Since 1999, successive Chavista governments have established a relationship of “compensatory multiculturalism” between the state and the indigenous communities in Venezuelan territory.
This concept is explained further in the 2018 investigation The Chavista Question. Extractivist State and Oil Nation [also by Omar Vazquez], more specifically in the chapter ‘The state apparatus and indigenous peoples in Chavista Venezuela. Building compensatory multiculturalism.’
Venezuela’s state has recognised and valued differences between the dominant modern-colonial culture typical of the country’s capitalism and the subaltern communal indigenous cultures. This recognition forms part of [efforts to reverse the] subordination of indigenous peoples’ struggles during the last decades of the twentieth century.
The same state has, however, prevented the dismantling of the hierarchical historical relationship between these two cultures, which is crystallised in a set of antagonistic social and practical relationships.
In concrete terms, the Chavista governments have recognised and emphasised the cultural specificity of indigenous peoples with legal norms and symbolic gestures, offering them social assistance, such as through the Guaicaipuro Mission.
But at the same time, these governments have blocked any possibility of autochthonous self-determination or reproduction of communal practices by hindering the autonomous and collective control of ancestral lands. Instead, they have kept these lands at the service of local and global capital accumulation through the deepening of certain elements of Venezuela's dependent and extractivist capitalist system.
In articles 119-126 of Venezuela’s 1999 constitution, the state recognises the intercultural essence of Venezuelan society and grants a set of rights to indigenous peoples. These include prior [policy-making] consultation, demarcation and collective ownership of ancestral lands, intercultural and bilingual education, [the protection of] traditional medicine, [recognition of] indigenous jurisdiction and communal economic practices based on reciprocity.
Subsequently, the government of Hugo Chavez developed a policy of multicultural historical revisionism. He renamed October 12 [Race Day national holiday] as Indigenous Resistance Day, placed the figure of Guaicaipuro [indigenous leader during the anti-colonial wars of the 16th century] on a national bill and symbolically transferred his remains to the National Pantheon. Likewise, Chavez made changes to the school texts, formally recognised indigenous languages and created a ministry of indigenous peoples. In projects such as communal councils and communes, the president also flew the indigenous people’s flag as an original example of community organisation.
However, beyond these symbolic concessions and the compensatory distribution of oil revenue to indigenous communities through the Guaicaipuro Mission, Hugo Chavez's government avoided allowing native self-determination or the reproduction of indigenous cultures by blocking autonomous and collective control over their ancestral lands.
He denied the demarcation and surrender of all the ancestral lands demanded by indigenous peoples, and where titles of collective property were granted, they contained two characteristics that negated Chavez’s alleged objective.
Firstly, collective property titles were fragmented according to indigenous community, limiting the extension of the lands which is indispensable for the sustainable reproduction of indigenous habitats.
Secondly, collective property titles were elaborated without mentioning any rights for third parties already established on these lands. As such, private ranchers, transnational corporations and economic institutions of state, as well as regional corporations and state-owned enterprises such as [oil company] PDVSA, remained present. This intensified the land dispute and resulted in the persecution and assassination of indigenous leaders, such as the Yukpa Cacique Sabino Romero in the Sierra de Perijá [Western Venezuela] in March 2013.
Orinoco Mining Arc and the Kueka Stone
In 2011, Hugo Chavez approved a strategic action plan to form an extractivist axis around the [eastern] Orinoco River, from the Oil Belt in the north to the Mining Arc in the south.
He went on to set up the Arc in 2012 as part of the third historical goal of the so-called Homeland Plan, a central part of his political legacy.
Then, in 2016, this mega-mining project began under the government of Nicolas Maduro through decree 2,248 published in the Official Gazette 40,855, which formed the national strategic development area known as the Orinoco Mining Arc.
Since its conception and implementation, the project has seen an exponential increase in its territorial reach, deepening nature’s transformation into a commodity to be exploited by the Venezuelan state, transnational capital and irregular armed organisations.
The Orinoco Mining Arc demonstrates the modern-colonial and pliant character of Maduro’s government, which defines indigenous peoples living in these ancestral lands, as well as nature itself, as sacrificial objects for the benefit of wealth accumulation and profiteering by the transnational and local ruling class.
In this sense, gold extraction in the Arc, which the global market has greatly demanded, has brought the violent presence of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces and irregular armed organisations that have carried out murder, torture, kidnapping and constant intimidation of indigenous peoples.
However, despite this policy of genocide and ethnocide which is adjusted to the needs of global capitalism and the corrupt business dealings of civilian and military Chavista hierarchies, the government of Nicolas Maduro looks to portray itself as an advocate of the [indigenous] Pemon culture by highlighting the efforts made to return the Kueka Stone to this ancestral group.
The aforementioned sacred symbol, which represents its ancestrality as both the grandfather and grandmother of the Pemon people, sat in Berlin's Tiergarten Park for 22 years after the [right wing] government of Rafael Caldera handed it over to the German plastic artist Wolfang Von Schwarzenfeld for his Global Stone project, in an entirely colonial decision and despite native opposition.
This grotesque and macabre renewal of Chavismo’s own compensatory multiculturalism is seen once again through the juxtaposition of the Ministry for Ecological Mining Development’s assignation of new territories in the Cuchivero and Caura rivers basins [south east] for gold extraction on April 7, and the government’s communicational operation to announce the arrival of the Kueka Stone on April 16.
In these actions we can observe the contradiction between a merely symbolic recognition of the indigenous peoples and the concrete appropriation of their ancestral territories, placing these lands at the service of the local and international dispossessing regime of capital accumulation.
Omar Vázquez Heredia is a Venezuelan professor and investigator at the Latin American and Caribbean Institute of the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina and describes himself as a “communist militant” on Venezuela’s left-leaning news portal Aporrea. He is also a former director of the political training program at Venezuela’s National Assembly.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.
Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.