July 11, 2007

Chavez champions Natives

How Chavez Changed Life in the Tribal TerritoriesProud of his Pumé grandmother, he set himself up as champion of the indigenous peoples. While still a candidate he promised to "repay this historic debt" owed by the state and carried it through when he set up the new Bolivarian constituent assembly in 1999. Some tribes, such as the Wayuú, are well assimilated in urban areas; others such as the Yanomani live in the Amazonian jungle and have little contact with the outside world. But the indigenous tribes are relatively young, isolated from the rest of society and divided politically, especially the Wayuú in Maracaibo who support more traditional political parties, such as Democratic Action.

In Ecuador or Bolivia, strong indigenous movements regularly shake up politics. Not in Venezuela where, according to the sociologist and anthropologist Daniel Castro: "The political space was opened up by the Creoles, not by pressure from the indigenous population. Nevertheless the attempt by Chávez to rebuild the country has rekindled old expectations about recovering land and defending a way of life." Chávez invited the indigenous peoples to take part in drawing up the constitution and in July 1999 the 600 delegates of the National Council of Venezuelan Indians (Conive) elected three representatives to the National Assembly. Along with 128 Creole delegates, they presented proposals drawn up by their rank and file. Then they had to get them passed.

There was bound to be resistance, amplified by the media, from companies exploiting natural resources: the opposition. On the Chávez side, the Security and Defence Commission (former army officers) denounced a possible infringement of national sovereignty and a blow to national integrity. The argument lasted until 3 November 1999 when the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples were passed. These were the basis for chapter 8 of the constitution, ratified by 71% of Venezuelans (with a 60% participation rate) in a referendum. It is the most progressive constitution for indigenous rights on the American continent. What used to be, at best, a paternalistic attitude has been replaced by a policy of recognition and participation (see `New rights').

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