Mérida, August 26, 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com)-- Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez pledged decisive support Sunday for the Yukpa indigenous people who have occupied 14 large estates in the northwestern state of Zulia to demand legal title to their ancestral lands, a right granted to them in the 1999 constitution and in the Indigenous Peoples Law.
However, the declarations came just days after the Venezuelan National Guard beat and detained alternative media workers and leaders of a humanitarian delegation en route to assist the Yukpa in the occupied lands, causing many to suspect regional and local authorities willingly contradict central government policies in the conflict-ridden, coal-rich zone known as the Sierra de Perijá.
“Nobody should have any doubts: Between the large estate owners and the indians, this government is with the indians,” said Chávez on his weekly talk show, Aló Presidente, on Sunday.
Chávez announced that he “gave instructions” to Vice President Ramón Carrizalez, Interior and Justice Minister Rodríguez Chacín, Environment Minister Yubirí Ortega, and the military commander in Zulia, General Izquierdo Torres, to “demarcate the indigenous lands with the participation of the indigenous councils,” compensate the landowners, and offer the communities the protection, credits, and equipment they need to launch sustainable agricultural projects, all of which the Law clearly obligates the government to do.
“We must demarcate [the lands] because it is in the constitution and in the law,” Chávez declared. Consistent with Article 24 of the Law, he added that the government has a “pending debt” to repay to the indigenous communities who were violently displaced in the past.
Several Yukpa communities began occupying large estates last year when the federal land demarcation commission stalled and the agreements that had been negotiated in several meetings between the indigenous groups and the landowners of European descent faded into obscurity.
In response, mercenaries hired to defend landowner interests repeatedly attacked the Yukpa, killing the elderly father of Chief Sabino Romero in July.
Meeting with Indigenous Minister
When Indigenous Affairs Minister Nicia Maldonado, who has opposed the occupations, met with the Yukpa in an occupied cattle pasture last week, Romero demanded that those who have attacked his people be brought to justice.
“There is a man, Alejandro Vargas, who is walking free, he is not in jail...if that man returns, I will put a spear in him,” Chief Romero sternly stated, referring to the landowner who witnesses say led the July raid that killed his father.
“We the Yukpa are free. Whether or not we the Yukpa have an identification card, that is not important, the zone of the Sierra de Perijá is free,” said Romero in the presence of the independent media.
In response, Minister Maldonado encouraged the radicalized Yukpa to follow the peaceful, legal path. “There is a law. I cannot just pick up a spear and kill somebody. Because if I do, the law will come looking for me,” she told them.
“[The hacienda owners] do not know what the demarcation is, so we need to tell them, this is the demarcation,” she added.
Several Yukpa interjected that the rich landowners have acted with impunity for decades, and the issue of land demarcation has been explained thoroughly to them in person since the process began in 2005.
The minister said testimonies and denunciations of the attacks should be brought to the local courthouse to be investigated. “We have to co-live out here... we are going to commence round-table dialogues about demarcation here in this zone,” said Maldonado, assuring that “the indigenous people are guaranteed territory here... here we are going to build a school, we are going to develop tourism out here!”
Echoing the minister, National Guard officials encouraged the Yukpa to consider them “friends” and “allies,” and emphasized that any cases of abuse by military officers should be rushed to the local authorities.
Media Workers Detained
Meanwhile, the General Torres ordered the zone, which lies along the civil war-trodden Colombian border, to be locked down by a heavily armed security ring that proved impenetrable even by a 40-person delegation bearing emergency medical and food supplies donated from the city and equipment for independent media coverage of the Yukpa struggle.
Four leaders of the 40-person humanitarian delegation, despite possessing official documents showing that the federal student grant program Fundayacucho was sponsoring their activity were detained and one of them was beaten.
“I was brutally detained Friday night. Five National Guardsmen beat me with their rifles and helmets for a period of 15 minutes. They detained us without any charges. Saturday we were taken to the courthouse and judged for disturbing the public order…We were not threatening the National Guard officials in any way, we were simply recording what was happening,” Tomás Becerra of Amazonas state testified after being released Sunday.
According to detained journalist Kelys Amundaray, the Yukpa were also impeded when they attempted to approach the security checkpoint to obtain the medical and food supplies. “We all realized there was a systematic plan by the state and the National Guard,” Amundaray explained. “They intended to criminalize the activity that was being carried out by the Yukpa and their allies,” he added.
The detainees were pressured to sign official statements which omitted the beating and other forms of physical intimidation by the National Guard. When local courthouse officials learned they were allies of Chief Romero, he ordered them put in jail. The reporters were released Saturday because of a lack of charges against them.
A Yukpa woman later testified to independent journalists that the National Guard officers accuse the Yukpa and their allies of being infiltrated by Colombian paramilitary troops seeking to destabilize the Venezuelan revolution.
“How can a fully-armed and equipped military official actually call us paramilitaries?" said the exasperated woman. “What is happening in the Sierra de Perijá is that all the military officials are against us…This is why we are calling on the national government to buy these lands for us.”
Chávez: End Bureaucratization
President Chávez said Sunday that he had seen reports prepared by his ministers who had visited the zone, and he issued a strong critique of government foot-dragging.
“At times, we are feeble-spirited, we name a commission and a year goes by and they travel, and they travel again, and they have a meeting here and there, and two years go by, but there is never a solution to the problem,” Chávez assessed, “These are the old vices of the past, that is called bureaucratization, and this has to come to an end!”
The Yukpa and their allies—despite being uplifted by the president’s support—remain wary of whether Chávez’s orders will be heeded in this region where elite landowners, international coal companies and their government allies retain tremendous power.
Indeed, local officials have contradicted the president in the past. When Chávez began making anti-coal declarations in 2006, regional authorities in team with National Guard troops stepped up their intimidation tactics against the indigenous population.
Chief Romero plans to travel to Caracas shortly to discuss solutions to the conflict with members of the National Assembly and the president’s ministers, according to Romero’s statements over the weekend.