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VENEZUELA: Wretchedly Poor on the Banks of Lake Maracaibo

Humberto Márquez

CONGO MIRADOR, Venezuela, Nov 22 2007 (IPS) - “My father was a fisherman, and so was my grandfather. I fished for as long as I could. We live here because it is very beautiful, but we suffer great hardship,” said 72-year-old Antonio Navarro, sitting in his six-by-eight-metre house on stilts in the Venezuelan village of Congo Mirador.

Canoes are the local means of transportion in Congo Mirador. Credit: Arnaldo Utrera

Canoes are the local means of transportion in Congo Mirador. Credit: Arnaldo Utrera

Most of the 120 dwellings in Congo Mirador are tin shacks with rough board floors, built on stilts a few hundred metres from the southern edge of Lake Maracaibo in northwestern Venezuela. Some consist of just one room, which is shared by entire families as well as their domestic animals.

“Many of us would like a little assistance from the government, but it has never arrived,” Navarro told IPS. “We have a school, a church (also built on stilts), and sometimes a doctor comes. We also have a Mercal (the government stores that provide heavily subsidised food and other products).”

“There’s nothing for an old man like me to do, but this is my life, and I’m not leaving here,” he said.

Congo Mirador can be reached by boat from Puerto Concha, at the end of the highway southeast of Lake Maracaibo. It is a two hour journey if the weather is good, or else a four hour journey from Santa Bárbara, the municipal capital on the Catatumbo river, which rises in Colombia and provides most of the 12,000-square-kilometre lake’s fresh water.

The area is lit up, on an average of 150 days a year, by the Catatumbo lightning, the world’s largest cloud-to-cloud electric storm, producing 1.6 million flashes a year. Discharging currents of between 100,000 and 300,000 amps, each one would be capable of lighting all the light bulbs in South America, environmentalist Eric Quiroga told IPS.

The phenomenon is a beautiful sight, and it is also regarded as a major regenerator of the stratospheric ozone layer, which protects living creatures on earth by filtering out harmful ultraviolet rays in sunlight, which cause skin cancer in humans, for example.

“Tourists come to see the lightning, especially Europeans and gringos, but all they do is show up, take photos, and leave. They don’t spend any money here,” complained Ana Villasmil, a mother and grandmother, outside the small “Bolivarian” school.

Simón Bolívar led the independence campaign against Spain in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. He ruled this coalition of nations, “Greater Colombia”, variously as liberator, president and dictator (1813-1830) and dreamed of South American unity.

“Bolivarian” is a term applied by the administration of President Hugo Chávez to the country (the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela), to its political process (the Bolivarian Revolution) and to its wide range of social programmes.

A Bolivarian school is supposed to have a lunchroom, proper classrooms and a library. But this school is a two-roomed palafito (hut built on stilts), with 71 pupils. Primary education grades one to six are taught concurrently. Guided recreation is a rarity, like the day of games and educational tasks given by artists and promoters from Caracas museums on a visit in early November.

Their teacher, Francisca Hernández, is also the school principal, administrator, and physical education instructor. She often teaches classes only from Monday to Wednesday, if the weather is bad or she has to attend her own studies in Santa Barbara on Thursdays and Fridays.

“Children here often get diarrhoea, and when a woman goes into labour she is usually looked after by a relative, or she goes to stay with family members in Santa Bárbara. Occasionally, doctors from Barrio Adentro (a government health programme started by Chávez in 2003) have showed up, but they don’t make regular visits,” Villasmil told IPS.

Women and girls move from house to house in canoes, and the smallest children improvise boats out of, for example, a plastic fuel drum cut in half, paddling with their arms. Most people are short and white, although deeply tanned by the sun, with dry skin because they drink very little water.

This village is like a microcosm of the mixture of peoples in Venezuela. The palafitos they live in are much the same as the huts of indigenous people at the time of the Spanish conquest, the place names (Congo, and Ologá, a nearby village) echo the African people brought here as slaves centuries ago, local residents are predominantly white, and many of them have blond hair.

Villasmil spoke up again: “Young people most of all, but also some older people would like to study, but there’s nowhere to go. Here, when young people finish sixth grade, the boys go fishing and the girls have children.”

José del Carmen Guerrero, 79, a community activist and the oldest person in Congo Mirador, deplores the scarce local presence of the “missions”, the government financed programmes of education, health, nutrition, benefits for the extremely poor, scholarships and job training.

“President Chávez said that the missions would reach every corner of the country, but in this corner where we live they fail to appear, and low-ranking officials put too many obstacles in the way of our petitions,” Guerrero told IPS.

He said they have been offered better housing, “now that the climate changes on the lake are creating ‘mangueras’ (whirlwinds like miniature tornadoes), but so far they’ve only been empty promises.”

“We can’t survive without gasoline. These are palafitos, you can’t get around except by boat. But we have to make a return journey of seven hours by boat, nearly as far as Santa Bárbara, to get gasoline, sometimes defying bad weather and danger and insecurity at night-time,” Guerrero said.

The state oil company, PDVSA, “made us go through endless bureaucratic procedures, and in the end they refused to give us a gasoline station that would serve both Congo Mirador and Ologá,” said the elderly fisherman.

Ologá is not even a town, but rather a handful of houses inhabited by 270 people on a small headland on the lake, 20 minutes by boat from Congo Mirador. “We all earn our living by fishing, there are no other occupations,” José Hernández told IPS as he readied his gear.

“We all go hungry in the months when the catch is low, and we receive very little official assistance. Sometimes we get help from the governor (former opposition presidential candidate Manuel Rosales), but not from the national government,” said Alexis Vega, who is proud of his role as sports promoter in Ologá.

In the church, which consists of three walls of tin sheeting, with a thatch roof and a cane cross, two football trophies won by his teams in a local tournament are on display next to an image of the Virgin of Carmen, the patron saint of fisherfolk and sailors.

Vega reels off a long list of needs: “We don’t have electric light (a small generator which runs on gasoline powers a handful of light bulbs for a few hours every night), nor drinking water. We cook and bathe in rainwater. We don’t have a health post, a proper church or an adequate food supply.”

At the small store that sells a few food items like flour, salt, grains, personal hygiene and cleaning items, Evelyn Hernández, a recent arrival from Maracaibo, the regional capital, treats this correspondent to a cup of coffee. “The thing is, we haven’t got ourselves organised; there’s no one to take it on. A place to welcome tourists could be made, then we’d get some income,” she said.

These hamlets are ideal spots for viewing the impressive lightning of Catatumbo, flashing in the clouds above the palafitos, but there is nowhere for visitors to stay. They spend a night in a hammock with little protection from the elements, or on the porch of a small community hall in Congo Mirador.

Furthermore, “the ‘missions’ aren’t active here. Doctors have visited a few times, but there is no permanent healthcare. For everything else we have to rely on our boats. There’s no funding for anything, either, we’re treated as if we didn’t exist,” Hernández complained.

Community activist Guerrero said “we could organise local councils, but I wonder if the government would work with an opposition council? Most people around here support the social-democrat opposition Democratic Action party.”

Sports promoter Vega said “we are descended from the fisherfolk who arrived here some 200 years ago. We are, if you like, the guardians of that lightning, which we know produces ozone, and ozone protects life. We deserve better living conditions; we have the same rights as other Venezuelans.”

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