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RIGHTS-VENEZUELA: Indigenous Conquest in Jeopardy

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Jun 4 1999 (IPS) - A recent historic victory by Venezuela’s indigenous peoples, the direct selection of three representatives to sit on a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution, is in jeopardy of being distorted by “maneuvres by the ‘white man’,” activists warned this week.

The three delegates of Venezuela’s 28 indigenous groups were chosen in an extraordinary assembly in late March “in accordance with their usage and customs,” as initially established by the rules governing the election of delegates to the Constituent Assembly, to be installed in August.

But in April, the National Electoral Council (CNE) modified the rules, stipulating that it was to regulate the selection of delegates. The CNE has not yet approved the decisions adopted by the late March congress, in which 330 delegates from 60 indigenous organisations participated.

“We are asking that our accords be respected,” Jose Poyo, chairman of the National Indigenous Council of Venezuela (Conive), told IPS. “We feel defenceless and caught up in uncertainty.”

Conive, which coordinated the process for the selection of indigenous representatives, was created two decades ago as the umbrella group linking Venezuela’s indigenous associations.

Poyo is one of the seven indigenous leaders hoping to be elected Jul 25 to one of the remaining 128 seats on the Constituent Assembly, since he was not chosen by the congress as one of the three direct representatives.

One of the selected delegates, Noeli Pocaterra, described the situation as “a lack of respect by the CNE, because it was informed that the congress would be held, was invited to participate, and could have said ‘stop the process’.”

Pocaterra belongs to the Wuayuu ethnic group which accounts for 53 percent of the country’s nearly 400,000 native inhabitants (of a total population of 23 million). The Wuayuu inhabit the northwestern oil-rich state of Zulia, as well as the Guajira region shared by Colombia and Venezuela.

The other two representatives chosen were Guillermo Guevara, a member of the Karina ethnic group and the coordinator of the indigenous organisations of the Amazonas region in southern Venezuela, and Jose Luis Gonzalez, a Pemon leader from the Gran Sabana region in the east.

The three are well-known activists in the indigenous struggle, with great clout in their regions as well as influence at an international level. Pocaterra is vice-president of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, and Guevara is vice-president of the regional Indigenous Council of the Amazon Basin.

“The aim is for the selection to be according to the usage and customs of the CNE, not of our peoples,” maintained Gonzalez, who formed part of a delegation of indigenous people from throughout the country who came to Caracas to meet with the electoral authorities and demand that they approve the decisions of the congress.

Guevara explained by telephone from the state of Amazonas, 1,000 kms south of Caracas, that “we felt that these three posts indicated the existence, for the first time, of an interest in settling a debt to our peoples, in terms of participation.

“But ‘the white man’ wants to disregard the decision. The (political) parties and other interests want to impose figures who have been ‘criollizado’ (coopted by ‘white’ society) and serve their game,” said the Karina leader.

A new election of indigenous representatives “would play into the interests of a few indigenous and supposedly pro-Indian figures linked to the most corrupt sectors of the AD and Copei,” stated a document in which Conive, dozens of other organisations and indigenous chiefs demanded that the CNE respect their rights.

AD (Democratic Action) and Copei are the two parties that maintained hegemonic power for 41 years, until they were swept aside by President Hugo Chavez, a 44-year-old retired lieutenant- colonel who remains hugely popular.

A Constituent Assembly to politically redesign the country was the main platform of Chavez’s campaign in the elections that brought him to power on Feb 2. Since he became a candidate, he has promised indigenous groups that they would enjoy special representation – unprecedented in Venezuela.

The constitution of 1961 – to be rewritten during the Constituent Assembly’s 180 days of functions – established a regime of exceptions and other mechanisms to protect indigenous rights. Nevertheless, indigenous rights continue to be ignored and disrespected.

Chavez’s plan to grant special representation to indigenous people was widely supported in the consultations he carried out in order to fix the rules governing the election of delegates to the Constituent Assembly, which were approved by more than 80 percent of voters in an Apr 25 referendum.

The indigenous peoples had begun their own constituent process since the triumph of Chavez, who was elected with the fervent support of the dispossessed, thanks to a nationalist discourse with a profound social content, at the head of an alliance of nearly the entire left, as well as former coup makers.

Shortly before the referendum, the Supreme Court ordered the CNE to review the rules proposed by the president, due to legal action seeking to restrict the powers of the Constituent Assembly. But few noticed that the modifications included changes in the clause specifically referring to indigenous peoples.

Initially, 103 members of the Constituent Assembly were to be elected, three of which were to be indigenous people. But the CNE expanded that number to 131, without increasing the number of indigenous representatives.

The initial rules indicated that in view of Venezuela’s regime of exceptions and the international treaties signed by the country, indigenous groups would have three delegates, “chosen in accordance with their usage, customs and ancestral practices.”‘

But the new rules specified that the three indigenous delegates would be “elected in accordance with the provisions” issued by the CNE, “taking into account their customs and practices.”

“When the CNE modified the norm, it knew that we had already completed our selection process,” said Pocaterra from the city of Maracaibo, 800 kms west of Caracas.

The indigenous leaders pointed out that not only had the CNE been invited to the three-day congress, but a delegate of the electoral council of the region where the meeting was held had in fact participated.

They also explained that great organisational efforts and expenses had gone into the congress, and that it was not easy to bring the delegates to the southwestern ancestral indigenous lands of the Gran Sabana. While several were able to hitch rides in some airplane or another, others walked for days to reach the late March gathering.

“So much effort cannot just be wasted,” commented Yekuana delegate and Conive leader Jose Estaba. “It was a beautiful experience that marked a watershed in our history, and we will not accept that it be disregarded because of political intrigues.”

Pocaterra said it took long days and nights of discussions, in accordance with indigenous oral traditions, to decide how the three delegates were to be chosen, in order that they represent the three overlying regions of indigenous groups, and to guarantee that minorities and the plurality of cultures be taken into account.

Given the size of their community, some Wuayuu leaders argued that their ethnic group should have two delegates. But Pocaterra said she did not agree, because “that would do to the minorities what we are asking ‘criollo’ (white) society not to do to us.”

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