How Chavez Changed Life in the Tribal Territories


When Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1999, one of his first trips was to Saimadoyi, the tiny capital of the Barí tribe, in the Sierra de Périja mountain range in the western state of Zulia, close to the Colombian border. Nearby is Maracaibo lake, a forest of derricks on a sea of oil, which has supplied Venezuela with the stuff since 1922. But until Chávez, the Barís had a miserable existence in soiacas, mud houses roofed with palm: “We used to have no electricity, we lived in the dark. And he came and said he’d get us electricity.”

The president kept his word and sent generators to Saimadoyi and nearby villages, plus a large basketball pitch, a medical dispensary, a school, scholarships for students, and a minibus to connect the communities. All paid for by the government. As was a herd of cattle for the neighbouring community of Bachichira. Hector Okbo Asokma, the cacique of Saimadoyi and its 700 souls, was grateful: “Chávez came and things really changed. We like him a lot here.”

But every time Chávez solves a problem, another one appears. He travelled to Saimadoyi by helicopter and did not see the track that serves as a road. To travel from Machiques, the nearest town 80km away, we had to squeeze into a rustico – a minibus crammed with bags, basins, baskets, spare tires and 16 people. Then we tried to relax until its brakes gave way as it hurtled down a steep slope towards a muddy pond. The banks served as a brake and there were no casualties. It was so hot that the passengers welcomed the cool water that splashed through the windows.

After a prolonged repair job we set off again, but soon reached the first river. It had rained on the peaks above and the river was a torrent, impossible to cross. We had to turn back. A passenger shrugged: “It’s always the same. We can never plan anything.”

The problem is the same from Saimadoyi to Machiques. During a storm all traffic stops and if passengers are caught between two rivers, they have to spend the night in the jungle with the mosquitoes. The only alternative is to climb a perilous mountain path, carrying baggage and children. “It makes life difficult when you have to take someone to hospital in an emergency,” said Alvaro Akondakai Konta, a Barí. Other passengers were more critical: “What about the millions of bolivars the government spends. Where does that go? We want a real road. And bridges!”

Proud and tough

For the Barí (or Motilone) are demanding. They had a reputation at the time of the conquest for being brave and proud after they resisted the Spanish with lances and arrows. In Madrid and Seville they were rhymed: “Los indios Motilones/Te cortaron los cojones” (the Motilones Indians cut your balls off).

Even the early Venezuelan republic could not deal with them. “Savages” were despised and for years killing one was not quite a criminal offence. They used arrows, the other side bullets. The Barí were among the last indigenous peoples to hold out against Capuchin missionaries and “civilisation”. They only came down from the mountains in the 1960s, into contact with the Creoles (non-Indian white or mixed-blood), and settled in villages.

The Barí (socialists before their time) worked together to pull out our “Chávez minibus” and another that belonged to the priest. (A Spanish padre has lived with the Barí for the past 30 years. He is not a revolutionary but he is devoted.) Then everyone climbed back in and we were off to the Ogdavia river; but the rain had turned that, too, into a torrent and cut off Saimadoyi. People complain that Caracas won’t help, nor the governor of Zulia, whatever his name, which no one can remember. (He is, in fact, Manual Rosales, the only opposition governor.) People vaguely recollect that he was opposition candidate in the 2006 presidential elections. “He wanted to replace our comandante Chávez but we don’t care about him; he’s never done anything for us.”

Everyone was up to their waists in water. A man with a chainsaw attacked flotsam, churned up by the elements, that blocked the riverbed, causing the river to overflow upstream. Everyone knew what he had to do. They cut down one tree, then another. They laboured under rocks bigger than themselves. They pushed, pulled, sweated, stopped for a breather and started again. A day’s backbreaking labour to set up a dam and divert the current, and then to fill the ford with rocks and stones to make it passable. At last the first minibus set out to applause. The road was open, but for how long?

Venezuela has 35 different indigenous tribes, 535,000 people, 2.1% of the population according to the 2001 census. They live in the most remote and least populated regions and, until the late 1990s, all suffered equally under the Venezuelan government, which had the continent’s most backward policy on indigenous peoples.

Repay the debt

Things changed when Chávez was elected in 1998. Proud of his Pumé grandmother, he set himself up as champion of the indigenous peoples. While still a candidate he promised to “repay this historic debt” owed by the state and carried it through when he set up the new Bolivarian constituent assembly in 1999. Some tribes, such as the Wayuú, are well assimilated in urban areas; others such as the Yanomani live in the Amazonian jungle and have little contact with the outside world. But the indigenous tribes are relatively young, isolated from the rest of society and divided politically, especially the Wayuú in Maracaibo who support more traditional political parties, such as Democratic Action.

In Ecuador or Bolivia, strong indigenous movements regularly shake up politics. Not in Venezuela where, according to the sociologist and anthropologist Daniel Castro: “The political space was opened up by the Creoles, not by pressure from the indigenous population. Nevertheless the attempt by Chávez to rebuild the country has rekindled old expectations about recovering land and defending a way of life.” Chávez invited the indigenous peoples to take part in drawing up the constitution and in July 1999 the 600 delegates of the National Council of Venezuelan Indians (Conive) elected three representatives to the National Assembly. Along with 128 Creole delegates, they presented proposals drawn up by their rank and file. Then they had to get them passed.

There was bound to be resistance, amplified by the media, from companies exploiting natural resources: the opposition. On the Chávez side, the Security and Defence Commission (former army officers) denounced a possible infringement of national sovereignty and a blow to national integrity. The argument lasted until 3 November 1999 when the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples were passed. These were the basis for chapter 8 of the constitution, ratified by 71% of Venezuelans (with a 60% participation rate) in a referendum. It is the most progressive constitution for indigenous rights on the American continent. What used to be, at best, a paternalistic attitude has been replaced by a policy of recognition and participation (see `New rights’).

We reached Tucupita where the road stops and gives way to the vast Delta Amacuro in the northeast, through which the Orinoco empties into the Atlantic. A maze of channels criss-crosses the jungle and the mangrove forests in Warao territory. Lotuses and water plants drift past. In the middle of the river, our canoe headed into the night, its motor chugging. Suddenly we saw specks of light: Guarakajara de la Horqueta. Landing stages loomed up at the foot of each stilt dwelling. These had no walls, just a low palm-covered roof. A generator purred. José Grégorio Aramillo, a young Warao from Tucupita said: “The president said that every village should have electricity. And the telephone.” He pointed to one on a shelf. “People are starting to call each other. There have been a lot of changes thanks to this government. But we are still Warao and we must preserve our language and way of life.” That may be a challenge: 20 villagers were sitting on a palm-wood floor watching an Ecuadorian group on a television set hooked up to a DVD player. On screen girls in skimpy thongs and bras were swaying, all hips and breasts.

No work, no help

Guarakajara has about 500 inhabitants. They live off their crafts, some cultivation (mostly maize), hunting and fishing. The Warao (“masters of the canoe”) were once nomadic but have been settled for years. Calabashes have given way to plastic basins, bow and arrows to rifles. But local resources are running out and there is malnutrition. Some Warao work for the school or the dispensary, hence the television. Others have nothing. “There is no work here, nobody helps us.” They have only partly assimilated their new lifestyle and, although they speak about the forest, the river, nature and the environment, everyone chucks their waste into the water along with jerry cans, plastic bags and bottles. The result is a stinking cesspool.

The delta has been abandoned to its fate. “The government has given us many outboard motors to help us get around,” said one Warao. The communal councils, set up in 2006 to give communities a voice and manage their budgets, have allocated resources. Deserios Silva said: “We voted for our budget and I’m responsible for it. That’s new and it’s a good thing. But I haven’t had any schooling, I don’t know how to draw up a project.” Things are at a standstill.

Maria Chavy is a coordinator for the ministry for popular participation and social development (Minpades). She moves between the delta’s four municipalities (Tucupita, Casa Coíma, Antonio Díaz and Pedernales) to train people and strengthen local institutions. She has had some success. Thanks to the communal councils, the 19 indigenous communities of Pedernales have projects in fishing, culture and crafts. Elsewhere the situation is more complex, as in Guarakajara. “The Warao are organised by nature, but they have an oral tradition. Our role is to teach them to communicate with institutions and prepare these for dealing with them.” There are many obstacles, despite the government’s obvious political will. “We are frequently in conflict with the politicians who come to the communities and change the projects. And unfortunately in some cases the resources only benefit the few.”

“Just because we’re Indian doesn’t mean we’re perfect,” said Daniel Castro. “We too have corruption and conflict.” Even here in the delta, in La Culebrita. The communal council project was to buy 10 small boats and nets to help fishermen; to build decent latrines; to supply electricity (for Chávez was here). The only generator should work 24/7 on free diesel from government and municipal subsidies. But everyone complains that the Warao in charge of the generator “only turns it on at 4pm and then stops it at 10pm on the pretext that it will break down if he keeps it on. And he makes us pay for the diesel for those few hours.” The rest of the fuel may disappear among the smugglers of the delta’s aquatic maze. The islands of Trinidad and Tobago, where cheap black-market diesel is appreciated, are not far away. In La Culebrita no one has got any richer and the meagre income from handicrafts now has to pay for electricity.

A vertical democracy

The communal councils generate problems. The Barí are traditionally organised in a vertical democracy and they integrate effortlessly. But the caciques, councils of elders, and shamans of the Warao and the Yupa do not approve of newly-elected upstarts who undermine their traditional authority, and there are divisions. Indigenous people in Merida are intimidated by politicians with ties to their traditional parties, who often retain a local power base.

Indigenous peoples do not have the same concept of time and money as Creoles. They have no idea of investment. “The reason the communal councils have been so successful,” observed Daniel Castro, “is because they have been adopted at grassroots level. The situation is more complicated with the Indians, but they do understand what is happening and try to translate it into their own vision of things. It takes more time here than elsewhere in the country, but it’s beginning to pay off.”

The Barí are satisfied about some things. “Previous governments did nothing. We’ve got problems but Chávez helps us and we’re grateful for that.” Yet they have grounds for complaint. The Land Law was passed in January 2001. They delimited their territory after long discussions with elders and chiefs, school teachers and peasants. They noted the mountains on which their ancestors trod and their sacred sites, and did not to pay too much attention to “ecologists”, self-proclaimed anarchist Creoles who urged them to ask for more, telling them that the Barí once occupied all the land up to Maracaibo, “from the frontier zone at Río de Oro up to Río Santa Rosa, 2,000 hectares”.

The government promised them the deeds to their collective land last October. “And since then, nothing.” “Everything has ground to a halt.” Nobody seems to know what is going on. Some people believe that because of the low population density in the indigenous region (only about 1,600 people) the government would create a latifundio (large private estate), by handing over the land. Others blame the inertia and inefficiency of civil servants. But there is also talk about the armed forces, concerned that the Barí are acquiring so much autonomy in a sensitive security zone close to the Colombian border, and the interests of the large landowners. The real concern is that the mining companies have an obvious reason to stop territorial demarcation.

The law stipulates that once the tribes own their land they must be consulted about the exploitation of its resources. The decision will be theirs. That represents progress because previously (“before our President Chávez”), mining companies were free to ravage the rivers and forests, free of environmental protection constraints, to amass huge tax-free profits. There were frequent, sometimes violent, conflicts between the tribes and the police, the national guard and the army.

Strategic reserves

The main indigenous states, Amazonas, Bolivar and Zulia, have considerable strategic reserves: uranium, gold, other precious metals and coal. The Barí have always known that. When the politicians and the landowners become interested in the Sierra de Périja, bank notes grow instead of trees and devastation begins. It is not only bad for the Barí. Water from the sierra supplies Maracaibo, where it is often in short supply.

Under previous presidencies two coal mines were opened in the north of Zulia, the state inhabited by Wayuú, Barí and Yukpa. State institutions connected to multinationals such as the Zulia Region Development Corporation (Corpozulia) and its subsidiary Carbozulia are lobbying to develop the business. They have fought for two years, and sometimes the conflict is between indigenous peoples. The mines employ 7,000 (including many Wayuú) extracting, transporting and exporting coal. “They don’t defend their land,” said a Barí from Karañakal in the Sierra de Périja. “They just sell themselves to anyone who comes along and offers them money. It’s different with us Barí.”

In Saimadoyi, Chávez confirmed in 1999 that coal would not be mined if it caused environmental damage. Nevertheless, the delay in the land demarcation process allowed curious developments. Groups of “ecologists” organised anti-Chávez campaigns, accusing him of having connections with multinationals. The groups were few in number, but had considerable media clout through the internet. They included the environmental NGO Homo et Natura, and were supported by progressive websites abroad and on web pages financed by the Rockefeller Foundation. “People use the Indians to defend their own interests,” said Daniel Castro, “When we go to see them they don’t say the same thing. Sometimes they even say the opposite.”

From the state TV channel Vive, Venezuelans learnt that the “ecologists” do not speak for the indigenous peoples, who have their own voice. The Barí spoke on Vive, and were heard. On presidential order, the minister of the environment, Yubiri Ortega de Carrizalez, announced in March that the government would not authorise any new mines in Zulia or the expansion of existing ones. The government has adopted a long-term view and is now considering a different development strategy, which could include agriculture, cattle breeding and tourism.

Projects proliferate: land demarcation in the states of Anzoategui and Monagas, ambulance boats for the Amazonas, Bolivar and Apure rivers, solar panels for Apure communities, and food distribution in the Amacuro delta. The revolution may be slipshod but it has not skimped on organisations: the Regional Institute of indigenous affairs (which depends on the governors), the Regional Division of indigenous affairs, the policy missions such as Gaicaipuro (social policy), Robinsón (literacy), Rivas (secondary education), Barrio Adentro (health). Even those involved get confused, like the headman of Karañakal: “A civil servant shows up one day, then another one the next, and then another; we don’t understand a thing.”

To remedy the situation the Indigenous Peoples ministry was established in 2006, headed by Nicia Maldonado, and local coordinators were appointed. Daniel Castro observes: “You have to draw a distinction between the political discourse and what is happening on the ground. It’s not that they’re contradictory, it’s just that they take place in different time zones.

“Success comes slowly on the ground. But at least we know where we are going.”

Translated by Krystyna Horko

 

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