Indigenous Rights in Venezuela: Unfulfilled Promises, Trampled Dignity

When we talk about the Venezuelan human rights crisis, we don’t often mention the situation of Indigenous peoples. No data, no differentiated policies and lots of unfulfilled promises perpetuate the inequalities they’ve always endured

Photo: Primero Justicia

They’re in the front lines of the social, economic and environmental effects of the mining activity in southern Venezuela. They’ve endured extreme poverty and discrimination for centuries. They’ve been the target of chavista propaganda and some recognition in the 1999 Constitution that failed to materialize in real life improvements. These are the Indigenous people of Venezuela: the group with the worst national indicators of vulnerability to hunger and disease.

At the Organization of American States, I have a mandate to work on social inclusion and human rights that also includes contributing to the agenda for more rights of Indigenous peoples in the Americas. I monitor these issues for Venezuela (among other countries), and I notice that we seldom talk about the rights of the Indigenous people, and most of us don’t understand the dimensions of the inequality they face, especially in the context of a humanitarian crisisand how they’re absent from the broader political conversations for the respect of their rights in the region. If we look at some of the available data, we can understand why they’re not more active at the regional level.

A brief review of the situation reveals two things. One, there’s very little public information on the Indigenous peoples’ poverty statistics, access to goods and services, social food programs and health or education indicators. Two, there’s a total lack of differentiated public policies to address the key challenges they face. 

From the information that’s available, let’s review the current situation on two basic rights: access to health and access to adequate food, two basic rights contained in the Protocol of San Salvador, an interamerican instrument of human rights for the protection of economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights that Venezuela signed up in January 27th, 1989, ratified by the country under Juan Guaidó’s caretaker presidency on July 24th, 2020. 

Regarding the right to food, there have been serious mobility challenges due to lack of public transportation and fuel, and as a result of the inherent limitations Indigenous people face generally living in remote areas. The possibility of bartering food items, and even producing them in their communities, has also been impaired.

Yes, the economic collapse in Venezuela, hyperinflation, unemployment and dollarization of the economy have harshly hit all Venezuelans, but the Indigenous people who live in rural areas have been affected differently, and more profoundly. 

Those who are sick often die because they’re stranded in their remote communities with no fuel for them to be transported to get any form of medical assistance.

Take a look at the CLAP social food program, for example, it comes in exchange for support: many Indigenous people fear political persecution if they don’t align with regime authorities at the local levelPROVEA has extensively documented the regime’s use of CLAPs for electoral and political purposes. The World Food Programme reports that the highest indicators of food insecurity are found in the states of Delta Amacuro (21%), Amazonas (15%), Falcón (13%), Zulia (11%) and Bolívar (11%), the states with the greatest presence of Indigenous population in the country; so it isn’t just basic access, there are also serious concerns regarding their civil and political freedoms when acquiring food.  

On health, a series of humanitarian interventions in 2019 helped reduce the number of infections and deaths from malaria, diphtheria and measles, which are affecting a large number of Venezuelans, with specific prevalence in Indigenous peoples. Despite the progress, the situation continues to be worrying. Those who are sick often die because they’re stranded in their remote communities with no fuel for them to be transported to get any form of medical assistance. In the communities of Caura and Arebato, in Bolívar, where the Sanemá and Yekuana peoples live, there are accounts of some of them dying from complications associated with malaria during the COVID-19 quarantine because there’s very little fuel available, even for medical emergencies. 

There’s another dimension of the impact of the humanitarian crisis on Indigenous peoples’ right to health linked to HIV infections. There are higher incidences of HIV amongst Venezuelan Indigenous peoples due to various cultural reasons; however, they’ve had very restricted access to antiretroviral treatments for the disease. This is threatening the very existence of the Waraos in the Orinoco Delta, in eastern Venezuela, also compromising health indicators for these natives in the medium to long run.

And there’s much more to be said on the situation they face with the exploitation of natural resources in Bolívar, and the invasion of the area by illicit armed groups (including the Colombian ELN) with the blessing of Maduro’s security forces, and how that impacts Indigenous populations, or the unfulfilled promises regarding their civil and political rights and representation, but we’ll leave that for another post. Right now, there are no real plans to address or respond to their health or food security needs, except those reflected in the Humanitarian Response Plan developed by OCHA, UNDP and cooperation agencies, on the particular issue of communicable diseases (malaria, diphtheria and yellow fever), or some of the points covered by the Plan País effort. 

We need data to know the situation of our Indigenous people more precisely, and using that data, we need to develop differentiated policies to restore their human rights, and their rights to self-determination. This was an unfulfilled promise of the last 20 years, and if we want to preserve that part of our history contained in their lives, it has to be a promise a democratic transition must deliver.

* Opinions are personal. They do not represent those of the Organization of American States (OAS).