Venezuela: The revolution and indigenous people

February 28, 2009

Most media commentary, for and against the process of change and deep-going transformation that the government of President Hugo Chavez is leading, focuses on Venezuela's cities.

However, a fuller picture of the Venezuelan reality goes someway to explaining the depth of Chavez's support.

Take San Martin de Turumbang, a small indigenous community of several hundred families on the riverbank of Venezuela's border with Guyana — and four hours mostly by 4-wheel drive from the nearest city.

San Martin has a health clinic, a school and a spattering of small general stores serving the population which is composed of various indigenous groups with distinct cultures, languages and traditions.

Unlike remote indigenous communities in many other countries, there is full employment in the area — mainly in mining.

I accompanied members of the Venezuelan Indigenous Parliament on a visit to San Martin in December to find out what the people here want and need, because although the Chavez government has made available considerable funds for community development projects, no applications had been received from this area.

Our visit coincided with that of several teams of health workers and government officials on one of their regular visits. Their quarterly trips ensure the provision of higher-level health care than ordinarily available at the one-doctor clinic.

The army was also on hand, providing a dentist as well as transport, as people from the neighbouring jungle communities often face a three or four day walk, or must travel long distances by boat, to reach San Martin.

The army's assistance enables people from these far-flung communities to both participate in community meetings and avail themselves of otherwise inaccessible services.

During the two days of activities, more than 200 medical consultations and more than 100 dental treatments were performed, as well as scores of registrations.

Not everyone went away happy — the history of the area means that establishing citizenship can be very complicated.

One community member, Lesley Brown, told me how he was actually born in Guyana but as a young man he, along with many other young indigenous men, was offered free land by the Guyana government in what is now called the "reclamation zone".

It was an unashamed land-grab of Venezuelan land. Worse still was the fact that the Guyana government then armed many of these men to defend themselves against the true owners of the land, also indigenous, who were trying to prevent the theft — causing violence.

Brown survived the conflict and now has Venezuelan citizenship, having lived and worked in the zone for 30 years. However, others have yet to provide sufficient evidence to receive Venezuelan citizenship.

Distance from cities and limited transport means the lack of identity documentation is widespread and determining citizenship is extremely difficult. Nonetheless, the government is seeking to address the problem through one of its less-well-known programs — one that is much needed and highly appreciated.

Over the many hours of meetings, that went on into the night, the communities raised several important issues with the mayor and the indigenous parliamentarians, such as the need for an inpatient service at the health clinic.

They also want to do something to address the fact that, although there is virtually full employment, their nutritional status is poor.

One complex problem raised was the environmental effects of mining, from which most people earn their living but which is polluting the water, the fish and, according to some, the people.

While communities had many ideas about how to address these problems, they informed the parliamentarians that they have not applied for funding for projects because they lack the skills, knowledge and experience to develop and manage the sorts of necessary community projects. The communities identified this as their major obstacle.

The communities and parliamentarians agreed to a further to nut out a program of action to resolve the problem.

This is a classic example of the type of participatory democracy that is being promoted across Venezuela, whereby communities themselves take control of their lives. The government assists by providing resources, money and skills.

This approach stands in stark contrast to the approach of pre-Chavez governments that resulted in the marginalisation of indigenous peoples and their impoverishment.

No wonder the indigenous people, and those in Venezuela's rural and remote areas, support the Chavez government and the Venezuelan revolution so strongly.

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