Missionaries Withdrawn, Church is Strong

LDS missionaries from the United States and Canada were withdrawn from Bolivia, according to a September 16th press release from the Church as a precautionary measure.   The country has suffered a week of violent conflict between rebels in its lowland, gas and agro-business rich states and its national government.  Apparently backed by the United States, lowland governors promoted the rebellion to obtain greater autonomy, a larger share of taxes from hydrocarbons, and to stop the current agrarian reform from dividing the extremely large estates of the savannahs and jungles. 

US Ambassador Philip Goldberg was declared persona non grata and ordered to leave the country last week leading to the reciprocal expulsion of the Bolivian ambassador from Washington.  US Peace Corps personnel have also been removed from the country in the last few days and the US State Department has issued a travel warning urging its citizens to leave the country and not to travel there due to the unrest.  Furthermore, on Tuesday, the State Department placed Bolivia on its counter-narcotics blacklist. 

Despite the diplomatic crisis and the unrest in Bolivia, Latin American LDS missionaries remain in the country and the Church continues.  Latter-day Saints are members of the government and are probably involved in the rebellion.   Despite the drama of the departure of North Americans from the country, and the overall weakening of US influence in the country and region, Mormonism has become part of the background of ordinary life and has members on both sides of the country’s social and political conflicts. 

This marks a major change from nineteen years ago when the Church was strongly connected with the United States in the minds of many Bolivians and when Mormon buildings and missionaries were targets of guerrilla actions.  Due to the efforts of Church public relations and its increasing Bolivianization, as well as its size and the time depth of its presence in the country, Mormonism no longer is a symbol of the Untied States and its influence in the country.  It is now a Bolivian Church and its members are widely distributed in government, business, and social movements both pro- and contra- the current government.   This is an important change and is a sign of the maturity of LDS growth in Bolivia and Latin America.  It is indeed a new time. 


  1. I’ll drink to that! raised diet coke.

  2. That’s great to hear. It’s better that our church not be tied to America, but be above politics.

    I wonder how American Mormons who feel they have a stake in one of the two sides of this particular situation feel about fellow Mormons not siding with them….

  3. david knowlton says:

    Dan, you can look at the comments section of the Deseret News for the article announcing the missionaries’ departure. Most, even those of returned missionaries, show little depth of knowledge of events and lots of pro-American and right wing ideology. It would be interesting to see leftist Bolivian Mormons comment.

    There seems to be a general unawareness among Anglo Mormons, at least, that other members do not agree with their combinations of the gospel and politics. In my experience, that is not the case as much with Bolivian members of the Church.

    PS I just went back to the Deseret News and the comments were on yesterday’s article, not the one in today’s paper yet.

  4. There seems to be a general unawareness among Anglo Mormons, at least, that other members do not agree with their combinations of the gospel and politics.

    Not just an unawareness, but sadly an inability to understand what should be an obvious and acceptable fact of life.

  5. Thanks, David. A couple of weeks ago I listened to your 1989 Sunstone presentation “Missionaries and Terror,” and this post provides a nice update to the situation you described in Bolivia.

  6. Excellent. Thanks for this peek behind the headlines.

  7. Is anything happening with Venezuela? Didn’t the US ambassador to that country also get kicked out last week?

  8. Thanks for the short and thoughtful write-up, David.

    I’m struck in reading the comments in the Des. News article at how many people seem to equate “the church” in Bolivia with “the North American missionaries.”

  9. Interesting. I just watched an old gregory peck movie last weekend, “Gentleman’s Agreement” from 1948. The movie is ostensibly about anti-semitism, and the plot revolves around a writer’s attempt to go “undercover” as a jew in post-war new york. Interesting, especially given its role a few years later in the mcCarthy investigation. But one of the key lines resolves around the writer and his son discussing what it means to be a “jew”. The son says “i thought we were American, not Jews.”

    I think it is great for everyone if we can separate nationality from religion.

  10. At the risk of sounding ignorant, I’m going to ask a quick question. When reading the Deseret News article, it just said that the American missionaries are being transferred. The press release on lds.org says the North American missionaries, and the blog post above says missionaries from the US and Canada. So, are there Mexican missionaries in Bolivia, and what of them? (It’s my understanding that Mexico is in North America, even though linguistically and culturally it’s more linked with Central and South America.)

  11. Cynthia, my understanding is that Anglo missionaries have been out of Venezuela since 2005. You are right to note that Venezuela is intimately involved in the Bolivian crisis, with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez offering his military as a guarantor of the continuity in power of Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales.

    In Venezuela as in Bolivia, the church still exists regardless of U.S. disruptions. I have fond (?) memories of various fast and testimony meetings in which Venezuelan members bore testimony both for and against Chavez’s regime, constructing rationales that range from tortured to near-murdered for why the gospel requires undying support for/limitless hostility toward Chavez’s left-leaning regime.

  12. JNS, thanks for the info and anecdotes. The diversity of saints warms my heart. What an odd place Zion will be! But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  13. No One In Particular says:


    It’s a pretty common confusion of terminology. In Spanish, the word norteamericano refers to US citizens and often Canadians; almost all the education systems of Latin America (and I think some European systems? Fact check me on wikipedia) consider the Americas to be a single American continent, which is generally broken down by historical and cultural boundaries, as much as geographical ones.
    A lot of people (albeit not generally the anglophones) in the Americas consider terms like ‘North American’ to mean something closer to ‘(probably anglophone) resident of the US (and sometimes Canada).’ It’s not the sort of thing that any but the most cautious and culturally-attuned translators worry about, of course, since the shade of meaning is only problematic by implication.
    My Spanish is Central American, so there may be a different conception among South Americans, but I doubt it. Incidentally (and as an answer to the question you posed), Central America has Mexican missionaries, albeit few, and they are not generally considered ‘norteamericanos’ in the norteamericano/latino dichotomy.

  14. david knowlton says:

    I agree with No One in Particular (and love the name just for the pun it enabled if nothing else); North American generally does not include Mexicans both in the English I know and in most Spanishes, even though Mexico is part of North America. On the specifics of the missionaries, I do not know the situation of Mexicans, and whether there are any in Bolivia. In my experience most missionaries in Bolivia are Chilean and Peruvian. But I doubt they have been withdrawn if they are there. They are not part of the political conflict in any direct way.

    Venezuela’s role in Bolivia’s conflicts is important–as is that of Brazil. Once it all passes it will be interesting to look at the roles Latter-day Saints will have played, both Anglo and Latin American Saints. One wonders how Mormonism works between people of different positions in political conflict when it is something they share, despite their other differences.

  15. Re: “North America” and Mexico. What is Mexico doing in NAFTA?

    David Knowlton: …”and its increasing Bolivianization.”

    Can you elaborate on that? Are the buildings built with a Bolivian architecture? Do they have their own hymns? Etc.?

  16. No One In Particular says:

    David: I really enjoyed your post, and it’s very interesting to me that ‘North American’ doesn’t include Mexican in your English. It doesn’t in mine either, but I was almost certain that it was the result of Spanish interference in the recent past.
    An interesting and comparable case of the church intersecting with Latin American political divides is Nicaragua. In neighboring Honduras I’ve known a number of Nicaraguan members, among them a wounded contra expat who fled to Honduras when he could no longer fight and a missionary whose father (also a member!) was a mid-ranking officer in the Sandinista armed forces. The missionary was proud of his family’s politics, and continued the family tradition.
    I never heard the two talk politics, and as far as I know they got along fine, but of course there was no real reason to talk Nicaraguan politics in a Honduran Sacrament Meeting. On a personal level each independently, repeatedly, and enthusiastically talked to me about the role that certain gospel principles (agency, charity, consecration, etc.) played in strengthening their belief in their respective ideologies.
    It’s very reassuring to see people with such deep differences recognizing their brotherhood in Christ and worshiping together as lambs, though each considers the other to be embracing the politics of lions.

  17. The most extreme instance of political distance within an LDS congregation sublimated within a devotional context that I’ve personally experienced was the Gospel Doctrine class in Peru in which an ex-supporter of 1980s and 1990s Maoist/terrorist/revolutionary group Sendero Luminoso and an ex-member of an anti-Sendero “ronda campesina” self-defense-through-attack sort of group discussed the ways that the law of consecration could be put into practice within the constraints of a developing-world capitalist economy and a primarily Catholic society. A moment never to be forgotten.

  18. Single Sister says:

    I witnessed a heated altercation between an American and several Mexicans when I was in Mexico once when someone from the US called himself an “American”. The Mexicans were not impressed as they also consider themselves “Americans” as they are part of the North American continent. They do differentiate between themselves and Canadians and US Citizens, but they really dislike the fact that some people in the US call only US Citizens “Americans”.

  19. I think part of the reason why we say we are americans, or “americanos” is because it is awfully difficult to say UnitedStatesian, or even “estadounidense” en español. But I very much know how that bugs other nationalities.

  20. david knowlton says:

    Wow J. Senderista and Rondero discussing the law of consecration. That is great!!! I once had a long conversation with a Chilean socialist who spent a long time in detention under the dictatorship and was tortured. He became a Bishop in the Church and used to go into the jails to argue with guerrillas who were there to convince them they should not attack the Church. It is not the same but it was fascinating all the same. I have also spoken with people from the far right who are LDS, but that is not so surprising since I live in Utah.

    Henry Gooren has written on Nicaragua and the former Sandinistas who are members. Indeed the ways in which people find a home in the Church, such that it can include their political beliefs, makes for some good thought when one lives in very conservative Utah, which can feel monolithic.

    Because of the political power of the US “Americano” to refer to US Citizens is increasingly common throughout South America but still is an irritant. Ours is the country with no name of its own. LOL.

    The new Latter-day Saint experience is increasingly rich. I look forward to a flood of biographies some day to help us see it. The reality I live is increasingly isolated and parochial within the Church, despite the power of the Wasatch Front.

    Much to be written here.

  21. No One In Particular says:

    Single Sister: That’s one of the most common failures of intercultural communication between the US and Latin America. US citizens feel that their use of the term ‘American’ is legitimate since ‘America’ is such a commonly used term for the country, since ‘Unitedstatesian’ (compare Spanish ‘estadounidense’!), and since comparable formulations just don’t work in English. These same US citizens are often shocked (and thus reluctant to accept) that what is, to them, a normal and reasonable use of a term should be construed as offensive and exclusionary by others. Really, they have a point; the problem is that Mexicans and other Latin Americans also have a very good point, especially in the context of their cultures’ geographic construction of ‘America’: it would be quite unreasonable in the eyes of those same US citizens if Latin American organizations and nations began to use ‘americano’ to refer exclusively to Latin Americans of some specific New World region and instead relegated US citizens to ‘gringo’ or some other locally popular term.

    JNS: Wow, I’m relatively sympathetic to a lot of leftist movements of Latin America, but I typically draw the line on this side of sendero luminoso. Maybe I’m misinformed about their tactics? Or maybe that the emphasis was on the ex-supporter? Whatever the case is, it’s a wonderful thing that there’s room for everyone in the Lord’s fold.

    PS The mention of Sendero Luminoso caught my eye because apparently they (or someone who likes them a lot) had a presence at the ceremony last month when Honduras signed onto ALBA, and a good number of people mentioned sighting their banners to me afterward with a certain amount of concern. That might just be Honduran conservatism, though: most of those people were decided opponents to ALBA.

  22. david knowlton says:

    No One in Particular is right in his analysis of Americano/American. It is an important gap between Latin Americans, except for the change I noted in an earlier comment, and United Statesians. Though awkward we ought to try something other than American for better hemispheric understanding and for our own education’s sake. American works if one were to add the taken for granted “English” to American…Yes I know Canada, but it has its own name. Spanish America and Portuguese (as well as French) America are also America and need to be recognized as such, for our sake.

    Sendero fascinates me, in part from spending a lot of time in the Andes while they were active and, in part, from the amazing idealism I saw in their militants during personal encounters. They came very close to winning that war. There is a lot to learn still from that terrible time.

  23. No One, believe me, you haven’t been misinformed about Sendero’s tactics. I might note, as a matter of giving all sides their due, that you might not be fully informed about the tactics of the Peruvian state or of its informal allies, which were also brutal in the extreme and in the end produced a comparable number of fatalities to what Sendero generated.

    I’ve talked with a few former Senderistas, as well as activists within other Peruvian leftist organizations that explored military action as a potential alternative or supplement to democratic participation and social organization. This is all for my work; as a personal matter, I prefer my egalitarianism to be a good deal less militarized.

    That said, while there were surely moments when I was a bit unnerved by statements of people I met, I can definitely echo David’s comments about the amazing idealism and commitment of Sendero militants, as well as those of other such groups. A man I interviewed once had become very unpopular in the 1980s because he described members of Sendero as “our siblings who have gone down the wrong path.” There’s something to that, although the “wrong path” phrase deserves emphatic mention in my opinion.

    Regarding the ALBA thing, I suppose it’s possible that Sendero might have had a token presence there, although I find it a bit improbable. Sendero still exists, but it’s a reasonably feeble organization at this point, with probably a few hundred members and limited political vision.

    In Spanish, “estadounidense” is worth the effort. In English when outside of the U.S., I find, “I’m from the U.S.” to work perfectly and give little offense.

  24. Aaron Brown says:

    After being harshly berated by an Argentine sister on my mission for referring to myself and other estadounidenses as “Americanos”, I have never again been able to refer to myself as an “American” without reliving that awkward moment in my mind. Funny how these things stick with you after so many years.


  25. No One In Particular says:

    David: I agree, ‘estadounidense’ is really a pretty good alternative in Spanish, though I don’t see it catching in English. When I have been asked what term I prefer, that’s what I ask to be called (in moderately formal situations anyway; in situations of confianza it’s a different story.) The problem, as I see it at least, is that picking a culturally sensitive term in a foreign language is merely common courtesy; trying to change the autonym used by the majority of given group, however, is not generally a fruitful undertaking. It doesn’t seem any more unreasonable to me for a language learner learning (American) English to learn the specific cultural context and reference of the term ‘American’ than for a person learning Spanish to learn why ‘americano’ can often be offensive. It’s an issue that could use patience and conscientiousness on all sides, I think.

    JNS: I’m glad to know that I hadn’t been misinformed about Sendero, and I was indeed aware that the reaction to Sendero had been quite appalling. My (relatively uninformed) disapproval of Sendero’s tactics is in no way an approval of its opponents’ tactics; I suppose what continues to surprise me about Sendero is the amount of support it had and, perhaps ideologically, continues to have. On that note, I’m fairly certain the supposed senderistas at the ALBA ceremony were affiliated only ideologically, if even that, and were probably Hondurans. In fact, it’s likely that they were campesinos paid by some external political organization. (I know a LOT of people who were paid to attend the rally.)

  26. re “estadounidense”, this could theoretically lead to the same confusion that resulted in this sidetrack about whether the word refers to the USA or Mexico — to wit, from which United States? The United States of America or the United Mexican States?

    Anyway, to my knowledge, almost all Europeans refer to people from the United States as “Americans” without either intending to sleight people from other countries on the North or South American continents or feeling any remorse for actually causing such, if that is the case (and Europeans have no particular love for the USA, let me assure you of that).

    “American” could be a legitimate reference in English to a person from the United States of America because the word “America” is actually in the name of the country, whereas although Venezuela is located on the continent of South America, I don’t think it has “America” in its name (if it does then admittedly that is a bad example but you catch my drift, hopefully).

    David, as to the main post, remind me of the evidence that the rebellion in Bolivia is supported by the United States (of America, not to be confused with the United Mexican States), as you assert in your first paragraph.

  27. oops, I meant slight, not sleight.

  28. John F., confusion regarding estadounidense could certainly arise if Mexico were routinely called the United Mexican States in normal conversation. But that contingency doesn’t apply.

  29. david knowlton says:

    John F, in Mexican Spanish estadounidense never refers to a Mexican, only to the people del otro lado (to the North).

    On US support for the rebellion in Bolivia: US Ambassador Goldberg denies any involvement with the rebellion. However, since his arrival in Bolivia the local press reported activities of incitement and support for the leaders of the half moon. I am neither in diplomacy nor in political science but, despite my skepticism of much reporting, I believe the Bolivian media on this issue. It fits a long pattern of US heavy-handedness in the country. You can see the recent autobiography of former President, and well known historian, Carlos D. Mesa Gisbert for examples if you wish.

    The tone of the editorial on Bolivia in the Washington Post, with its evident bias against Morales supports my claims strongly (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/15/AR2008091502702.html) The piece is surprising for its open blame on Morales, and lack of attention to the arrogance and frank intransigence of the rebels. The Post claims Morales divided the country, but his almost 70% support in the referendum on revocation gives the lie to that. The Post should recognize the authoritarianism, violence, and unwillingness to work with the government that has characterized the rebel leaders. They played hardball politics, lost, and instead went for an uprising. Yet, the Washington Post blames Morales. I am frankly amazed Morales never called in the troops with weapons blazing as did the former government of Sanchez de Losada. His policy showed almost miraculous dedication to avoiding military action and consequent deaths.

    Morales does raise some concerns (topic for another conversation). But it seems to me the willful blindness of the Washington Post shows the generalized, and I would argue misguided, support in Washington for Bolivia’s rebels. I think Washington has lost much of its ability to shape events in the heart of South America through its mishandling of this crisis.

  30. re the language–I’ve never heard a single person in Peru say estadounidense. Always, norteamericano and occasionally americanos (they don’t seem to be offended though I never say it). My husband and I always say we’re de los Estados Unidos, if we’re asked.

    I’m happy to hear that the Church is surviving so well on its own in Bolivia. Iquitos (or the state of Loreto, whose capital is Iquitos) similarly though not forcefully wants its independence from Peru and Loretano pride comes through at Church. However if an American church member said that they shouldn’t do that, that it was against the church they would try to fall in line immediately. American church members are VERY highly regarded, as knowing the most proper way to be a church member.

    I have mixed feelings about Morales but I think the Santa Cruzians are being more confrontational here.

  31. As to the post title–my mission sure had its share of missionaries who were withdrawn. Painfully withdrawn, awkward even. The church managed anyway.

  32. david knowlton says:

    I agree Amri. On all your points. Latin American leaders fill the spill over from Bolivia, should the lowland leaders succeed.

    It must be noted that Santa Cruz is divided, only a little over half its people support the rebels. Morales has strong support there. It is not surprising, as a result, that the rebellion is even more vehement there.

    The creation of local context for the gospel and the ways Church members meld their faith with local issues is an important point of an increasing Church maturity in recent missionary areas, it seems to me.

  33. John Mansfield says:

    Those in other nations can call those in the United States of America whatever they like; however, I wish that within our nation we would start referring to ourselves as “the People.” Hey, it works for the Deutsch aleman Germans.

  34. While I have not been following the specifics in Bolivia, there are legitimate reasons for the American government to be concerned about the outcome.

    First of all- Chavez in Venezuela is an enemy. Lets not get into disputes about whether this is America’s fault or not, the point is he is very unfriendly to the United States and therefor we should naturally prefer that his power diminish, rather than increase.

    In Bolivia, there is concern that the government policies are in tune with Chavez’s and that they will move closer in alliance with each other.

    Furthermore, the policies of the Bolivian (and Venezuelan) government tend towards undermining property rights while centralizing power in the central government. Not only are these ideologically opposed to the United States model, but it is almost certain to be very harmful both to the economy of these nations and the respect for human rights. Often these policies are defended in the name of the poor, but ultimately the poor are the ones who suffer the most. This is simply the historical outcome of these policies.

    This could then result in refugees and instability that could overflow into surrounding countries. As these troubles expand it would negatively impact the United States, so naturally we would prefer stability and economic growth for Bolivia.

    Therefor the US is sympathetic to the lowland areas of Bolivia which support stronger property rights, and are resisting centralization of government power. Last I heard the US was still hoping for a compromise between the different factions. Thus you would think the US would avoid even covert direct support of the rebels. However, the US is such a power in the world that mere expression of sympathy can actually be heavy handed and make real changes in the situation. The knowledge that the US would probably be friendly to a successful rebellion is sufficient to gain supporters to the rebel cause. Essentially, the US is so big and powerful that anything we do (or don’t do) has ripple effects. This fact is unlikely to appease the Bolivian government however, as the mere fact of the US being sympathetic to the rebels creates a problem for them.

    On the other hand, it is not at all implausible that the United States has engaged in some sort of covert support of the rebels. I consider it less likely than the alternatives, but I can not deny the real possibility. I consider it less likely because covert action requires eventual notification of Congress, and I doubt they are in the mood for such right now. Most likely the US has never gone beyond “unofficial” contacts with the rebels for information gathering purposes (what are their intentions), and ensuring that there is a friendly relationship in case they are successful.

    Obviously the Bolivian government is not going to like this, although it is not a clearly hostile action- granted it’s not very friendly either, but many nations adopt such a position as part of being neutral. Only the US is held to higher standards- perhaps justifiably because our power is so much greater.

    The most likely explanation I find for the expulsion of the American ambassador is not due to American actions, as much as Chavez in Venezuela preferences, which the Bolivians will naturally consider if they want his continued military support.

  35. david knowlton says:

    Cicero, I am sorry but I cannot leave this, even though it has been awhile. I am afraid you far overstate the relevance of Chavez in Bolivian affairs, as best I can determine. He plays a role, but not that determinate. You are also incorrect in your analysis of the different positions in the debates in Bolivia, especially on property rights and centralizing power. Bolivia is far too complex for such simplistic evaluations.

    With luck, the rebels and the government look like they may reach an agreement soon, resolving the crisis. As to when the US will return, who knows. It now is in a much weakened position vis a vis Bolivia, as best I can tell.

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