Photo: Diario La Nación, retrieved.
On February 22nd and 23rd, in and near the Venezuelan small city of Santa Elena de Uairen, near the border with Brazil, a red string of violent events stretched along days one and two of the attempt to bring international humanitarian aid into Venezuela, besides the hours of military and paramilitary repression in Ureña and San Antonio del Tachira, several hundred kilometers to the West, on the border with Colombia.
This started in the early hours of February 22nd, at the indigenous Pemon community of San Francisco de Yuruari, when a group of Pemones tried to stop a military convoy sent to block the access of the humanitarian cargo from Brazil. The soldiers, GNB and Army, opened fire against the demonstrators, and a bullet killed a woman who was at that time making breakfast for her family.
The Pemon native security managed to take four prisoners, all of them officers, including a GNB general, José Montoya. Just after, the violence moved to Santa Elena de Uairen, a very well known base for those who have traveled through the magnificent Gran Sabana. There, some men started a protest that rapidly became violent, and for several hours a combination of National Guards, police and colectivos restored the order with considerable force. On media and social networks, different versions of the gravity of the situation offered a death toll that went from 3 fatal victims (confirmed by serious human rights organizations like PROVEA and Foro Penal) to 14, as former governor Andrés Velásquez (an indigenous himself, from the K’ariña nation) said.
There’s a lot of missing people. We don’t know who’s alive, who’s arrested, who’s dead.
It’s not easy to establish the truth in a context of lethal violence during an uprising in a sparsely populated region, such as the Guayana massif between the Venezuelan state of Bolivar and the Brazilian state of Roraima. “How many dead are there?” we ask our anonymous source in the region. A brief sigh follows. “It’s hard to tell,” he says. “There’s been no more wounded because after they occupied the Pemon village of Kumaracapay, everyone fled and people are now either at their homes or away from the town”.
On February, 24th, Emilio González, the mayor of that remote part of Venezuela, who crossed the border to avoid being detained, spoke to Brazilian press. “Chavismo has had its eye on him for a very long time. He’s the only opposition figure of the locality,” explains our source. González said in Brazil that 25 people were killed in Santa Elena de Uairen by the regime’s forces. “It might be true,” says our source. Might be. “Because there’s a lot of missing people. We don’t know who’s alive, who’s arrested, who’s dead, because of those hurt, some are taken by the soldiers themselves. Some never reach hospitals and those who do, are spread on both sides of the border. The wounded are taken to Boa Vista, and we don’t know what figures they have.”
The rage of the people of the origins
In Venezuela, the indigenous communities, which today sum around 300,000 people or 1% of the population, have been always among the most vulnerable of all. Ignored, discriminated, isolated, they are exposed to racism, abuses and diseases in a general state of centuries-long poverty.
Since his first years in power, Chávez embraced the discourse of indigenous vindication that has been part of the Latin American left for a long time. During his first administration and after the 1999 Constitution, promising steps were taken regarding land rights, autonomy measures in ancestral territories, and political empowerment of indigenous leaders.
That is true. It’s also true that chavismo embedded the issue of habitantes originarios, the “people of the origins”, into the propaganda apparatus and created soon a polarized logic: indigenous leaders were good to Chávez as long as they were loyal to him. That is why, as we can see right now among the Pemon people around Santa Elena de Uairén, there are indigenous leaders and communities that express loyalty to the regime and are rewarded for that, and indigenous leaders and communities that are not, and therefore are punished or simply ignored.
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At Sierra de Perija, in the border with Colombia, the Bari, Yukpa, and Wayuu (to which model and actress Patricia Velasquez is related) have been facing the effects of the Colombian conflict and the illegal activities in that difficult border, such as contraband, and drug trafficking. In the Venezuelan Amazon, the Yanomami and the Ye’kuana have been for decades the subjects of ethnic cleanses, slavery and displacement under the rule of illegal gold miners, who have allies among the Venezuelan military. In the Orinoco Delta, the Warao, with a disproportionate rate of AIDS, have been forced to take refuge in Brazil to escape starvation.
In Pemon lands, all of these old problems are part of everyone’s experience. Divided by their relationship with the regime and gold mining, but exposed to the hardships of isolation and increased poverty, the Pemon offer a microcosmos of the struggle around humanitarian aid: some of them support Maduro and fight to keep the cargo out, while the rest struggle to open the border, and are severely punished for that.
Our source in the Pemon community is desperate for the world to hear him out. “There’s a list of people arrested, but I don’t know about that,” he says. “It’s a list handled by the military, and I believe it’s filtered by them too. You know there’s been arrests, because witnesses at the place tell you, ‘I was with so-and-so, and the National Guard came and arrested him,’ but I can give you a figure or confirmed names.”
Kumaracapay is not militarized, but the locals know the regime brought 80 buses full of armed people, so nobody’s going out. “This is a ghost town today, and let me be frank with you,” says our man, “We feel abandoned. We feel isolated. Everyone was supporting us until this attack began and now we’re alone and we’re cut off from the rest of the country. How are we supposed to defend ourselves if those attacking are our supposed protectors?”
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