CANO IGUANA, Venezuela – Deep in the jungle, Indians wearing loincloths and beaded necklaces gather in a hut to hear their leader question why the American missionaries who help them are being told to leave the country.
The missionaries have been here for years, offering Bible lessons, helping cure the sick and painstakingly learning the Indians' language. Now, President Hugo Chavez (search) says their U.S.-based evangelical group has links to the CIA (search), and he ordered all missionaries working with the New Tribes Mission (search) to leave Venezuela.
"They've always helped us, they've lived among us," said tribal leader Timoteo Tute, 42. "How can they send them away?"
Four American families assigned to live in Cano Iguana say they hope to stay but are preparing for the worst in case they are evicted. During 18 years among the Joti Indians, missionary Susan Rodman said she and her husband, Dave, have raised three children, learned to deal with the isolation and battled bouts of malaria.
"Now I just can't imagine the thought of not being here," said the 56-year-old Rodman, originally from North Carolina. "I've come to know (the Joti) and love them."
But for others in Venezuela, these foreign evangelists stir deep suspicions.
The New Tribes Mission, based in Sanford, Fla., has settlements in remote, mineral-rich tracts of Venezuelan rain forests located far from the surveillance of authorities.
Chavez — who has repeatedly claimed the United States is plotting to invade his oil-rich country — two weeks ago ordered New Tribes missionaries to leave, accusing them of exploiting indigenous communities and having links to the CIA through "imperialist infiltration."
No official order has reached the group yet, but one missionary family at Cano Iguana has already begun pulling out. One of their daughter's visa is expiring, and they see little chance of getting it renewed.
In addition, more than 200 foreign Mormon missionaries transferred out of the country a week ago, with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (search) citing visa troubles for some of them.
The New Tribes Mission, which has 160 missionaries and other staff here, has long faced accusations of wrongdoing in Venezuela.
Anthropologists, military officials and others have accused the group of watching indigenous people die of malnutrition while living in luxurious camps, forcing communities to give up ancestral traditions and creating a sophisticated enclave of airstrips and settlements to exploit gold, quartz and even uranium deposits.
"This is not a problem that has developed in the Chavez government," said Alberto Muller, a retired general and ex-governor of the region who left office in 1985. "Since my time as governor, (the missionaries) have really alarmed me."
Since first establishing a presence in Venezuela in 1946, the group has repeatedly been investigated, though each time the controversy fizzled out.
Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel (search) started calling New Tribes a security threat as early as 1981. Tomas Antonio Marino Blanco, a navy captain, recently revived claims first made in 1978 that New Tribes missionaries have helped U.S. defense contractors from Westinghouse conduct mineral prospecting.
The group denies the accusations and is seeking to meet directly with Chavez to discuss the issue. It also says it is willing to open its camps to government observers to quell suspicions.
But many indigenous leaders in Amazonas state defend the group, and on Friday hundreds marched through the southern town of Puerto Ayacucho to protest Chavez's decision. Some said they support government efforts including the granting of collective property titles to Indian groups but don't see the sense in kicking out missionaries who help the tribes.
Missionaries live in a cluster of rustic homes among Indians' thatched huts in Cano Iguana, a village about 350 miles south of Caracas on the fringes of the Amazon basin.
Speaking through an interpreter, Tute, the tribal leader, said the Joti people have come to know the white missionaries as neighbors.
He said the villagers, who still speak only Joti, have not been pressured to abandon their beliefs and customs. They still hunt with blow guns and cook cassava over stone hearths in the ground.
But some changes have come: The missionaries have invented a way of writing the Joti language, and many Joti have learned it.
The missionaries say they stretch their donated funds to cover expenses of flying in food and supplies and airlifting tribe members to medical attention in emergencies via a short, grassy airstrip.
"There was never anybody who helped us like this before," Tute said. "It pains me to think of losing them."