Last week, the socialist indo-Venezuela fair was held in central Caracas. Indigenous artisans from the states of Amazonas, Apure, Delta Amacuro, Zulia and Bolivar participated in the fair. A brochure from the festival featured a map of Venezuela which outlined where different indigenous communities lived and other details about their cultural practices.
Advances and challenges for indigenous rights
In 2002, President Hugo Chavez declared October 12, formerly known as Columbus Day, as the “day of indigenous resistance.” A series of activities took place this past week to mark the event, recognize the continued inequities that indigenous communities face in Venezuela, propose policies, debate contemporary resistance struggles and share culture.
The 1999 National Constitution declared the country as multi-ethnic and pluricultural, and created a progressive framework for the recognition of indigenous rights. Most notably, all indigenous languages are now official languages of Venezuela, and the constitution provides a legal framework for the protection of indigenous lands and resources and guaranteed representation in the National Assembly. Despite these enormous legal advances, indigenous communities have continued to struggle to make these symbolic changes translate into material realities.
Mission Guiacaipuro, named after the Cacique who led a resistance movement against the Spanish colonizers, was created in 2003 to bring the social programs focused on health, housing, education, and nutrition into indigenous communities in culturally respectful ways. Further, in the last three years, there has been the construction of new socialist communes in indigenous communities.
In 2008 President Chavez granted 40,000 hectares to a Yukpa community after a violent conflict over land that had been taken from the Yukpa over centuries. The Yupka reside in the mountainous Sierra de Perija region to the west of Venezuela. In 2011, 15,800 hectares were granted to the Yukpa to honor the day of indigenous resistance and this past Sunday, President Maduro announced that more land titles would be granted to indigenous communities.
Venezuelan anthropologist Lusbi Portillo, coordinator of an indigenous rights NGO, warned that while the government has repeatedly handed over titles, this has not always translated into actual access and control of the land granted to them. He also shared concern about the quality of such land. “There aren't indigenous people on flat land” he said, “98 percent of the land granted to the indigenous is in the mountains and the big growers do not want it anyways.”
Portillo referred to the ongoing battles between indigenous people and the wealthy who claim ownership of large swaths of land. During the violent disputes in 2008, Chavez said “between the large estate owners and the Indians, this government is with the Indians” but despite an official policy of siding “with the Indians,” one of the main contemporary struggles of indigenous peoples is for acknowledged rights to land that has the capability of producing food and providing for habitat.
The assassination of Yukpa leader Sabino Romero
One of the most vocal leaders for land rights from the Yukpa nation, Sabino Romero, was murdered in March 2013 and while 5 Venezuelans were sentenced to 7 years in prison for their involvement in his assassination last August, many indigenous people and allies claim that wealthy land owners paid to have Romero assassinated, and that these landowners must be brought to justice.
Sabino Romero's assassination followed his participation in a delegation of 60 Yukpa leaders to Caracas to demand that the government intervene in the violence that indigenous people confront in fighting for their land. Prior to Romero's murder, a number of indigenous people had been killed in the Sierra de Perija region and beyond, including Sabino's own father.
Lucia Martinez, Sabino's widow, has continued the struggle for land rights of indigenous people and she has also continued to fight for justice for her husband's death. Most of the land granted to indigenous people has been granted to the Yukpa, while there are over 30 other indigenous nations in Venezuela, and some, like the Guajiro (also known as Wayúu), remain landless.
Professor Lusbi Portillo of indigenous rights NGO Homo et Natura explained that this is because the Yukpa (who are Caribs) live and are organized in a decentralized way throughout Venezuela. While Yukpa communities have a leader (cacique), each community makes autonomous decisions and many Yukpa communities have decided to use land occupations as a means of asserting their rights to the land. This tactic has forced the government to the negotiating table, and has resulted in the transferring of titles specifically to Yukpa communities.
“It makes them (the Yukpa), hard to control.” Portillo said at a forum on “Contemporary Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela” held at the Central University of Venezuela on Monday. Portillo also noted that there are currently two controversial Venezuelan military bases in Yukpa territory and that a proposal for a third was adamantly rejected by the Yukpa community members, after allegations that a well-respected indigenous leader had been beaten by a military officer.
Another contemporary struggle that the Yukpa and other indigenous communities in Venezuela and throughout Latin America are facing is the threat of environmental and health devastation due to mining. In 2008, Chavez put a stop to coal mining in indigenous territory, after years of pressure from indigenous communities. Portillo warned that Carbo-Zulia, a mining company based in the Western state of Zulia that borders Colombia, has been pushing to reopen the two mines that Chavez had shut down.
Decolonizing and Interculturalidad
The main concrete struggles that were discussed at the forum on contemporary resistance were the importance of both titles and actual access to ancestral and fertile lands for indigenous peoples, ongoing struggles against military bases, which were linked to sovereignty, and a continued struggle against mining and energy extraction. These issues were also placed within the broader context of an ongoing struggle to decolonize.
Professor Benjamin Martinez emphasized the concept of “interculturalism” as a guiding principle in building a truly democratic society. Martinez was critical of concepts of “multiculturalism” and noted that “interculturalism” “is not simply the recognition of others” but “it is the respect for knowledge, culture, and religion that is fundamental in building a truly democratic society.” He continued, “It is not enough to know that we are different, we must also acknowledge and change the inequalities that exist.”
The framework of decolonizing is a growing theme throughout the Americas. It has long been the call of indigenous president Evo Morales, who was reelected yesterday as the President of Bolivia. And recently, the Seattle City council unanimously voted to change Columbus Day to “Indigenous People's Day”, becoming the first city in the United States to do so.