“Sabino, we are all!” Protests in Caracas look to improve indigenous rights in Venezuela

By 11 November, 2010

“This 8th of November 2010 we return again to march and find you Mr President of the Miraflores Palace, in order to speak to you about the rights of the indigenous peoples, a march which is nothing less than a call to protect out planet and to deepen democracy within what your twenty-first century socialism proposes”. The pamphlet is bold and cuts no corners. Gathered out under the rain, some with faces painted, most with bare feet, a crowd has taken root in the centre of Caracas. A megaphone handed from one to another shouts out the demands, and pamphlets explain the gist. They will wait here in the main square and then march to Miraflores, Chavez’s residence, meet with him or the vice-president Elías Jaua and articulate clearly what needs to be done. For some, it is the first time they have come to the capital. For others, they have been here before and they won’t tire until they are heard out.

Representatives of the Yukpa, Warao, Piaroa, Juri, Wayuu, Taurepan and eight other ethnicities, along with the Indigenous university of Venezuela, TAUCA, various social and political organisations and members of the press met in Caracas to advance the cause of indigenous rights. The demand on behalf of the participants is two-fold; the demarcation of indigenous territory and the release of indigenous Yukpa leader Sabino Romero who has been unjustly imprisoned without trial according to Creole law instead of Indigenous law. Alongside these two proposals, the concerns for the environment and water resources are also raised. Although the plight of the indigenous peoples of Venezuela has in recent years enjoyed great advances, there is still much to be done. As a result, greater communication and collaboration amongst varying ethnicities has grown in order to solidify a movement which seeks greater legislative recognition. The march in Caracas is a sign of the growing indigenous activism which is coming to characterise Venezuelan politics today.

The cacique Sabino Romero of the Yukpa Community, the indigenous people of the Perijá region to the west of the country, was, according to his people, unjustly imprisoned after five people were killed in a shooting between two Yukpa families. The incident is consequent of the age-old conflict that exists between the local indigenous people and the Creole (non-indigenous) cattle owners who now control the area. As is the case with most indigenous areas that are still not clearly demarcated and protected under constitutional law, competing parties seek to control land where economic gain can be made. In the case of the Yukpa, their ancestral territory is also of interest to the wealthy land and cattle owners. According to them, their people have been divided in order to cater to the Creole businesses and rivalry and economic competition now mark indigenous relations. The recent shootings indicate just how desperate the situation has become.

The march in Caracas hopes to be of influence in the liberation of Sabino Romero. The Yukpa want him released and returned to the community where he will be judged according to indigenous law and not kept in a Creole prison. The argument is that had the constitution been properly abided to and had indigenous territory been clearly outlined this situation would never have happened. In effect, indigenous rights now universally recognised under the UN charter as well as more concretely realised in the constitutions of Brazil, Bolivia and Colombia, state that the indigenous peoples should be allowed to exert their own customs and legislative systems in parallel to national infrastructures. This means that indigenous matters are dealt with and represented by the indigenous themselves, rather than being lost and misrepresented in a state that is culturally different. The true success in implementing such rights, known sometimes as collective rights rather than universal ones, lies in the recognition of indigenous territory, the physical expanse within which parallel systems may be allowed to operate. In some areas, indigenous territory has been demarcated and communities have been allowed to prosper without running into conflicts with local governments and private enterprises. In Venezuela, although the constitution recognizes the separate cultural quality of the indigenous people, and states that their languages, beliefs, customs and habitats are to be respected, the question of land has still yet to be finalised. Sabino Romero was involved in a shooting on traditional indigenous territory. Whether he is at fault or not is not the question. The problem is that he is not being trialled by his own people according to their laws and culture. Although he is a recognised indigenous leader and a representative of indigenous culture, without the equal recognition of his land his rights are non-existent. As one protester at the march declared, “Without his land, the Indian is no more”.

Land, whether indigenous or not, is always under debate. Who gets what and how much has been the concern that has drawn, often through bloodshed, the national frontiers of not only Latin America, but also of Africa, Asia, and parts of Europe too. Indigenous peoples have often been at the heart of such conflicts, usually because they live in areas rich in resources, from gold to diamonds to oil. Nation states and multinationals from across the world have taken advantage of resources since colonisation began. The gold in Colombia to build the Spanish empire and the rubber from the rubber trees in the Amazon to equip the soldiers of the Second World War are just two examples amongst an infinite list. Today, little has changed. In Venezuela, indigenous communities inhabit areas where seemingly ever-extending amounts of oil and uranium are to be found under the soil. In the Venezuelan Amazon, the government, French and Canadian petrol companies, a North American branch of the Catholic Church, called Nuevos Tribus (New Tribes) and many more are all at play when it comes to winning over the trust of local indigenous communities in order to access their land. Demarcating territory is thus a battle against a multi-faceted enemy. Santiago Arconadas, activist, collaborator with the TAUCA University and a strong presence at the march in Caracas tackles this problem. “Must we now put a crystal sphere around these people and protect and isolate them from the West, from its economical influence, business and commerce? You know just as well as I do that we could get together a march today of indigenous miners and workers marching in the name of employment and other opportunities generated by this influence. In fact, there is such a movement being organised for this reason as we speak. What I say to them is this: Only when there is recognition of the existence of these [indigenous] cultures that the processes of interaction with the western world won’t be dictated on the basis of submission, but on the basis of autonomy. Collaboration can exist from one autonomy to another. It is not about not being part of Venezuela but an exercise in recognition, both on behalf of the State and the Venezuelan people. We must understand together what has happened historically to these people and understand that we are all involved. Of course we cannot recuperate the lives that were lost but we can get together and be reintegrated politically.”

Indeed, the feeling on the march is very much that the matters at heart are of importance to all. Indigenous or not, land needs to be discussed, as much culturally as politically. Yukpa or not, the case of Sabino Romero is relevant to thousands of people across the country in a collective struggle for land. Freeing Sabino would mean recognising the due rights of all indigenous people. On the 8th of November, “Sabino, we are all!” were the ubiquitous words that echoed all the way down the avenue up to Miraflores’ front gate, words that have now come to defend not only the liberation of one man, but the call of an entire movement.

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