-Christian statements that contribute to ill will between the United States and its neighbors.