The Yukpa chief Sabino Romero should be remembered as having staged a 21st century Indian uprising. Having been chased from their ancestral lands in western Venezuela during the last century, the Yukpas under his leadership managed to recuperate a great part of that territory, taking it back from powerful ranchers. Sabino did this with a scrappy group of followers and (to the lasting shame of many of us) with little outside support, including scant support from the revolutionary government that he consistently identified with.
Eventually this led to the inevitable happening: the chief’s being gunned down by a hit-man in the service of local ranchers. In spite of the complicity of the region’s police forces, the ranchers took a long time to achieve their goal: in 2006 they sponsored several assassination attempts, all of them unsuccessful; in 2008 they arrived at his family house but only succeeded in beating up his 97-year-old father, who died two weeks later; in 2012 three of his fellow Yukpa leaders were killed by the ranchers’ men; on March 3 of 2013 two days before Chávez’s death– a news piece that when it came helped to cover up the story – they fatally shot him.
Much of this is documented in a very good, if low-budget film that Carlos Azpúrua has recently completed. The film is critical in an intelligent way. That is, it shows rather than says what happened, letting people, including the ranchers, speak for themselves. This hands-off approach makes Sabino Vive: las últimas fronteras all the more forceful, since the facts are all there and the conclusions unavoidable, including that the government was complicitous in his death, if only through inaction.
Many people, even those whose perspective is not slanted by interest in the Yukpa’s lands – which are of great strategic and economic value – have a difficult time seeing this issue clearly. Some blame the Yukpa for the attitudes assumed by a few anarchist hotheads who support them. But are they really responsible for all of their supporters? Some say that the Yukpa are inveterate cattle rustlers. But do these indigenous people not have a right (like the wood-gatherers that the young Marx defended on the basis of their “customary rights”) to cull from lands that were originally theirs?
One thing that Azpúrua’s film shows is that indigenous cultures are not frozen in time but are often flexible and even dynamic. Far from being passive, Sabino understood the revolutionary goals that Chávez proposed – perhaps better than Chávez himself did on a few important points – and he made them his own with words and actions. Along with his feathered headdress that said “REVOLUCIÓN,” the Yukpa chief typically donned a tricolor sash and Chavist T-shirts. In fact, it makes sense that an indigenous society – a society that does not see the world only in terms of market-values – would have greater clarity about the use-values that a socialist revolution proposes to recover and promote. Such use-values include human dignity, the national “patria,” and the land-as-a-home-and-not-merely-as-a-resource. Sabino consistently (and irritatingly for some) kept his eyes on all of these objectives.
Perhaps the biggest lesson that this film has for us in Venezuela today – apart from the priority of restoring the Yukpa’s lands and rights and punishing the intellectual and material authors of Sabino’s murder (who mysteriously seem to have had their sentences shortened) – is the importance of keeping one’s eyes on the prize and insisting on it. A labyrinth of sophisticated tactics is sometimes necessary in a process of socialist transition, but it can serve just as well for confusing oneself and one’s followers, if one does not maintain a certain simplicity and directness. Here the example of Sabino and other indigenous leaders is marvelous; in the initial shots of Azpúrua’s film the Yukpa chief says very clearly that the problem is capitalists (he uses that word): by contrast, our governors today almost never identify this as the problem without immediately qualifying and confusing the issue.
Chris Gilbert is professor of political science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.