Dancing Against Disease and Evil Spirits

The Wayuu know how to survive in harsh environments. They now must endure coronavirus and demons in green fatigues

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

On April 5th, we saw a sun halo in the Venezuelan sky. The images went viral thanks to dozens of citizens, journalists, and media outlets that shared pictures. Some saw it as, “the universe showing off” or “an Easter blessing.” 

For Glenyis Sencial, a Wayuu woman from the Guajira peninsula, that halo in the sky represented something completely different: “our ancestors are reminding us that we should keep dancing to avoid disease. That we have to play our drums, dance in the morning and at noon. That girls must wear their red robes and men their traditional garments.”

The Wayuu, an indigenous group spread through the Colombian and Venezuelan northernmost tip, believe there’s a spiritual world besides the material one where we live, and that disease is a product of evil spirits who escape their realm to attack us. Glenyis is a single mom who moved to Maracaibo, the capital of Zulia State, a couple of years ago because of the terrible utilities in her former home; a desert with almost no power, gas or food, further pummeled by the country’s economic and humanitarian collapse and the current fuel scarcity.

According to the regime, COVID-19 arrived in Venezuela on March 13th, but no cases have been reported in the Venezuelan Guajira so far. Amid the pandemic, however, the inhabitants of this municipality must face another enemy: the military. 

The Wayuu call National Guard officers guchís, which translates to evil animals who dress in olive green. This aversion toward them isn’t new. 

Ever since Marcos Pérez Jiménez’s dictatorship (1948-1958), there’s been human rights violations by state security forces against members of these native communities. As if we were talking about a medieval story, for years military officers took Wayuu women and girls by force, raping them or making them their wives. Many men were murdered defending their partners, daughters, and nieces. 

Amid the pandemic, however, the inhabitants of this municipality must face another enemy: the military. 

When Glenyis was a young girl, her grandmother took her to the Las Pulgas popular market, in Maracaibo, to sell soap and cigarettes. As this type of trade was illegal, they had to keep the items inside their robes, but they were mistreated many times at the Limón River by guards, who would hose them to the ground after frisking them.

Amid the coronavirus crisis, several protests for food or water shortages have been reported in the area. Demonstrators say they’d rather die from coronavirus than from hunger, and lockdown means they can’t make money to survive. 

The response was, from the very beginning, overwhelming force. On April 12th, a video of a woman with blood running down her face made it to social media. She was a Wayuu teacher in the village of Guarero who was protesting in front of the National Guard’s local post, demanding that the road be opened so they could buy food and asking for the reestablishment of water supply, which had been interrupted months ago. 

According to Guajira’s Human Rights Committee general director, José David González, the attack happened around 10:00 a.m. and the woman was shot with rubber bullets on her left cheek. 

One day later, mayor Indira Fernández was handing out bags of food that only contained pasta, rice, sugar, and lentils, to people whose names were in the state-controlled Mercal list, which hasn’t been modified in the last seven years and doesn’t include all communities. 

The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights rejected the excessive use of force and exhorted Venezuelan authorities to conduct a serious, impartial and effective investigation. They also demanded respect for Wayuu cultural identity and traditions. For 20 years, all the demands of the IACHR have been ignored by the chavista government.  

“In that protest, there were even children with signs saying that they were going to die of ‘corona-hunger.’ The food and water problem has always been serious here, but now, with this state of alarm, it all got worse,” said González. 

With all this happening, the Wayuu still believe that their ancestors, present through an atmospheric anomaly, will help them endure this new threat, as they have for centuries. 

Will the spirits be strong enough to save them from coronavirus? And from chavismo?