We Have Felt Their Insolence: A Narrative from Carlina Urdaneta, Leader of the Network of Indigenous Guayú Women
Carlina Urdaneta is a leader of the Red de Mujeres Indígenas Guayú (Network of Indigenous Guayú Women). She is a member of the Plan Colombia Working Group of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Venezuela (CONIVE). In the following narrative, she describes the intensifying impacts of Plan Colombia on the indigenous peoples who live along the Colombian border in Venezuela.
Urdaneta and CONIVE’s support for the position of their national government regarding Plan Colombia is unique among relations between indigenous peoples and the countries involved directly or indirectly in the conflict.
In Venezuela, we have felt their insolence. The indigenous peoples of Venezuela have been directly affected by Plan Colombia. We haven’t settled on how to define everything that has been happening in relation to Colombia, but we are sure that the Colombian government has not played a pivotal role in attempting to solve the conflict.
The population along the Colombia-Venezuela border is mostly indigenous peoples. Historically, in a process of forced resettlement and migration, the indignenous populations of Venezuela have been pushed aside to the limits of Venezuelan territory. Since we are the first "guards" at the border, we are the first to be affected by Plan Colombia. Since the beginning of 2002, we have been feeling an increased impact in our communities of Colombian refugees. We think that in a short while there will be cultural effects, because exchange and interrelation is inevitable with this presence of people who do not form a part of our society or our organization. This "cultural exchange" comes with other consequences; our young women in the border areas, for lack of education, have been getting pregnant by these newcomers.
There is also an economic impact, intensifying with the increased aerial spraying along the Colombian border in the summer of 2001. The principal economic activity of the Yupas and Bari peoples who live along the border is agriculture; the Yupas are coffee producers. The aerial spraying has been limiting their production of agricultural products--they have suffered enormous losses in their cultivation of both coffee and cacao—and this means a severe economic effect. There has been spraying on both sides of the border and it seems that there is no control over this. This is one of the reasons that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has held such a strong position of "No to Plan Colombia"--the same position as the indigenous peoples.
We Don’t Know Who You Are
The Guayu, Yupas, and Bari peoples are all seeing in their communities the presence of unkown Colombians, included in the Sierra Perija where there is a certain incidence of paramilitary groups. A variety of communities have had encounters with armed groups who do not identify themselves or cannot be identified. For example, there was an encounter in March of 2002 in the state of Zulia in an indigenous community that is around 700 meters from the Colombian border. The community had gathered for a mass to celebrate their patron saint. Community members noticed a group of armed men in camoflauge entering Venezuela. The community had no way of knowing whether it was a group of guerrillas or of the Colombian army. These soldiers or guerillas shot many gunshots into the air, some of which entered communal recreation facilities and into the homes of the community.
Because the people have no idea who these groups are, it is like no man’s land. In this case from Zulia, the women of the village, not knowing if the armed men were of the guerrillas or the Colombian army, went first to find a Venezuelan flag and unfurl it. They said: "Hey! Wait a minute, you are crossing the border. This is Venezuela, in case you didn’t know. We don’t know who you are." The armed men told them to get back, and go into their houses. They warned that they would kill everyone. It is as if we live in a population without laws, where we don’t know if we are in Venezuela or Colombia because there is no responsibility on the part of the respective authorities.
At an international level, there are accusations that President Chávez is financing the Colombian guerillas. But here in Venezuela, I don’t know of any cases of indigenous youth becoming involved with the Colombian guerillas. We have encountered many groups of displaced persons in Colombia, and there is not a strong presence of Venezuelan military. However, we have not found strong signs of insurgent groups within Venezuela itself. There was an article in Bogotá’s El Tiempo newspaper, about a group called the Union for the Defense of Venezuela; but, I had to hear it from El Tiempo.
No to Plan Colombia
The position of the National Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Venezuela is one of solidarity with the people of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia [ONIC]. Their voice is our voice. We are looking to create a solid block of opinion on the part of the countries that surround Colombia and are either directly or indirectly affected. We agree with and support ONIC’s concerns and their proposal of "No to Plan Colombia" because beyond being a plan of destruction for the insurgent groups of Colombia and drug trafficking, in our minds it is a sudden death for indigenous peoples. In Colombia, there are cases that the U.N. Commission on Human Rights has called crimes against humanity. In these years of conflict, over 500 indigenous leaders have been killed in Colombia. We don’t want to speak simply of getting rid of the guerrilla problem in Colombia, rather of really offering Colombia’s citizens a chance for living together in peace.
The position of the Chávez government is a definitive "No to Plan Colombia." The position has been so firm such as to cause many problems with the U.S. government, especially for not allowing them the use of Venezuelan airspace. There has even been international criticism of Chávez for offering Venezuela as a meeting space between the guerillas and the Colombia government. Chávez believes that the question of insurgency in Colombia cannot be combatted with more violence, but should best be dealt with at the negotiating table--one that sincerely has the goal of peace in Colombia. The peace process should not only involve Colombia, but also the states bordering Colombia: Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, and Venezuela. We indigenous peoples fully support Chávez’s position of "No to Plan Colombia." Chávez knows that indigenous peoples who live near the border are the most worried about this situation, and we have sent him our petitions and we support his position.
We indigenous peoples are implementing an alternative strategy of combating illegal drugs. There is no strong governmental program in Venezuela to combat coca cultivation--primarily because both the Venezuela government and the Colombia government have chosen not to extend their services to the border area. Since there has been no dependability on the part of competent authorities in this respect, the responsibility has fallen on the shoulders of the indigenous communities.
Many of the basic needs of the indigenous communities remain unmet. For this reason, you can find an alarming number of indigenous women in prison convicted of drug trafficking. These women have served as "mules" for cartels that traffic drugs across the Venezuelan border and to Europe and North America. We believe that indigenous women sometimes involve themselves in this trade because of the level of misery in which they are living. For them to get paid is such a temptation that they fall for it. Once they are offered one job, they find themselves involved just a little bit more, and just a little bit more, until they find themselves at a point where they are really compromised.
Given this very grave situation, in the state of Zulia, the Network of Indigenous Guayú Women is starting a project to look into the legal status of these women. On the preventative level, one of the first and most immediate strategies we need is to educate our communities about the consequences of drug trafficking, and the production and consumption of drugs. We must be working with the youth, those who are susceptible to trafficking and consumption. One of the main concerns of CONIVE is to find international support from governments or foundations for a large campaign against trafficking and consumption--but adapted to an indigenous reality.
Unfortunately, we have not had the opportunity to sit down with representatives of the U.S. government to talk about the impacts of Plan Colombia on indigenous peoples. However, we ask the U.S. government to present us with a more humane proposal. There should be a heavy focus on the issue of human rights, which for us is primordial. We have seen too much blood run; simply, as human beings, we don’t want to see any more massacres. Now we need rules that allow us to live together in peace, and in accordance with our reality. We want to live peacefully in our communities, and not be afraid of being affected by aerial spraying or violent clashes between the guerillas and Colombian military. As indigenous groups that form part of the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), we appeal to the international community, to the United Nations and the Organization of American States, to agree on a more dignified proposal. The Venezuela government is ready to begin dialog, and not just with the United States, but with many other countries. I think that the U.S. government needs to open up a little bit, and listen. One way or another, we must see what kind of good proposal that the Venezuela government and President Chávez can put forth, because he is one of the people who is most interested in seeing peace in Colombia.
David Edeli (email@example.com) is a researcher and consultant for the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadoran Amazon and a program associate of the Program on Non-Violent Sanctions and Cultural Survival at Harvard University. Zachary Hurwitz is an independent journalist and activist living in Quito, Ecuador.