In spite of propaganda to the contrary, indigenous Venezuelans are suffering grave setbacks in their social and political rights in Venezuela. Those who are in theory their regional allies appear to be looking the other way.
In mid-2010, the author of this article had an opportunity in the field to corroborate a complaint about pollution in Kariña indigenous territory, in the state of Anzoátegui. For context: according to the 2011 census the indigenous Venezuelan population, with 724,592 people, made up 2.7% of the country’s total population at the time. The Kariñas, who primarily inhabit the states of Anzoátegui, Bolívar, and Monagas, made up 4.7% of the total indigenous population at around 33,824 people. Almost half of all Kariñas, or 16,686 people, lived in Anzoátegui, concentrated in the Mesa de Guanipa in the Pedro María Freites Municipality in small communities like Bajo Hondo, Mapiricure, Kashama, and Tascabaña. The incidents in question occurred in precisely that last one.
Beginning in 2000, the Kariñas of the Tascabaña I and Tascabaña II communities noticed that torrents of methane gas bubbles had begun to emanate from the Tascabaña river. These torrents became increasingly strong with time. Though it is now clear that the gas emissions were a product of energy extraction activity, there was no consensus about their origin at the time. One theory suggested that they were the result of the 1940s exploration of 35 wells in a particular zone, which would have placed the responsibility on the concessionary companies of the time, Exxon Mobil and Texaco. Another theory maintained that the problem appeared more recently, that in 1999, PDVSA dug wells close to the communities which were later sealed but, with time, caused the gas leak. Despite the complaints, no authority had been held responsible. The studies of the environmental impact that would measure the magnitude of the problem and the possible consequences, both for the environment and the health of the indigenous people, had not yet been carried out.
Nevertheless, when we visited both communities, the situation was much more complicated than just environmental contamination. State-owned PDVSA, far from resolving this contamination, encouraged a process of intervention in the community to hide the foul-smelling bubbles that furiously sprung out of the river. Like many indigenous people, the survival of the Kariñas relied on the sowing of small plots of land called “conucos,” for which they rely on the moist earth of the moriche palm and the rivers bordering their communities. The only measure of protection offered by the state energy company had been to instruct the indigenous community to only use the river’s water for washing clothes. They could no longer sow their crops, fish, or raise livestock, the basis to their survival system. PDVSA also installed water tanks in all the homes, which they filled twice weekly. As a substitute for their customs, they installed a Mercal (a state outlet to provide subsidized food) and a “Barrio Adentro” doctor’s office, while promising to finish the construction of an outpatient clinic and a sports field, though the fulfilment of these projects was implicitly contingent on indigenous representatives keeping their mouths closed about the strange odor on the margins of the river and, depending on the direction of the wind, that could be smelled on the streets of Tascabaña I and II. To guarantee silence on the issue, PDVSA, which served as the authority in the area, had backed the election of certain representatives to the “Indigenous Communal Councils,” countering the influence of traditional community organizations.
Organizations supporting indigenous rights in the Americas have denounced “cultural genocide” over far less than what happened in Tascabaña. Nevertheless, the anthropological damage suffered by the Kariñas at the time was met by a heavy silence. In 2011, international prices for Venezuelan gas and oil were at an all-time high. And a sector of ecologists who in the 1990s had been harsh critics of energy extraction had become defenders of PDVSA, as the blessing of oil “made the revolution” by paying for social programs. Other environmentalists, especially those aligned with Bolivarian youth movements, found themselves excusing abuses by pointing to offers of vertical chicken coops, promises of hydroponic cultivation or to promote medicinal herbs, or accepting invitations to participate in the World Social Forum, hosted by Miraflores.
The situation in Tascabaña repeated itself, with slight variation, in other areas where mining or energy interests clashed with indigenous communities. One of the few times the situation was discussed in Caracas, 320 kilometers away, was when indigenous representatives had the right to speak in the National Assembly to present a report on the situation.
Without Social Rights, and Without Political Rights
At the end of July 2020, the Venuezuelan National Security Council (CNE) passed new regulations for the selection of indigenous representatives to the National Assembly, doing away with a system of direct, confidential, and in-person election of representatives of the indigenous peoples. Despite current electoral law, the new regulations create a system of delegates who will vote for new representatives in the name of the communities. According to the electoral authority, in order to vote for legislative representatives indigenous communities must now organize themselves into a structure called “community assemblies,” which should meet and function according to a timeline established by the CNE. Then they should elect an unspecified number of “spokespeople” to attend general assemblies where, in a second-order vote, these will elect official representatives according to the region in which they live. The voting will be done by a show of hands.
The Vice President of the CNE, Rafael Simón Jiménez, declared that fewer than eight indigenous organizations registered with the electoral authority were consulted before the passing of this special regulation. Another rector, Luis Fuenmayor, claimed that the modifications of electoral law were in accordance with indigenous ancestral practices: “I understand that they elect their representatives in this way or a very similar one, so the regulations in question would be consistent with their culture, practices, and traditions.”
The Wayuu representative to the National Assembly, Virgilio Ferrer, has rejected this form of consultation with indigenous communities, describing the decision as an “erasure of the political rights of the ancestral people.” For their part, 20 different indigenous organizations of Amazonas state have circulated a statement demanding the annulment of the new regulations so they may elect their representatives in accordance with the Constitution. What these CNE rectors seem to ignore is the systematic process of intervention in the affairs of Venezuelan indigenous communities, whose traditional authorities have been displaced by satellite organs of the ruling PSUV, whose practices have been eroded, and whose territories have been controlled by clientelist programs, the armed forces, and irregular armed groups including Colombian guerrilla factions.
The reasoning behind the decision has little to do with the adaptation of the electoral system to indigenous customs. This is an odd assertion in a country that has prevented the exercise of social and political rights by indigenous peoples, one of the most vulnerable sectors in the context of the complex humanitarian emergency. The origin of the decision likely dates back to the results of the parliamentary elections in late 2015, when three indigenous representatives elected in Amazonas ensured a two-thirds opposition majority in the National Assembly. At the end of that year, the Supreme Court (TSJ) prevented these representatives from taking their seats citing allegations of irregularities in their election. In July 2016, the National Assembly unilaterally decided to reinstate those representatives, for which the TSJ declared it “in contempt”, resulting in all their decisions being null.
The Venezuelan government has announced new parliamentary elections in December with a clear objective to, by any means necessary, recover a majority of the National Assembly. In addition to the political advantages of controlling all branches of government, there are symbolic benefits for the Maduro government. One of these, after years of propaganda on the supposed “indigenous revolution,” is an effort to ensure that all their representatives are connected to the PSUV.
Chavismo, before with Chávez and now with Maduro’s totalitarian tendencies, did not tolerate the right to dissent, to alternate power. Far from understanding and promoting respect for and dignity of the indigenous worldview, Chavismo has used indigenous people simply as a tool: to have a leading role in their propaganda, to advance territorial control, and for the arbitrary maintenance of power, but never as autonomous subjects of the law with rights. Hopefully, what lies in the future of Venezuela following Bolivarian hegemony, brings better things for this 3% of the population.
Translation by Lily Swaine-Moore.