San Francisco July 9th, 2014. (venezuelanalysis.com)- Around fifty armed men allegedly assaulted and forcefully removed Yukpa cacica (chief) Carmen “Anita” Fernandez from her land in the western Venezuelan state of Zulia last Monday.
Fernandez’s son Cristobal, 20, was murdered just six days before by corrupt National Guard hired by wealthy ranchers in repeated attempts to force the family’s removal from the area, witnesses have claimed. The community leader had already lost two of her sons in 2012.
The Fernandez family, like many of the indigenous Yukpa ethnic group, have long stood in struggle to reclaim the areas now owned and controlled by wealthy cattle ranchers in the mountainous Sierra de Perijá.
Their claims are grounded in the 1999 National Constitution and the Indigenous Peoples Law, championed by late President Hugo Chavez, which granted a number of political and legal rights to Venezuela’s indigenous populations, as well as the demarcation and granting of ancestral lands.
The statute permitted many indigenous populations, such as the south eastern Pemon people, the kind of autonomy that was previously long denied to them. However, powerful ranchers in the fertile valleys of Perijá in the west have refused to relinquish their grip on the area, leading to an all out land war in 2008, when the Yukpa began to occupy disputed areas.
On March 3rd, 2013, the venerated leader of the Yukpa struggle, Sabino Romero, was murdered and his wife injured by assassins while on their way to an election, sparking an outcry from the local community.
Since 2008 the Yukpa’s struggle has garnered support from socialist land and human rights activists, most notably the NGO Homo et Natura, based in Zulia state. Those who stand with the Yukpa had often found themselves at odds with the opposition controlled Zulia state government. In December 2012 a pro-government politician was elected governor.
Six men were accused of Romero’s murder. During the trial, Romero’s wife and lawyer Douglas Querales testified that 12 ranchers, whom he named, had organized themselves and collected over $300,000 to plan the murder. No warrant went out for any of the ranchers named.
According to another lawyer and land rights activist, Soraya Suarez, who spoke to reporters shortly after Romero’s death; “There are 395,000 hectares of demarcated indigenous territory that still haven’t been handed over.”
Anita Fernandez believes last week’s attack was more personal. “As everyone knows”, she said, “we are the family of Sabino, and they want to erase all family of Sabino.”
Homo et Natura director Lusbi Portillo told reporters after Fernandez’s son’s recent death, “There is a death squad organized by… the bodyguards and paid assassins of the ranchers, and the National Guard (GNB). We must remember that in Zulia, the mayor…is Toto Marquez [opposition], accused by GNB of being a paramilitary once before. Their goal is to get the Yukpa out of those lands.”
Since Monday, Fernandez’s home has been overrun by the men who forced her family’s removal.
Portillo and others are calling attention to the situation, specifically the numerous eyewitness accounts that GNB soldiers were involved in Cristobal Fernandez’s death and the lack of formal protection that the government had agreed to provide for the family.
One June 19th, in his weekly television program, National Assembly president Diosado Cabello insinuated that the group Homo et Natura may be conspiring against or attempting to “destabilize” the government through their activist work.
Portillo fiercely rejected the accusation, saying that Homo et Natura’s cause is with the earth and its protectors, in this case the Yukpa people. Several pro-government commentators on radical website Aporrea also rejected the accusation.
Portillo explained to reporters that his organization’s struggle for environmental equality has caused the group to run up against the government, because important coal and sand mines in Zulia are harming indigenous groups.
The activist reminded Cabello that Homo et Natura has proposed an alternative energy plan, one not dependent on carbon, which he believes will be equally effective in resolving Venezuela’s energy crisis. The proposal will be sent to senior government officials as well as social movements, in attempts to open a debate.