North American Indigenous Delegation Examines Venezuelan Health Care

An indigenous delegation to Venezuela, inspired by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's new indigenous health care initiatives, met with Amazonia's indigenous governor and began discussions for new models of village health care in the jungle.

CARACAS, Venezuela – An indigenous delegation to Venezuela, inspired by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s new indigenous health care initiatives, met with Amazonia’s indigenous governor and began discussions for new models of village health care in the jungle.

”Venezuela is serving as a model of respect for indigenous peoples and their right to culture, land and sovereignty,” said Robert Free Galvan, Indian activist and organizer of the delegation aimed at creating new social and economic bonds between indigenous in the Americas.

Following the recent World Social Forum in Caracas, the indigenous delegation first visited a training camp for Mission Guaicaipuro in the mountains near Caracas. The delegation was comprised of Galvan; Alex Louie, Okanagan from British Columbia; Sarah James, Gwich’in from Alaska; and Casey Camp, Ponca from Oklahoma.

”Mission Guaicaipuro is in charge of implementing indigenous rights that are in the constitution of Venezuela now,” said Galvan, adding that it is one of numerous missions that include improving education, health care, housing and services.

In Mission Guaicaipuro’s training facility, the delegation met with 150 Indians from 23 tribes. They had never met before, but they now represent tribes in the new initiative for indigenous health care.

”Here we were, in Venezuela with front-line community workers; while in our own country, the Bush administration was cutting out indigenous health care programs.

”We met the trainers and after a while, we were singing together,” said Galvan, adding that the necessity of translating from Native languages to Spanish and English did not hamper the process of becoming friends.

Chavez launched Mission Guaicaipuro in October 2003 as one of the Bolivarian Missions, a series of anti-poverty and social welfare programs. Carried out by the Venezuelan Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, the program is restoring communal land titles and human rights. The mission defends indigenous rights against resource and financial exploitation by the dominant culture, according to the Venezuelan government.

The mission is named after an indigenous chief, Guaiceiporo (1530 – 1568), who led both the Teques and Caracas tribes. Guaicaipuro formed a coalition of tribes and led Native resistance against the Spanish colonization of Venezuela.

The delegation met with food providers from another of Chavez’s innovative programs.

”We were in Barrio St. Augustine and met with the people who make food for the elderly and anyone else that needs hot meals. The government provides the food, and they are set up every few blocks as volunteers to provide the meals to whoever needs them.”

Galvan praised Chavez for the food program and other programs, including a drama program for youth that produces plays that pay tribute to indigenous history and struggle.

”It is beautiful,” Galvan said of the youth-performed plays, which were included in presentations at the World Social Forum.

James and Camp became ill before the delegation departed for Amazonia and had to return home. Galvan and Louie, however, were able to continue on the rugged journey to the jungle and meet with indigenous Gov. Liborio Guarulla of Amazonas State.

Dr. Noly Fernandez, Wayuu tribal member and director of Venezuela’s Ministry of Indigenous Health, hosted the North American delegation and began the journey to Amazonia with them. Fernandez, however, also became ill and departed for Caracas after meeting with Guarulla.

Galvan said, ”We were flown by military plane to the Amazonia Province. It is 70 percent indigenous and they have elected an indigenous governor.”

The delegation learned of the struggles of indigenous in the Amazon region of South America, including the Native fight against bio-pirates, scientists stealing indigenous herbal and medicinal knowledge for profit.

”The governor insisted that we meet the traditional medicine healer before we left and the governor summoned him to come meet with us. The health care system incorporates both Western and traditional healers.”

Galvan earlier created the concept of the BEAR project which brought traditional healers together with modern doctors, leading to a new delivery of services, especially for American Indians with AIDS in the United States.

In Venezuela, Galvan said, ”The health directors had heard of my efforts to have traditional healers as part of the health system, which was followed by heavy resistance from Western academic and health systems.

”I also discussed the Potawot Health Village, of the United Indian Health Service in Arcata, Calif., as a model healing center where they could get some ideas for their own development of indigenous health.”

During the exchange of gifts in Amazonia, Louie presented Guarulla with an Okanagan drum.

”The governor welcomed us and thanked us for coming. He asked us to return and bring other tribes to form bonds.”

Then the delegation began another journey upriver.

”We were taken by military gunboat up the Orinoco River.” Passing jungles and villages, they came to an island. There, the regional director of indigenous health consulted with Galvan about new visions for village health care.

”They asked me about the history of indigenous health care and about the BEAR Project, which I started to bring health care to tribal members in the United States,” he said.

”They asked me to continue to consult and design health care facilities for the villages. They felt my type of front-line exposure is valuable, and that it is much better than relying on academics that are not involved themselves.

”I am so honored that they would value and give recognition to the struggle that activists go through. I’m just honored. In the United States, activists without white academic credentials are looked at as a fly on the rear of an elephant.”

Galvan and Louie, looking forward to returning for more cultural exchanges to Amazonia

Galvan, longtime advocate for indigenous rights, asked the Venezuelan government, as an act of solidarity in August 2005, to provide lower gas and oil to poor communities and tribal lands. In the United States, Venezuelan officials and CITGO Petroleum Corp. responded and began meeting with Indian tribes. So far, four Maine tribes have entered into an agreement for 900,000 gallons of heating oil at a 40 percent discount.

While in Venezuela, Galvan said he explored business ventures for several tribes in Nevada and the Great Lakes region.

For more information on future delegations, contact [email protected].