“There’s no money in the bank,” I hear as I approach the entrance of my local Bank of Venezuela branch, eager to escape from the prickly hot mid-morning sun. I blink and locate the speaker, a thickset man wearing the reflective orange vest of a moto-taxista and a scowl.
I peer through the glass doors and notice the bank is unusually empty for a Monday. It’s white floors gleam with the promise of powerful air-conditioning, but only a few bad-tempered clients mill around the granite counters.
“There’s no money in the bank,” the man says again, looking at me directly as I hesitate on the steps to the entrance. Wild thoughts race through my head as I review everything I read in the news; the oil glut, the foreign reserves. Have the self-serving oracles of Wall St. been telling the truth? Has Maduro declared bankruptcy?
“The Indians have taken the airport. The plane carrying cash couldn’t land,” my round-faced informant continues, helmet in hand. And I understand.
Santa Elena de Uairen, population 30,000 to 60,000, depending on who you ask, sits at the edge of a massive rock plateau that isolates us from the rest of the country. Though Brazil is just a quick hop South, between us and the closest Venezuelan town lies 150 miles of National Park grassland, populated only by Pemon indigenous. Inevitably, our so-called “International Airport” (where no international flight has ever deigned to land) is an important access point for the border town’s booming economy.
The airport sits on land belonging to the neighboring Maurak community. Which is to say it is land that has been ancestrally owned and protected by Pemon people, though no government held any respect for this claim before Hugo Chavez.
Even now, the question of land ownership remains an issue for the Pemon. Officially they possess no titles, but at least a dozen articles of the reformed 1999 constitution reserve their rights in this protected park zone.
Leodan Henrito shows me one such document as I arrive on the scene the next day to the small tent set up in the airport’s cargo zone. Leodan was elected into local government this past August, under the leadership of the young captain Angel Williams.
“It says here that the government has to give 5% of the project’s budget back to the community, that’s article 23- they call it a commitment to social responsibility,” Leodan says, sitting, hands folded, at a wooden table in the shade of the tent.
And that is what Maurak was promised when construction commenced in 2008, after a consultation during which the community agreed to those terms. Since that time, separate projects such as a larger air traffic control tower, were undertaken without the community’s consent, as new budgets were set and exceeded without any percentage given back.
On October 23rd, residents of Maurak occupied the airport. Government officials came, negotiations were made and the Pemon backed down. When it became clear the government would not hold its end of the bargain, Maurak took the airport again, on November 3rd.
So how did they stop flights from arriving?
“That’s a Pemon state secret,” Leodan laughed. He admitted it was as simple as stationing two large trucks along the airport’s only runway, leaving no space for planes to land.
They continue to call upon ministries and regional government to meet their demands. “We don’t want to cause inconvenience- that is not the goal,” Leodan said, admitting that many distant communities rely on small planes to carry food and supplies, “But we have had enough of broken promises.”
Unexpectedly, the Maurak cause was taken to Congress on November 17th by Americo de Grazia; an opposition assemblyman with an agenda.
“He twisted our story and ruined our image before the assembly,” Ledoan’s sister Lisa said vehemently. “He never even came here or spoke to any of us.”
De Grazia indeed painted quite a picture before Congress, swearing that “women, children and elderly Pemon” were sitting out all day under the hot sun to protest “displacement from their lands.” The politician referred to them as “victims of fraud… these past 15 years [of revolution].”
While the Maurak occupiers have plenty to say about government inefficiency, Lisa declares their actions are in line with the participatory democracy championed in chavista ideology.
“These laws were made for the people’s benefit,” she tells me. “And it’s the people’s job to see that they are carried out.”
After over three weeks of occupation, Maurak relinquished its control on air traffic and instead assumed the administration of airport activity. According to Leodan, the debts owed are not the only problems the Pemon have taken issue with. By stationing themselves in the cargo zone, the envoy hopes to monitor and prevent the trafficking of fuel to illegal gold mines in the park, and abolish the entrenched practice of bribes taken by National Guard [GNB] stationed at the airport.
“By the time a kilo of rice reaches Uriman [a distant community only reached by Cessna plane], it costs tens time its worth- thanks to all those ‘percentages’ taken by GNB and others along the way,” Leodan explained. “That’s why Uriman is supporting our occupation here.”
Uriman itself made headlines last year after they took a 42-man GNB company hostage without firing a shot and sent out a list of demands to authorities.
Families from Maurak and supportive communities nearby have taken turns providing meals for the group, who are posted at the airport from 6 AM to 6 PM.
“This could have been avoided,” Leodan tells me, “if they had placed our people in administrative roles to begin with. They should have trained some of us to work in the customs department and air traffic control. Instead, we’ve only been hired to clean the bathrooms.”
Captain Angel Williams was an exceptional case. He worked in ATC since 2010, but shortly after the takeover he received notification of his “transfer” to Guayana City- a move he calls an “indirect firing.”
“They know I won’t leave my community,” Williams said quietly.
Only one payment of the multi-million bolivar debt has been made to Maurak. That money has already been spent on a cement mixer, some electrical equipment, and musical instruments for schools.
“We have 33 families in need of homes, and we need that money to fix the machine that makes cement blocks,” Leodan explained, emphasizing that although he was elected for only a three-year term, the money would enable them “to plan for the next generations too, not just cover immediate needs.”
Just two miles away, on the Brazilian side of the border, another Pemon community has occupied a PDVSA gas station on their land after a worker was diagnosed with a respiratory disease from inhaling fumes and was treated with contempt by administration.
“I was told they were inspired by our actions,” said Lisa, who wears a black t-shirt stamped with the Zapatista emblem; a masked woman’s face looks out above the words “with our dignity, we rebel.”