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Opinion and Analysis: Indigenous and Afro-Venezuelans

The Promise of Restitution of Indigenous Rights in Venezuela

The arrival of Christopher Columbus was commemorated last week in countries across the Americas except in Venezuela.

This past October 12, President Hugo Chavez did not commemorate the arrival of Columbus to this continent in 1492. Instead, Chavez paid homage to 16th Century indigenous chief, Guaicaipuro, at the National Pantheon in Caracas. 

Chief Guaicaipuro, leader of the Caracas and Teques people, fought against the first Spanish settlements in Venezuela for a period of 10 years during the 1560s. 

His successful campaigns against Spanish colonials united the first peoples of the Caracas valley against the Spanish invasion. Guaicaipuro was eventually killed by Spanish soldiers in an ambush.   More than 400 years later, Guaicaipuro’s name has been revived.  

"Chief Guaicaipuro preferred to die rather than give up his territory," said Nicia Maldonado, president of Venezuela’s national indigenous organization CONIVE at a rally in downtown Caracas on October 12.  Indigenous people from the Amazon region covered a statue of Columbus with a white blanket, which for the Venezuela’s first peoples symbolized the beginning of a new era.

"This statue of Columbus represents centuries of colonialism," Maldonado said, "and it’s time to bring it down."  The assembled indigenous people presented the city mayor, Freddy Bernal, with a written request to replace the statues of Columbus in the capital city with their own leaders, like chief Guaicaipuro.

The Chavez government changed the name of October 12 from "Day of the Discovery of America" to "Day of Indigenous Resistance," recognizing indigenous people and the effects of European colonialism on their societies. President Chavez regularly refers to his own indigenous and African roots conscious of promoting Venezuela’s non-European cultural heritage which many Venezuelans share.

President Chavez also named a national social program for indigenous people in honor of the Venezuelan resistance leader.

President Chavez and Nicia Maldonado inaugurate Guaicaipuro Mission

The Guaicaipuro mission and the Venezuelan constitution

Chavez started the Guaicaipuro Mission a year ago, aiming to restore the rights of indigenous people by following the principles of Chapter 8 of the country’s constitution.

Chapter 8 of the constitution is a blueprint for new relations between the government of Venezuela and the indigenous people. It emphasizes recognition and respect for indigenous land rights, culture, language, and customs.  According to the constitution, the role of the Venezuelan state is to participate with indigenous people in the demarcation of traditional land, guaranteeing the right to collective ownership of land that indigenous people have inhabited for millennia.  The state is also expected to promote the cultural values of indigenous people.

In terms of resource extraction on indigenous habitat, the constitution states that it will be done without damaging the cultural, social, and economic integrity of indigenous communities and that before any development is considered, communities will be consulted.

The State recognizes indigenous traditional medicine and complimentary therapies and guarantees the protection of collective intellectual property, knowledge, technology, and innovations of indigenous people.  The register of patents of genetic resources and ancestral knowledge is prohibited.

Indigenous representation in the National Assembly is also guaranteed and as such Venezuela has three indigenous members of the National Assembly and one state governor.

According to indigenous Venezuelans, the current constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is a leap forward toward full recognition of indigenous rights.

"Under previous governments we had only two lines in the constitution," Dalia Herminia Yanez said. Yanez is a member of the Environmental Network of Indigenous Warao women of Delta Amacuro state.  "Today we have an entire Chapter," Yanez says. "We have advanced. We also have the law of the demarcation of land that will be approved, the rights of children, and now we are writing laws of the rights of indigenous women," Yanez added.

Warao leader, Dalia Herminia Yanez, “We have advanced.”
Credit: Robin Nieto

As for the Guaicaipuro Mission, Yanez says the program encompasses much more than most social programs and will take time to take effect. "The Guaicaipuro mission is like a baby that is growing. And it will keep growing. It is now walking and as it evolves, I believe it will be one of the best missions with our participation."

Guaicaipuro`s mission is to ensure that indigenous rights stipulated in the constitution are respected and that each of the country’s 12 social programs reach the country’s indigenous communities.  This includes Housing, Health, Literacy, Education, and community development, as well as a legal process of demarcating indigenous lands.

The Guaicaipuro mission must not only negotiate the implementation of the country’s recently created social infrastructure, it must do so respecting Venezuela’s 36 distinct indigenous cultures.

As such, the Guaicaipuro Mission faces the enormous challenge of rectifying hundreds of years of exploitation and extreme marginalization of indigenous people while respecting cultures that few Venezuelans understand.

This is why the participation of indigenous people from each community is vital to the program, says Marta Orozco, an Altiplano indigenous woman from Bolivia who is in Venezuela working on a small scale trade project.

 "The Guaicaipuro Mission has to work with indigenous organizations and communities.  It has to be a catalyst for change but it should not take leadership.  That will only divide indigenous communities," Orozco says.  "The Guaicaipuro Mission should be a co-participant at the decision-making level for planning," Orozco says.

The indigenous people of Zulia state

In the sun drenched oil producing state of Zulia, where the majority of Venezuela`s approximately 500,000 indigenous people live, the Guaicaipuro mission is still in the planning stage.

The largest group of Zuila`s 330,000 indigenous people is the Wayuu.  Many Wayuu emigrated to the lands surrounding the bustling city of Maracaibo from the north-western most region of Zulia called, the Guajira, near the Colombian border.  Other indigenous groups in Zulia are far smaller in number, like the Añu (pronounced Anyu), who live along the shores of Lake Maracaibo. The Jukpa (pronounced Yupa) live in the Perija cordillera, bordering with Colombia.   Each group faces similar problems in terms of lack of community social infrastructure.

A Wayuu man on cultivated land in El Chivato.
Credit: Robin Nieto

El Chivato - A Wayuu farm community

On the outskirts of Maracaibo, the Wayuu community of El Chivato is located on land that once belonged to a single land holder. Today more than 50 families live on this flat land of reddish brown earth, each growing crops for self-sufficiency and small scale trade.

According to Cecilia Rincon, a long standing resident of this farm area, each family has received one hectare of land provided by the national government as part of the national land reform program through the Venezuelan National Land Institute (INTI in its Spanish initials).

Families here organized themselves to apply for their own pieces of land.  The national government approved the applications since they found the land applied for was not being used and had been idle for some time.  The land was given to the families on the condition that they make it productive. 

The Wayuu of El Chivato have since planed lettuce, corn, and traditional plants like Guana, used to prepare traditional food. However, Rincon says the community lacks water, gas, and electricity and says that their hope for improvement now lies with the Guaicaipuro program. "We hope the Guicaipuro Mission will give us a hand to help us progress," Rincon said.

According to Angel Montiel, a member of the national coordinating team for the Guaicaipuro mission and a Wayuu, a census has been taken of the area and plans for electricity, potable water, sewage lines, housing as well as social services in health and food security will be in place by next year.  "We have designated an area in this community to begin a nucleus of endogenous community development based on the Vuelvan Caras program,” Montiel says.

The Vuelvan Caracas program is meant to stimulate employment in communities by developing local resources and skills. 

Nazareth - A Lake Maracaibo Añu community

There is little breeze to cool the intensity of the sun’s heat that beats down most days of the year in this lake shore town called Nazareth.  The shores here are covered with a thick blanket of bright green duckweed. The weed that has the consistency of lentils and is known as “lemna” has plagued Lake Maracaibo for nearly a year.  The effects are suffered mostly by the Añu people who live literally on top of Lake Maracaibo on traditional homes called "Palafitos" built on a base of wooden poles along the shores of the lake. 

A boy swims in Duckweed infesting the shores of Nazareth.
Credit: Robin Nieto

These traditional homes are what the first Spanish explorers to arrive in this country saw along the shores of narrow rivers, reminding them of Venice.  Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda called it “little Venice,” or Venezuela.

The Añu depend on fishing from Lake Maracaibo for their livelihood and for their subsistence.  The presence of the weed is taking its toll on the population.  "We want to be able to fish again," says one resident who echoed the same desire of many residents

The weed is the latest problem for fishing in Nazareth which has suffered from contamination by industries as well as conservation efforts which prohibit fishers from catching fish in traditional waters.

"Fishing is not providing enough to live a better life,” says Jose Luis Lopez who lives with his wife in a palafito.  “Many of us want to live far from here," Lopez says.  His wife Loreanny Sanchez disagrees.

"If we move from here we will lose our culture" she says.  According to Lopez, the traditional way of life of the Añu is not providing enough of an incentive to continue and he welcomes changes as proposed by the national government that would diversify the local economy and provide alternative employment as well as inland housing.

These are the kinds of community issues that the Guaicaipuro mission is supposed to deal with.  But for Nazareth, the Guaicaipuro Mission is slow in coming says Sanchez.  “The Guaicaipuro Mission has not arrived.  We do not know what has happened, and we don’t have the resources to go the capital to find out,” Sanchez said.  

Towns like Nazareth, just as many communities far from the Venezuela’s principal cities, are often left without communication with coordinators of the program, who often live outside the communities. 

Toromo - A Jukpa Mountain community

Jukpa elder, Jesus Peñaranda, says community is not receiving help.
Credit: Robin Nieto

In the mountains of the Sierra Períja bordering with Colombia, the Jukpa are a world away from the bustling city of Maracaibo.  In natural settings of lush green forest and the rushing frigid waters of the Cumana river, the Jukpa have lived here far from Venezuela’s mainstream for generations.  However, despite the spectacular natural settings of the area, many Jukpa in this community called Toromo live in dire conditions of poverty.

Outside a shack made of dried tree branches, wooden planks and a dirt floor, a Jukpa elder, Jesus Peñaranda, cuts away at a reed fashioning it into a flute instrument and talks about his distrust of outsiders.  “People come here to steal, to take from our culture, and what do I get in return?" Peñaranda says. "I get nothing in return." He points to the condition of his house and says "look at the way I live."

Peñaranda says the community has tried to get things improved through the government but with little in the way of results.  "We have made dozens of applications for things and we have never received anything", Peñaranda says.

His granddaughter, Carolina Peñaranda, is a 17-year-old student in the local high school her mother lobbied to have opened in Toromo. A high school that was backed personally by President Chavez himself.

Carolina differs from her grandfather in her opinion of the way things are developing for Toromo community.  “We the indigenous people were not taken into account before.  Today with this government we are in the constitution and have that to defend us.” Carolina explains how Toromo has advanced in terms of education.  “We have a high school in our community that was opened with the help of President Chavez.  If it were not for this school many of us would not be able to study,” says Carolina. 

Carolina plans to study medicine in Cuba and says she will return to continue helping her community.

While the Guaicaipuro mission has only begun to be introduced to indigenous people in Zulia, few were critical. The program is seen as a welcome new beginning for positive change for communities that have suffered neglect and abuse for centuries. 

Rusbel Palmar is a professor at the Bolivarian University of Zulia and the coordinator for a state-wide indigenous organization called ORPIZ.  He and the Bolivarian University are involved in a long term project of community development that pairs students with indigenous communities across the state.  “The result will be a census of a multitude of communities, a diagnostic of the social and economic conditions of a large part of the indigenous communities of Zulia state,” Palmar says. “This way we can manage the information of the Guaicaipuro mission.”

Palmar said the Guaicaipuro mission is a very large and very important project that will take time to plan and coordinate and like many indigenous people in Zulia, Palmar said he hopes to see the mission on its feet soon.  “We have great expectations of the Guaicaipuro Mission.”

Part II:  The Guaicaipuro Mission and the Demarcation of traditional indigenous land in Venezuela