Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cowboys and Indians of the Bolivarian Revolution

Published on North American Congress on Latin America (
Simón Farabundo Ríos
Sep 15 2008

In the northwestern sierra of Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, a cowboys and Indians saga of the twenty-first century is coming to a head. The conflict pits wealthy cattle ranchers (hacendados) and coal barons against the Yukpa, Barí, and Wayuú indigenous nations in the renegade state of Zulia. Although Chávez has expressed support for the indigenous, other members of his administration have sent mixed signals. Meanwhile, violence continues to escalate as armed vigilantes terrorize the indigenous activists.

In the northwestern sierra of Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, a cowboys and Indians saga of the twenty-first century is coming to a head. The conflict pits wealthy cattle ranchers (hacendados) and coal barons against the Yukpa, Barí, and Wayuú indigenous nations in the renegade state of Zulia. The reason? A conflict over who has legal rights to these ancestral indigenous lands.

“We are the authorities of our communities! Why can’t we get through?” demanded María Fernandez, a Yukpa militant, reacting to a series of security cordons erected by the National Guard near their land.

When Venezuela’s indigenous affairs minister recently suggested the Yukpa relocate further into the Sierra de Perijá, a mountain range stretching from Zulia into Colombia’s Guajira department, and promote tourism, Fernández responded, “They want us to live far into the sierra, where we can’t plant crops. I tell the minister to go and develop tourism in those rocks. Or send the hacendados there.”

Responding to reports that the strife between Yukpa and hacendados was at a boiling point, a humanitarian caravan made up of Venezuelan solidarity activists headed for Chaktapa, one of seven areas Yukpa communities currently under “recuperation”—a term they prefer to “land occupation.” Activists claim it’s the hacendados who are doing the occupying.

The National Guard halted the humanitarian caravan at one of the strategically placed cordons, which they euphemistically call “rings of protection,” blocking badly needed food and medicine from reaching the Yukpa.

By phone from Caracas, a cooperative member of the National Association of Free and Alternative Community Media (ANMCLA), who rode with the caravan and wanted to be identified only as Marcelo, described the scene.

“Fifty people from all over Venezuela—Caracas, Barlovento, Bolívar, Amazonas—went to Chaktapa in two buses, for a cultural interchange between urban and indigenous communities,” said Marcelo. “The Guardia stopped us at a blockade about three kilometers from Chaktapa, saying that to pass we’d need special permission from the general who’d ordered the cordon.”

Yukpa leaders arrive trying to help the caravan get through the check point.
According to the Yukpa in Chaktapa, the local military chiefs are in the pocket of the hacendados. Marcelo echoed this, saying the local National Guard commander General Izquierdo Torres has an “alliance” with the hacendados: “It’s as if the National Guard were private guards in charge of protecting the property of the bosses.”

Half the caravan eventually clashed with the soldiers and broke through the cordon, bringing the supplies to their destination—the other half was caught behind. Marcelo was with the group that reached Chaktapa.

Marcelo continued, “When we returned for the rest of the compañeros, the soldiers were firing shots into the air. There were children crying and women fainting. And when they shot tear gas, we returned to Chaktapa.”

Orlando Medina, of the Maracaibo-based Jeyú Ethno-Ecological Collective, had been in Chaktapa for a month and a half when the caravan arrived. Medina recalls that when he went to help break the cordon, the guardsmen outnumbered the activists by two-to-one. Medina received a blow to the spine from a rifle-butt, and said others were mercilessly beaten by the troops. Four members of the caravan were detained.

Then president Chávez stepped into the fray. “Nobody should have any doubts: Between the hacendados and the Indians, this government is with the Indians,” said Chávez on Aló Presidente, his weekly TV broadcast.

The president added, “These lands were inhabited for many years by the Yukpa, producing livestock, meat, and milk. Then they were evicted. I’m not speaking of the Spanish conquest; I’m speaking of 30 years ago. With brute force they were kicked off their lands, with the support of the police and the armed forces. Now there is a revolution!” Chávez directly addressed the hacendados in his comical way: “Look, compadre, this is Indian land. Take your cows, find four horses, and take them away.”

Two days after the altercation at the checkpoint, Chávez’s Justice and Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín traveled to the Sierra de Perijá. Miraculously, the barricades dissolved, and the impasse was broken. Following the president’s orders, Chacín told the Yukpa and the hacendados that in good time Yukpa territory would be demarcated, the Yukpa would be protected, and the hacendados would be compensated for everything but the land. Chacín complained the conflict had been blown out of proportion: “This is not about all of the seven thousand Yukpa, but of two or three hundred, who are being treated as if they were three or five thousand.”

Chávez’ position is consistent with the constitution, which clearly states: “It shall be the responsibility of the State, with the participation of the indigenous peoples, to demarcate and guarantee the right to collective ownership of indigenous lands, which shall be inalienable … and nontransferable.”

But some observers place at least partial blame on the government. Medina claims the government is dragging its feet in demarcating Yukpa territory and that the recuperations are a response to the inaction of the state.

From the 1930s through the 1970s, the Yukpa were systematically expelled from their land and sent into barren regions of the Sierra de Perijá. “None of this land legally belongs to the hacendados,” Medina said. “There exists not one document to affirm they were lawfully obtained.”

But the battle for the Sierra de Pajirá has only just begun: Yukpa territory rests above an ocean of sought-after minerals, such as coal, phosphate, gold, iron, and bauxite. According to Medina, of the approximately 170,000 acres the Yukpa claim as their own, 70,000 have been conceded to multinational mining interests by the state firm Corpozulia. Although Chávez has publicly sided with local indigenous in voicing opposition to the mining projects, his administration has taken few concrete actions against the mining firms.

An article published by [1] reports that a handful of Yukpa chiefs—who are in turn supported by Minister of Indigenous Affairs Nicia Maldonada—oppose the “occupations.” These five Yukpa leaders, who together form the state-recognized Great Caciques of Zulia, went to Caracas to conduct a full-scale condemnation of the recuperations. “We live in peace and harmony… It is not our custom to invade,” said Cacique María Teresa Yasphe. “We want to resolve this in peace… respecting the White Man’s law, sitting down with caciques, functionaries, estate owners, and the Minister to dialogue.”

A communiqué [2] in solidarity with the recuperations, signed by various civic leaders stated, “In practice, Nicia Maldonada isn’t a minister of popular power, much less of the indigenous peoples, rather, she represents the interests of thieving ranchers.” The manifesto called for the destitution of the minister.

The Ministry of Indigenous Affairs proposes a more conciliatory route, in which the social missions of the state provide literacy, healthcare, nutrition, and other benefits to the Yukpa, while respecting the property rights of the hacendados. But this approach does not conform to that preferred by the Yukpa involved in the recuperations.

“The majority of Yukpa communities are with us,” said Medina. “The ones who are against us are the ones who have left their communities to improve their own quality of life. Now the minister has given them jobs, and they live well.… They don’t care what happens to their people.”

And things seemed to be getting worse. In October 2005, gunmen—presumably hired by hacendados—attacked the Yukpa community of Guaicaipuro, terrorizing local inhabitants, destroying food stocks, and poisoning water. Before they left, the mercenaries burned 56 homes and a schoolhouse. And last July, thugs allegedly hired by the Vargas clan—an hacendado family—killed José Manuel Romero. The elderly Romero was the founder of Chaktapa, which is currently led by his son Sabino.

Sociedad Homo et Natura, a Zulia-based NGO, claims the hacendados have formed “Rancher Self-Defense” paramilitary squads. Lusbi Portillo of the NGO believes the hacendados formed the groups after realizing they could not count on the faithful services of the National Guard and the Army. He adds, “An armed squad of Yukpas was formed with the complicity of some indigenous leaders to secure the ranches and repress further occupations.”

With the upcoming November gubernatorial and municipal elections, the Yukpa land controversy also has important political dimensions. Zulia state is one of the few strongholds of opposition to the Chávez government. The state’s former governor, Manuel Rosales, ran against Chávez in the 2006 elections. The Venezuelan president often compares the opposition in resource-rich Zulia to that of the runaway province of Santa Cruz in Bolivia. In November, Chávez hopes to deal a heavy electoral blow to the opposition on its home turf.

According to the article, “Yukpa leaders say the government quietly placed the controversial land demarcation initiative on the political back burner last year, presumably in order to minimize conflict in the runup to this November’s regional and local elections.” Chávez has called the upcoming elections the most important in “Venezuelan history.”

The government has promised to speed up the land demarcation initiative. The Yukpa and their urban allies remain skeptical, but if they receive the collective titles they demand, then, at least in this case, the Indians will have finally beat the cowboys.

Morales Cites Evidence of US Attempts to Overthrow Bolivian Government

UNITED NATIONS - Bolivian President Evo Morales reiterated the charge Tuesday that the U.S. government was plotting to overthrow his government and that Washington had a hand in the recent episodes of violence in which a number of his supporters were killed and wounded by opposition gangs.

Bolivia President Evo Morales listen during an interview in New York, Wednesday Sept. 24, 2008. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews) "We have the evidence," Morales told a news conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York Tuesday, regarding U.S. involvement with the groups and individuals in certain provinces who are refusing to recognise the authority of the federal government in La Paz and are trying to assert their economic and political dominance over indigenous populations by violent means.

The Bolivian president charged that the George W. Bush administration has not only given away a "tremendous amount of money" to the opposition groups through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), but also provided them with ammunition to carry out acts of sabotage and killings of unarmed indigenous people.

Despite its formal denial of these charges, the U.S. government has not issued any statement condemning the killings, looting and acts of sabotage that have cost millions of dollars in losses.

"They are setting fire to gas pipelines, and the U.S. government does not condemn that?" asked Morales. "Of course, they know they [the opposition groups] are their allies. So why then they would denounce them?"

Last week, Bolivia's right-wing vigilantes launched several attacks on indigenous communities that support the government. They killed about 20 Morales supporters, most of whom were poor farmers.

Soon after the attacks, Morales declared the U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg "persona non grata" and asked him to leave the country within three days. He was accused of aiding the Bolivian opposition groups, a charge the U.S. State Department denied.

Explaining the decision to cut diplomatic ties with Washington, the Bolivian president said that the U.S. ambassador was deeply involved in activities aimed at strengthening the opposition and weakening the government.

"[President] Bush sent me a message [saying] if I am not friend, I am an enemy," said Morales, who added, "I'm a friend of the people of the United States. I am in touch with many groups who believe in social justice."

Addressing the morning session of the General Assembly debate, Bush -- who used the terms "terror" and "terrorism" some 30 times in his 15-minute speech -- did not mention Latin America, where many countries are increasingly challenging Washington's influence in the region.

Venezuela also expelled its U.S. envoy earlier this month, claiming that the U.S. was attempting to depose President Hugo Chavez, leading many critics of the Bush administration to question the direction of U.S. policy in Latin America.

They specifically called for Bush to clarify U.S. activities and funding in Bolivia.

On Sep. 19, 90 leading academics and foreign policy experts signed an open letter expressing their "deep concern" over the opposition-led violence in Bolivia.

The U.S. government needs to "turn a new page" in its relations with Latin America, they said in the letter addressed to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain, as well as other top U.S. officials.

The letter's signers, who represent dozens of leading U.S. academic institutions -- including New York University, the University of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins University -- as well as think tanks, said they were "especially concerned" about the U.S. backing for groups in Bolivia who are using violent means to oppose the popularly elected government.

Morales, the first-ever indigenous president of Bolivia, wants to implement an agenda on economic and social development, which many believe would help improve the lives of indigenous people, who make up the country's majority yet have suffered from extreme poverty for a long time.

During his General Assembly speech, Morales said his people's struggle for "equality and social justice" is meant to retain their dignity. "It's a fight between capitalism and socialism. Capitalism is the worst enemy of humanity," he said.

The letter cites numerous incidents of violence over the past several months organised by the opposition in five of the country's departments (provinces) run by non-native governors who are fiercely opposed to Morales's plan to introduce reforms.

In one incident in May, according to published reports, opposition extremists in Sucre forcibly paraded indigenous mayors and town councillors, partially stripped naked, in front of crowds in the centre of the town.

"They stripped them of clothing, and forced them to chant anti-Morales slogans while berating them with racist taunts," the letter said about the incident, which was strongly condemned by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The opposition-led areas hold a disproportionate share of Bolivia's natural gas resources. Morales's government argues that it has the right to share the profits of those resources among the country's various regions and ethnic groups, while local officials would like to maintain financial control.

The opposition stopped its attacks on farmers after receiving a strong snub from South American leaders who met in Chile last week to discuss the Bolivian situation. In a statement, they deplored the opposition's behaviour and urged talks between the two sides.

Talks began on Sep. 18, but reports from the region suggest the situation remains tense in the opposition-dominated areas.

Since Morales's election in December 2005, Washington has sent millions of dollars in aid to departmental and municipal governments in Bolivia, but some agencies have failed to disclose who they provided money to, and for what purposes. USAID opened an "Office of Transition Initiatives" (OTI) in Bolivia in 2004, which provided some 11 million dollars in funds to "build on its activities designed to enhance the capacity of departmental governments," the letter said.

In its 2006 report, the OTI said it sought to "[build] the capacity of prefect-led departmental governments to help them better respond to the constituencies they govern," and even brought departmental prefects to the United States to meet with state governors.

Signers claim that some of the same provincial governments later launched organised campaigns to push for "autonomy" and to oppose through violent and undemocratic means the Morales government and its political platform.

According to OTI, it ceased its operations in Bolivia about a year ago. However, some of its activities were then taken up by USAID, which refuses to disclose some of the recipients and programmes that benefited from the 89 million dollars the agency spent in Bolivia last year. This is a significant amount relative to the size of Bolivia's economy, say the Latin America experts, noting that in the U.S. economy it would be equivalent to about 100 billion dollars.

"U.S. taxpayers, as well as the Bolivian government and people, have a right to know what U.S. funds are supporting in Bolivia," they said in the letter.

Morales won renewed nationwide support earlier this year through an Aug. 10 referendum where more than 67 percent of the nation's people supported the continuation of his term in office.

At the news conference, Morales thanked the regional alliance of South American countries UNASUR for exerting pressure on extremist groups in Bolivia to stop the killings and violence. "It shows that in Latin America, the U.S. policy has been defeated," he said.

Columbus Day Actions -October 11,2008

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