Venezuela’s indigenous ministry marks anniversary, but few are celebrating

Homeless Wayuu women and their children on the streets of Maracaibo, Venezuela in 2012. (Credit: Wilfredorrh/Flickr)

Yesterday marked 10 years since the creation of Venezuela’s Ministry of Popular Power for Indigenous Peoples, and while the government celebrates its achievements in indigenous rights and equality, many activists feel there is much left to desire.

The ministry is observing its anniversary by promoting its policies for the social protection and welfare of the more than 40 indigenous communities of Venezuela, according to national news agency AVN.

Aloha Núñez, who was appointed minister of indigenous peoples in October 2016, reflected on the ministry’s most notable achievements since its creation 10 years ago.

“It is a very beautiful and rewarding experience as a human being to take the reins of this Indigenous Ministry that keeps its doors open to welcome those families who for years were forgotten and had nowhere to turn to in times of need,” said 33-year-old Núñez, a member of Venezuela’s largest indigenous group, Wayuu, according to Venezuela’s official government-run broadcaster RNW. “There have been years full of challenges, struggle, difficulties, victories and ample learning in each community visited.”

The minister also assured that she will continue working closely with President Nicolás Maduro, who she said “has given us a vote of confidence by allowing us to be part of his great projects for the country.”

According to RNW, the ministry has funded the construction of 4,705 homes, six sanitation and shamanic training centers, granted 102 collective titles of habitat and land and opened three production and training units. 1,333 communities have benefited from socio-productive projects, the broadcaster said, funded by more than 1 million public donations.

Indigenous activists have celebrated numerous laws over the years that aimed to recognize indigenous rights in the constitution. Among the most recent of these were the Law on Cultural Heritage of Indigenous Peoples and Communities (2009), the Law on Indigenous Artisans (2009), and the country’s vote in favor of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.

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Some academics have even lauded Venezuela for reshaping its image from being one of the most backwards countries in terms of indigenous rights to one of the most progressive.

But indigenous activists today see the country’s progress from a very different lens. Maduro has consistently denied the severity of the ever-worsening economic crisis, which critics say has obstructed any sound policies to care for the country’s 30 million people – much less the marginalized 2.8 percent who self-identify as indigenous.

In 2015 the Working Group of Indigenous Affairs (GTAI) at the University of the Andes issued a statement regarding the so-called silent genocide of Venezuela’s indigenous.

Today, the situation of the indigenous peoples and communities of our country is extremely precarious: their territories are fragmented for lack of legal demarcation; their lands are threatened by the presence of illegal mining and irregular [armed]groups,” the statement read, adding that poverty rates among the country’s indigenous were on the rise. Considering the current crisis, a rise in indigenous poverty is likely, though lack of government transparency has made national statistics difficult to obtain.

Another complaint from activists is worsening access to even basic health services. The government implemented a series of projects to ensure indigenous access to culturally appropriate health services since the creation of the Department for Indigenous Health in 2006, but according to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), there has been a recent decline in the quality of this work “due to constant changes of minister and gradual budget reductions, all of which has resulted in institutional weakness.”

Just last year, several media outlets reported ‘grave’ health-care conditions among Venezuela’s Warao people in the state of Delta Amacuro, where medical equipment is scarce or damaged and doctors attend emergencies by candlelight.

IWGIA also noted that indigenous access to health services, in particular, has suffered amid the economic crisis and consequent shortages of medicines, with many products difficult to obtain even for the country’s wealthy.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau or email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org.