pro-Chavez demonstration

Noeli Pocaterra Chavista Guillermo Guevara

Venezuela: the Referendum and Indigenous People

Nilo Cayuqueo

On Sunday, August 15, Venezuela will launch a referendum to determine who will govern this country of 23 million located on the Caribbean coast of South America.

The vote will be simple: Yes or No. A yes vote signifies that the current president’s mandate will be terminated. A no vote allows him to continue until the end of his term in 2006.


Although an accurate census has never been taken, indigenous people in Venezuela are believed to number from 600,000-700,000. They are divided into 32 distinct peoples.

This referendum will be like none other to the indigenous people of Venezuela.  Indigenous representatives have participated in the Chavez government from its inception. In the few short years with Chavez as president, the indigenous people of Venezuela have gained more rights than over the previous centuries.

General elections held in 1998 brought three indigenous representatives to Venezuela’s Congress: Guillermo Guevara, a Yeckuana, Jose Luis Gonzales, a Pemon (both from the Amazon region), and Noeli Pocaterra, a Wayu from the state of Zulia on the Caribbean coast. Pocaterra was subsequently elected vice president of Congress, a position she holds to date.

A new constitution was drawn up by the Venezuelan Congress in 1998 and submitted to the population for approval by plebiscite in December 1999. Indigenous representatives participated in the Constituent Assembly, cooperating in the formulation of the constitution via their umbrella organization, the Venezuelan National Indian Council (CONIVE), established in 1989. CONIVE played an active role in writing the new Constitution.

Chapter VIII of the Constitution dedicates 5 pages to defining indigenous rights.  Portions of the chapter read: the State recognizes the existence of indigenous people in Venezuela prior to the arrival of the Europeans (…) Their ancestors occupied this land for thousands of years, developing political, economic and social structures, as well as different technologies than those known to the Europeans at that time (…)Therefore, as original settlers of this land, the Constitution bestows Venezuela’s indigenous people with inalienable, impescriptible and unembargoeable rights over the lands traditionally occupied by their ancestors.

For the first time in any Constitution of the Americas, reference to the invasion, conquest and colonization of the land by Europeans is explicit: The indigenous people of Venezuela heroically defended their land and lives against invasion, conquest, and European colonization (…)

The new Constitution provides for indigenous representation in Congress. Indigenous communities spanning three Venezuelan states can nominate representatives who are, in turn, elected to regional assemblies.

In the case of indigenous people, Venezuela’s history is no different than that of other countries in the Americas –genocide and oppression paralleled that of other nations. Slavery, exploitation and plunder of traditional lands by large landholders, ranchers, and mining and forestry enterprises in the Amazon, occurred until quite recently.  Religious groups, including the Catholic Church, and to an even greater extent, the fundamentalist New Tribes Sect connected to the Summer Language Institute based in the United States, built feudal centers where indigenous people were enslaved.

Up until five years ago, it was still necessary to seek the permission of New Tribe leaders to visit communities of Panares Indians in Amazonia.

The plunder and invasion of indigenous territories forced many to abandon their land, emigrating to large cities, such as the capital, Caracas, in order to survive.

During previous administrations, many indigenous migrants to Caracas were “deported” –taken back to their place of origin by force.  According to the authorities, indigenous people brought disease to the capital and tainted its image.

Indigenous leaders have many reasons to support the referendum and vote against the removal of President Chavez.  One Conive leader commented that while much has been achieved, there is still much to do.  There are still many people who oppose indigenous rights.  Additionally, not all these rights have been consecrated in the Constitution. Even within the Legislative Congress, opposition groups representing the upper class have ferociously opposed proposals to recognize indigenous rights.  They deny the existence of distinct indigenous populations as  peoples, arguing that the nation’s resources are for all Venezuelans and that it should not be necessary to request permission from the indigenous people to exploit those resources.

Earlier this year, Pedro Carmona Estanga, President of FEDECAMARA, Venezuela’s largest business organization and a prominent leader of the opposition, accused Chavez of trying to divide Venezuelans and create racism by recognizing indigenous rights.  He contended that “all Venezuelans are mestizos (mixed race) and equal.”

In truth, 80% of Venezuela’s population is a dark-skinned mixture of African, Spanish and indigenous roots identified as mestizo and historically disenfranchized.  The vast majority of mestizos support the Chavez government and, if logic prevails, will bring the president to victory during this referendum.

This July, the Continental Summit of Indigenous People and Nationalities of Abya Yala was held in conjunction with the Social Forum of the Americas in Quito. Conive President, Nicia Maldonado, declared to the summit that, “The government has taken on a tough battle against the neoliberal system.  Although the president is not indigenous, we support him because he has given both the indigenous and the non-indigenous people of Venezuela a role as protagonists in the discourse and the building of our nation.”

A government sponsored program promoting the recognition of diversity (Interculturality) has been launched with the collaboration of Venezuela’s indigenous people.   According to Guillermo Guevara, an indigenous representative to Congress, “Dialogue, familiarity and interaction among the diverse cultures of Venezuela is now encouraged via education and cultural exchanges supported by the government.  Connections with indigenous brothers and sisters around the continent, in an effort to exchange experiences and encourage mutual support, are also encouraged by the interculturality initiative.” Guevara concluded that “the referendum this Sunday will determine our future –whether we will live in peace and with dignity.”


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