The Experience of the SPES Foundation
Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 11, Number 1, 1994, pages 56-65
The Experience of the SPES Foundation:
Some Remarks on the Different Attitudes
Toward New Religious Movements
in Argentina and in Europe
José María Baamonde, Ph.D.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Cults appear to be as active in Argentina as in most European countries. At the end of 1992, 2,986 distinct religious movements had been registered with the Ministry of Cults and Foreign Affairs. Although “cult” has a less pejorative connotation in Argentina than in the United States, many of these registered groups are probably cults according to the usual definition of the term in the United States. The SPES Foundation (Servicio Para el Esclarecimiento en Sectas) is a professional organization founded to help deal with this problem. In 1992 the SPES Foundation responded to 1,745 inquiries. Argentina's cult situation differs from that of Europe in three ways. First, in Argentina large numbers of “Pentecostal” groups are so psychologically manipulative that they can be considered cults. Second, Argentina has had an influx of Afro-Brazilian cults not seen in Europe. And third, in Argentina there is much less understanding of the problem and more reluctance to take concrete action against it.
As far as the cult phenomenon or the New Religious Movements (NRMs) are concerned, Argentina is no different from any other developed country in the First World. Our country not only has been importing groups with cult characteristics for years, but also it already has the sad privilege of becoming one more exporter of them, with movements such as La Comunidad (The Community) and New Acropolis. Many of these groups also have political aspirations and already have a certain degree of influence in various European countries.
The Reality of the Cult Phenomenon in Argentina
Some figures illuminate the reality of the cult phenomenon in Argentina: At the end of 1992, 2,986 distinct religious movements had been registered with the Ministry of Cults and Foreign Affairs. Of these, only 2% are associated with classic or traditional religions. Of those registered, 382 correspond to diverse spiritual cults; 387 to different cults of AfroBrazilian origin; and 1,790 to evangelical Christian cults, of which approximately 90% are of the “Pentecostal” type.
In 1979 a national law (Law No. 21745) required the reregistration of previously registered movements. From 1981 to 1990 the average registration was 185 cults per year. The yearly registration was as follows:
The decline in registration during 1991 and 1992 was not because there were not any NRMs or because they did not register. This decline was caused by the fact that in February 1992 the SPES Foundation published these numbers for the first time, thereby causing a certain uneasiness among the members of the Ministry of Cults and Foreign Affairs. From that time on, they were more restrictive about registrations (Baamonde, 1991b).
To these figures we must add a considerable but not yet fixed number of movements that do not register with the Ministry of Cults and Foreign Affairs. Concealing their religious content, these movements, disguised as “civilian associations” or “foundations,” register with the General Inspector of Justice. Then, we must add another set of movements that register with the Ministry of Education, under the guise of “centers,” “schools,” or “educational institutions.” Finally, we must add the movements that do not register anywhere and function more or less secretly.
Unfortunately, the foreseeable future in this area is a bit discouraging in Argentina at present. A “Cult Law” project has been submitted to the National Congress. Its Article 7 proposes that from now on registration be voluntary, allowing those groups not registered to develop their activities freely, with the potential of our losing all record of the cults existing in our country and any possibility of control. Should this legal ordinance concerning religion be approved, those who will benefit are essentially those groups that include delinquent acts in their practices.
The Beginning of Hope: The SPES Foundation
The concern resulting from the increase of the NRMs induced professionals who had been studying the problem individually to join forces, and at the end of the 1980s this group created the SPES Foundation (Servicio Para el Esclarecimiento en Sectas, or Organization for Cult Awareness).
The SPES Foundation is the first institution in Argentina and Latin America whose purpose is to study the NRM phenomenon from all possible disciplines and points of view, and at the same time to offer a series of services through its four departments, outlined below.
Documentation: This department's purpose is to gather all existing materials on the topic of cults, and to put this information at the disposal of those persons or institutions that desire to research the phenomenon.
Press and Publication: This department's purpose is to establish contact with the many avenues of social communication for campaigns of preventive education, and to publish specialized literature and educational material in various formats (print, audio, and video).
Training: This department's purpose is to organize speeches, conferences, round tables, seminars, and so forth, in schools, institutes, universities, churches, and other venues, from an introductory and general point of view, as well as from specialized perspectives for specific disciplines (e.g., legal, psychological, educational).
Technical Assistance: This department's purpose is to concern itself with the areas of legal assistance, psychological support, and social service; all offer counseling and support to members, former members, and families. This department also researches the cult phenomenon from its respective disciplines.
Studying this topic in an institutionalized manner became a true challenge that on more than one occasion threatened the SPES Foundation's capacity to respond.
During 1992 alone, the SPES Foundation responded to 1,745 different inquiries; 10% of these were of foreign origin. The Department of Training held 307 conferences and courses in various institutions. The Department of Press and Publication participated in 178 different forums of communication, and, at the same time, published three books and four catalogues and produced a preventive video which has been shown in cinemas throughout the country. Finally, the Department of Technical Assistance handled the cases of 532 individuals, many of whom are now under treatment.
The increase in the activities of the SPES Foundation has been important, as can be observed in the following chart:
Press and Publication
Training (conferences, courses)
Technical Assistance (cases)
Differences Between Argentina and European Countries
Concerning the New Religious Movements
With respect to the cult phenomenon or NRMs, I believe that there are three fundamental differences between our country and those in Europe. The first two relate to movements that acquire particular characteristics in our countryCnamely, the evangelical-pentecostal groups and the AfroBrazilian cults. The third difference relates to the approach and the way the cult phenomenon is regarded.
The Pentecostal Groups
During the past few years, not only Argentina but all of Latin America has witnessed a continuous multiplication of various evangelical groups of the “Pentecostal” type. This increase is seen favorably not only because of a certain underlying “montanism,” which generates a favorable reception in sections of a Latin society, but also because the individuality, or self-ruling trait, characteristic of these groups is attractive to many.
On more than one occasion we were astonished to note that the only requirement for the creation of a new “church” was someone's having received “the order of the Lord” to create a new ministry, and some people having attended it as members for a few months of training.
The figures reflect this phenomenon. In a country with 30 million inhabitants, the number of pentecostaltype groups easily surpasses the figure of 1,500 registered churches, a figure that represents only the main church or central headquarters, on which other subsidiary churches depend.
This imbalance between inhabitants and churches has caused a true battle among some ministers who criticize and attempt to discredit one another in order to acquire “new sheep.”
These groups exhibit, in general, a strong hostility toward all classic or traditional religions, and especially toward the Catholic Church for being the main religion on the continent. Some of these pentecostal groups have even referred to the Catholic Church as “the biggest of all the cults.”
The aggressive proselytizing encouraged by newspapers and compulsory “seminars” or “plans of growth” has consequently inspired some ministers to demand that their parishioners recruit a certain number of new members per month, subjecting them to great social pressure to reach the stated goals and using various veiled punishments for those who do not succeed.
Finally, there is a growing use of techniques of psychological manipulation and coercion, which are implemented during the well-known “healing” and “exorcism” sessions. These techniques combine with the previous elements to such a degree that we can confidently judge these groups to be true cults. Such a judgment, in general, is not typically made in European countries with regard to these groups.
The AfroBrazilian Cults
An interesting aspect concerning the NRM is that represented by the AfroBrazilian cults, such as the Candomblé, the Quimbanda or Macumba, and the Umbanda.
The wide and varied range of these groups is strongly syncretic, since they mix elements of African, Native American, Christian, and spiritual origin. In the case of the Umbanda, for example, we find cults with “kardecist” tendencies and others with “cipranist” tendencies that include practices of Satanism and black magic.
The increase of these groups in countries outside of Brazil has captured the attention of researchers for there they do not embody the ethnic and sociocultural features in order to develop.
The reality is that their multiplication is geometric, and while 387 such groups are registered with the Ministry of Cults and Foreign Relations, the leaders of these cults assert that there are approximately 300 terreiros (a term used to identify the places where they meet) (“When the Gods Come,” 1992).
Until recently, European countries were generally unaware of these types of movements. But AfroBrazilian cults have started to expand. Frequently, this expansion is more or less directly related to the sociocultural movement known as the ANew Age.@
The Approach to and Study of the Cult Phenomenon
The third difference between Argentina and the European countries is based in the governmental and social attitudes toward the NRMs.
As stated earlier, as far as the cult phenomenon is concerned, Argentina is at the same level as the developed countries in the First World. Unfortunately, as for the approach to and study of this topic, our country may be considered totally underdeveloped.
There is great ignorance about new religious movements (NRMs) in all Latin American countries. On the one hand, we have a sector of society that believes the NRMs are not a problem and that all that matters is to have a belief, regardless of what it is or how it is practiced. On the other hand, we have a sector that is truly concerned about the cult phenomenon; this sector is generally comprised of persons affected, directly or indirectly, by these groups.
Apart from the general ignorance, it is necessary to examine the strong prejudice toward all that is religious, coupled with a certain feeling of guilt and a fear of being called “inquisitors” (a term that is often used by NRMs when they are the target of objective criticisms). These factors make it difficult for public officials to encourage investigations that distinguish between belief and the practice of said belief when it breaks the law and ought to be punishable as such.
All these elements make it unthinkable for the moment to elaborate on the works of various governmental entities, such as the European Parliament's Cottrell report or that of Alain Vivien of France. These works serve as a guide for the establishment of policies that will uphold the universal right of religious freedom while they defend the common good of a society that is frequently harmed by the practice of some NRMs.
These are some of the many differences between Argentina and the countries of Europe with respect to the cult phenomenon, the last being perhaps the most important of all. I believe that here is where the SPES Foundation becomes a crucial institution--not only for Argentina but for all Latin America. Thus, counting on our invaluable experience, we will be able to respond to the challenge of NRMs without losing “hope.”
Baamonde, M. J. (1991a). Cults and brainwashing. Buenos Aires: Bonum.
Baamonde, M. J. (1991b, February). Cults: Figures and numbers. Revista Caritas (Buenos Aires).
When the gods come from the black continent. (1992, October 5). La Nacion, p. 16.
This paper was originally presented at the International Congress, “Totalitarian Groups and Sectarianism,” held in Barcelona, Spain, April 22B25, 1993. It also is published in Spanish under the title, “La realidad del ‘fenómeno sectario’ en Argentina. La experiencia de la Fundacion S.P.E.S.” in the book Grupos Totalitarios y Sectarismo, Ponencia del II Congreso Internacional, Asociacion A.I.S., c./Aribau, 226 int. Bjos., 08006 Barcelona, Spain.
The editor wishes to thank the members of Assessorament y Informació sobre Sectas (AIS) for organizing the International Congress in Barcelona and for their help in preparing this article, and the translators, Lia Marise Drechsel and Vicki Suarez.
José María Baamonde received a Ph.D. in psychology from John F. Kennedy University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is president of the SPES Foundation (Servicio Para el Esclarecimiento en Sectas, Organization for Cult Awareness), the first institution of its type in Latin America. His published works include Cults and Brainwashing (Bonum), The Children of God (Paulinas), The Afro-Brazilian Cults (Paulinas), Cults: Questions and Answers (Bonum), When Children Enter a Cult (SPES Foundation), The Family: The True Story of the Children of God (Planeta).
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1994
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1994, page
 In Spanish the word cult does not have the derogatory connotation that it sometimes has in English. It often connotes the English Asect.@
 Article 7 of the Cult Law project, put forth by the authorities of the Ministry of Cults and Foreign Affairs, states: AThe churches, communities, and religious beliefs will have legal capacity once they are registered in the corresponding department.... The registration will be voluntary. Those that do not register will not be stripped of their right to free association, nor will their members be restricted in their rights recognized under the law.@
 The AWaves of Love and Peace@ ministry (Ondas de Amor y Paz), directed by Pastor Hector Aníbal Giménez, for example, has approximately 60 churches dependent on the central church.
 A project of these groups proposes different guidelines to measure growth per year, with the objective that at the end of the present decade the Christian evangelicals will be the majority religion in Latin America.
 The most common is a technique known as Acrisis induction,@ which step by step blocks the logical thought capacity in recruits (Baamonde, 1991a, pp. 76B82).