Cowboys and Indians of the Bolivarian Revolution

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.

September 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. The reason? A conflict over who has legal rights to these ancestral indigenous lands.

Protestors' banner at roadblock denounces soldiers who use weapons against civilians.

“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.”

Local women celebrate holding newspaper with Chávez's announcement of support.

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 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 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.”

Sabino Romero (left) leads the group of Yukpa trying to get their lands back.

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.

Simón Farabundo Ríos, a NACLA Research Associate, is currently writing a novel about his travels through Latin America. All photos courtesy National Association of Free and Alternative Community Media (ANMCLA), except photo of Sabino Romero courtesy Homo et Natura.

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