Indigenous Policy in Venezuela: Between Unity and Pluralism

In celebration of the Day of Indigenous Resistance on October 12th, the Venezuelan government announced numerous initiatives aimed at assisting and empowering indigenous communities. While such initiatives as well as rights guaranteed in the constitution have successfully come to fruition in many indigenous communities, they have faced obstacles in others.


In celebration of the Day of Indigenous Resistance on October 12th, the Venezuelan government announced numerous initiatives aimed at assisting and empowering indigenous communities. Nicia Maldonado, the minister for indigenous peoples, said that in the final months of the year the government plans to create several socialist communes to be inhabited by indigenous communities. These communes will be designed “to reconstruct what we call indo-American socialism, to reconstruct this ancestral feeling denied for a long time, which we are now vindicating,” the minister told the state-run news agency AVN.[1] Meanwhile, Ricardo Menéndez, the minister for science and technology and vice president for the productive economy, said that indigenous communities are being incorporated into the Grand Venezuelan Housing Mission,[2] through which the government has promised to build two million homes over the next seven years.[3]

These efforts represent only a small part of the government’s broad set of policies toward indigenous communities. The National Constitution of 1999 and the Organic Law on Indigenous Peoples and Communities (LOPCI) obligate the government to serve and protect a series of special rights for people of indigenous ancestry. These include the right to demarcate and inhabit their ancestral territory, to be legally identified as indigenous, to receive bilingual or multi-lingual education, to choose their authentic authorities and have those authorities recognized, to elect three indigenous representatives in the National Assembly, to carry out traditional economic and religious customs of their choice, to practice traditional medicine with patients’ consent, and to have their genetic material protected from exploitation.[4] This legal framework explicitly recognizes the unique identities, experiences, and issues affecting indigenous peoples, acknowledges the genocide and systematic persecution they have suffered, and lays the groundwork for their bold revitalizing.

While these rights have successfully come to fruition in many indigenous communities, they have faced obstacles in others. One obstacle is the lack of a clear definition of what it means to be indigenous. The LOPCI defines indigenous people as such:

“All persons descendant from an indigenous people, who inhabit the geographic area [that corresponds to the national territory in conformity with the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela], and who maintain the cultural, social, and economic identity of their people or community, and recognize themselves as such and are recognized by their people or community, even while adopting elements of other cultures.”[5]

What if some of these conditions are met, but not all of them? For instance, what happens when a full-blooded Wayúu child is raised in a Catholic working class neighborhood, and likes to eat pizza and play video games, and identifies with other Wayúu who are in the same situation? What if a displaced Wayúu family lives in an urban setting and has cultivated a new urban culture, and practices some but not all previously existing customs? Can an urbanized Wayúu choose to receive some indigenous rights, such as bilingual education, but abnegate the right to return to his or her ancestors’ lands? What does it mean to maintain an indigenous culture, if indigenous culture has been all but decimated, and is constantly changing over time?

What about people who are of partial indigenous blood? Many Wayúu who maintain remnants of their matriarchal tradition would say that if the mother is Wayúu and the father is of another race, then the child is Wayúu, but if the father is Wayúu and the mother is of another race, then the child is not Wayúu.[6] What if there is no consensus among the Wayúu, and there is also no decision-making structure capable of producing a consensus, given the violent displacement and dispersal of the Wayúu people from their ancestral lands?

Article 123 of the Constitution grants indigenous people “the right to maintain and promote their own economic practices based on reciprocity, solidarity, and exchange.” Does this mean that indigenous peoples who do not practice reciprocity, solidarity, and exchange do not have the right to their traditional economic practices?

The evolving and nebulous definition of what it means to be indigenous has important policy implications because it is incongruous with the clear legal separation of indigenous peoples as a special group with a separate set of rights in Venezuela. Indigenous peoples are legally identified as being distinct from other historically oppressed groups, such as women, afro-Venezuelans, the working class, landless peasant farmers, LGBT people, and the disabled. While these other oppressed groups share the same political, environmental, economic, cultural, educational, social, and family rights as the general population, indigenous rights are outlined in a separate section of the Venezuelan Constitution.[7] While non-indigenous Venezuelans are part of an integrated and unified national system, indigenous communities are allowed to live as semi-autonomous nations, making it possible that parallel political systems may exist within the national territory.

This raises important questions about the government programs introduced in indigenous communities. For instance, are the socialist communes announced by Minister Maldonado accurate reflections of traditional indigenous forms of organization? Is it the government or the indigenous communities that will decide how the programs will be designed and constructed? What if the traditional culture of the indigenous peoples is not consistent with the government’s socialist values, or if the government and the indigenous people disagree on what a commune is? Shall indigenous political autonomy, which applies to the roughly 1% of the population that is indigenous,[8] prevail over the socialist program of the nation? Will the Grand Venezuelan Housing Mission build the same types of homes for indigenous communities as it does for the rest of the national population, or will it adapt the structure of the homes to the structure of families and forms of kinship among different human populations?   

Some of these questions are answered by the text of the laws. For example, Article 7 and Article 134 of the LOPCI say indigenous political and judicial practices are subject to the limits established in the Constitution and the law. This seems to mean if an indigenous group wishes to apply the death penalty, own slaves, or trade women for wealth as part of traditional marriage practices, then the national government has the authority to intervene, since all of these practices are prohibited by law. Also, Article 126 of the constitution proscribes secession, stating that “indigenous people… are part of the nation, the state, and the Venezuelan people, which is one, sovereign, and indivisible. In accordance with this constitution, they have the duty of safeguarding the integrity and sovereignty of the nation.” Such principles may serve as a legal bottom line that empowers the government to prioritize the national agenda over the indigenous one in some situations. Additionally, the laws stipulate how complicated decisions should be made about such issues as indigenous land demarcation and economic development. Articles 11-19 of the LOPCI outline a nuanced processes of loosely structured negotiation between and among indigenous peoples and the government. This process explicitly requires participatory dialogue between government officials and indigenous “assemblies” organized according to the traditional form of power of the indigenous group involved.

However clear and thorough the laws may be, they are new, and the principles and decision-making processes outlined in them are incipient. It remains to be defined how the different social systems will co-exist and intertwine in practice, and how conflicts of interest and differences of opinion will be resolved.

Since the re-election of President Hugo Chávez in 2006, supporters of his government have moved to unite into a single party and consolidate their efforts in order to increase the strength, efficiency, and effectiveness of their revolutionary agenda. This has put pressure on indigenous communities and sometimes divided them over whether to unite with the government’s socialist policies – which made the legal recognition of indigenous rights possible in the first place – or assert their autonomy. The indigenous peoples of Zulia state,[9] in particular, have faced this complicated question with regard to land demarcation, coal mining, worker cooperatives, communal councils, and government social programs.

Land Demarcation: The Yukpa Experience

The Yukpa people, who live precariously as landless peasants on immense cattle ranches near the border between Venezuela and Colombia, joyously welcomed the opportunity to demarcate their ancestral lands and rebuild their diminished tribe. But when they drew a map of the land they identify as their own and bolstered their case with historical documents, testimonies by anthropologists, and topographical surveys, the government officials who were assigned to facilitate the demarcation process baulked. Authorities from the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs used typical bureaucratic stall tactics to avoid doing exactly what the law said they were supposed to do, which was to facilitate indigenous land demarcation. State-level officials, politically aligned with the right-wing opposition parties, took the side of the rich estate owners, giving them political cover when they hired men (many of them of indigenous descent) to attack and intimidate the Yukpa who were demarcating their land. When the Yukpa stepped up their tactics in 2008 and occupied parts of private estates which they claimed as their own, the military cordoned off the area, blocking access and even turning away an unarmed caravan of young activists who sought to deliver food, medicines, and other aid to the Yukpa. Shortly afterward, President Hugo Chávez announced unequivocally on national television, “Nobody should have any doubts: Between the large estate owners and the indians, this government is with the indians.”[10] Chávez also called for the end of “bureaucratization,” and issued decisive orders to the National Land Demarcation Commission, a legal entity of the Environment Ministry tasked with facilitating indigenous land titles, as well as to General Izquierdo Torres, who had ordered the blockade of Yukpa lands, to “demarcate the indigenous lands with the participation of the indigenous councils.” 

With such a decisive statement of support from the president, why did the land demarcation commission continue to be reticent? There were six interlaced factors which contributed to this. First, the land which historically pertained to the Yukpa, especially when combined with the land of the other two main indigenous groups in the region, the Wayúu and the Barí, encompasses a large portion of particularly important territory. It covers hundreds of thousands of hectares stretching for several hundred kilometers from the northern tip of the Sierra de Perijá well to the south of Maracaibo Lake. Second, Venezuela’s border with Colombia is a sensitive military zone because of the threat of spill-over from Colombia’s armed conflict. Third, the Sierra de Perijá is sparsely populated and forested, making it susceptible to illicit drug cultivation and trafficking. Fourth, the area is rich in coal and other minerals coveted by the state-owned development corporation, CorpoZulia. President Chávez suspended all new coal projects in the area following protests led by indigenous groups in 2007, but he remarked that if the government discovers a method of extracting the coal without harming the forest or the indigenous communities, that would be an option in the future. Fifth, the region is dominated by an economically powerful landed elite that is vehemently anti-Chávez and continues to control the local judicial system and even, according to some local activists, sections of the National Guard. Sixth, this elite includes major producers of beef, milk, corn, and other essential foods which have been in periodic shortage in recent years.  

These conditions create conflicts of interest for the government, which is constitutionally responsible for the security of its territory. For several years, the Chávez administration has been seeking to move away from dependence on food imports and oil exports. It is also under diplomatic attack and threat of intervention from the United States for supposedly failing to repel Colombian armed groups and drug traffickers. Meanwhile, it is confronted with daily efforts at destabilization by the landed elite, including acts of murderous aggression against the poor and landless, which intensify with each step forward in the government’s land reform efforts. Sometimes, even policy declarations by the president and ministers in favor of the indigenous groups are disregarded or carried out with willful neglect by local officials. As a result of all of these factors, the type of autonomy enjoyed by indigenous communities in this complex region will be different than the autonomy of indigenous groups in less problematic regions, no matter what the law says.

In this context, the national government proposed a compromise in early 2009 which granted small and geographically isolated pieces of land to the indigenous communities while preserving the state’s military presence and the basic integrity of large private estates in the region. The proposal divided the Yukpa between those who accepted the proposal and those who rejected it. Each side interpreted the language of the law, which requires indigenous communities’ approval for projects to move forward,[11] in a way that supported their side. The former group appeared in press conferences with officials from the Indigenous Ministry and the Justice Ministry to praise the government for fulfilling its obligation to demarcate indigenous lands. The latter group argued the government’s demarcation was insufficient and did not preserve the integrity of indigenous culture and well-being, as required by the law.[12]

In October 2009, the government carried out its plan and granted more than 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) of land to the Yukpa communities that agreed with the plan. One day later, the situation took a tragic turn when a group of Yukpa men shot and wounded Yukpa Chief Sabino Romero, who was leading the opposition to the government’s proposal, and killed two members of his family. Olegario Romero, who led the attack, Sabino and another Yukpa man named Alexander Fernández were arrested for their role in the conflict. They were held in detention for what activists said was an excessive amount of time, in violation of their right to due process – which is also the fate of an extraordinary number of detainees across Venezuela due to a residually corrupt judicial system. It is unclear whether the attack and subsequent judicial delay were the deliberate work of the local elite and government officials, or an intra-tribal conflict. In any case, a campaign by lawyers and activists brought the issue before the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ), which ruled in 2010 that the Yukpa have the right to resolve the conflict according to their traditional legal procedures.[13] The Yukpa carried out this conflict resolution process in June 2011 in the presence of their families and fellow Yukpa as well as some witness from outside the community. They agreed on the narrative of events in the conflict, assigned guilt, and decided on a settlement that included monetary compensation from both sides.

To understand this conflict, it is important to recognize that the Chávez government’s land reform policy has been mostly consistent across Zulia state – meaning across non-indigenous and indigenous communities – and that is part of the problem. The Yukpa story was similar to the stories of many non-indigenous peasant farmers to the South of Lake Maracaibo: The peasants occupy land, they are attacked by people presumably hired by the estate owners, the government sends a commission to grant small plots of land and indemnify the estate owners, and the judicial system fails to bring the perpetrators of the violence to justice. In many non-indigenous peasant communities, the main problem with the government’s land reform is the impunity granted to the murderers of land occupants. But in the case of the Yukpa, the main problem is that the government failed to observe the distinct land reform policy it designed for indigenous communities.

Coal, Cooperatives, Communal Councils, and Missions in Wayúu Lands

The Wayúu people’s struggle against coal mining on their ancestral lands is another example of the tension between indigenous priorities and the Chávez government’s well-intentioned policies in Zulia state. The Wayúu were displaced by coal mining in the 1980s and 1990s, under governments that favored the neoliberal development model. Chávez’s administration, which began in 1999, has promoted a development model that carries out large-scale mining, infrastructure, and agricultural projects under majority control of the state, with better treatment of the workers in these projects and a large portion of the profits allocated to social programs. Many Wayúu, especially the unemployed youth who grew up in urban or semi-rural slums, have welcomed this type of development as an opportunity for employment and increased access to education, health care, and food assistance. But for those Wayúu who still preserve some of their indigenous culture and lifestyle in the rural areas that are farther away from the main cities, the Chávez government’s policies are a new arrangement of forces threatening their way of life. This conflict over coal has played out in three main areas: The state-sponsored cooperative businesses, the communal councils, and direct public services known as the missions.

The national government passed a new law on cooperatives in 2001 that fulfilled the new constitutional mandate to promote and protect workers’ legal right to organize social and participatory business associations.[14] The intention of the law is to aid in the construction of a more just, democratically managed, and less exploitative economy. The government has provided low-interest loans to new cooperatives, and founded new national institutions that give training in cooperative ethics and management. But in the coal mining region of Zulia state, cooperatives scatter the working class into competing and, most importantly, non-unionized groups. The formation and contracting of cooperative businesses to provide transportation, construction, and cleanup services has little to do with building an economy based on solidarity or respect for indigenous forms of economic organization. It has more to do with promoting efficiency and disuniting workers in a business model that remains profit-driven. Even if the cooperatives operated in accordance with the law’s benevolent intentions, it is difficult to be sure whether they would be – or should be – in line with Wayúu culture.

The way communal councils have developed on Wayúu lands tells a similar story. The national government passed a new law in 2006 establishing locally elected governing bodies made up of a few hundred families living in a shared geographic space. The law stipulates that if the councils are organized democratically and the leaders elected in an inclusive community assembly, they can receive direct funding from the national government for social projects such as housing, potable water, and cultural programming. The intention of the law is to promote local participatory democracy, bypass the state and local governments that pilfer public funds, and build strong community ties. But among indigenous groups in the Sierra de Perijá, the communal council system is viewed as foreign to indigenous communal organizations, and threatening to traditional authority. During the struggle over coal mining, communal councils were used to gauge the local population’s opinions about whether to move forward with mining projects. Despite the democratic nature of this initiative, it forced the Wayúu to organize themselves and their neighbors according to a foreign model in order to have their voice heard, or risk losing their land. The pro-coal Wayúu families organized more efficiently, gathering the sufficient signatures and holding shallow assemblies that rapidly produced official records to show that seven communal councils supported coal mining. The anti-coal Wayúu, despite their resistance to the communal council model, gradually organized seven communal councils of their own to express their opposition. Throughout the process, none of the communal councils were genuine expressions of the people’s political participation or indigenous identity. The rush to form the councils had the effect of dividing the Wayúu into competing factions and undermining organic political processes.

The social programs that have perhaps the widest reach in Venezuela are the missions, which provide education, health care, training, subsidized food, and other assistance nation-wide and are administered outside of the traditional bureaucracies but under presidential authority. Without a doubt, many Wayúu have benefitted from these services in the fulfillment of their basic needs and the promotion of their culture through cultural programming and workshops. In some cases the Barrio Adentro Mission, which provides free health care, has successfully combined western medicine with some indigenous treatments. But many Wayúu communities are working to autonomously construct their own multi-lingual schools, promote their traditional foods and forms of agriculture, revive housing construction using local materials such as adobe, and develop their own commercial networks. The missions, with their subsidized pricing, ubiquitous presence, and adherence to national standards, can undermine and distract from these indigenous initiatives if they are not managed properly.

Unity and Pluralism

A theme running the through each of the conflicts in the Sierra de Perijá is the tension between unity and pluralism – between a unified national project and the co-existence of different systems within the national territory. The Venezuelan government has been staunch in its celebration of the plurality of indigenous cultures in the country through public displays of dance and celebration, and politicians rhetorically cite indigenous culture as being at the heart of the nation. But in more concrete areas such as land demarcation, mineral exploitation, cooperatives, and social programs, the government has favored consolidation and unity in order to achieve goals.

Some would argue that ideally, neither full separation nor full integration of indigenous lands would be necessary; for example, the cooperatives, communal councils, and missions could exist parallel to and in appropriate combination with indigenous institutions, and strengthen the effort to construct a society that fulfills the mandates of the constitution for both indigenous and non-indigenous Venezuelans. In fact, this is part of the official objective of the Guaicaipuro Mission, which President Hugo Chávez founded in 2004.[15] The mission and related programs have been successful in cases where state functionaries understand this objective and are committed to working honestly and in solidarity with the indigenous communities to define their course of development with sensitivity to the different circumstances of each group. But when greater interests such as mining profits, border security, and food production come into play, the rights of the indigenous peoples have been subordinated to the stability of the ruling party.

A second theme running through these conflicts is the nature of the constitution and the laws. In contrast to the U.S. constitution, which is a bare skeleton of rules within which the political system must operate, the Venezuelan constitution is a full-bodied vision for what the country should become. It is a political program full of lofty objectives, some of which have yet to be fulfilled. It leaves ample room for dialogue, negotiation, and collective definition of how such a society will come about. It tasks the Venezuelan state and the people with realizing this vision by way of participatory democracy. These goals require time and process to achieve, and will not be achieved all at once. But as long as they are not achieved, the government is technically violating its own charter.

[2] http://www.radiomundial.com.ve/yvke/noticia.php?503920

[3] http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/6167

[4] See Constitución de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela (1999) and Ley Orgánica de Pueblos y Comunidades Indígenas.

[5] Ley Orgánica de Pueblos y Comunidades Indígenas, Article 3, Section 3.

[6] Based on personal conversations with rural Wayúu leaders.

[7] Constitución de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela, Capítulo VIII, Artículos 119-126

[8] Instituto Nacional de Estadística, población total, por entidad federal, según grupo de edad, censo de comunidades indígenas 2001

[9] Zulia state has the largest indigenous population of all of Venezuela’s states. Instituto Nacional de Estadística, población total, por entidad federal, según grupo de edad, censo de comunidades indígenas 2001

[11] Ley Orgánica de Pueblos y Comunidades Indígenas, Artículo 17.

[12] This is consistent with the Ley Orgánica de Pueblos y Comunidades Indígenas, Artículo 12.

[13] This is consistent with Article 260 of the Constitución de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela and Article 133 of the Ley Orgánica de Pueblos y Comunidades Indígenas.

[14] Constitución de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela, Artículo 118.

[15] http://www.minpi.gob.ve/web/es/mision-guaicaipuro