BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE: JULY 10, 2000 ISSUE

International -- Spotlight on Venezuela EDITED BY
HARRY MAURER

Indians Are Getting a New Deal...But It's Still Rough in Caracas (int'l edition)

Rosa Perez doesn't know her age, but she knows that in Venezuela's capital city of Caracas, there's money to be had simply by begging--enough to feed herself and her two young sons. Never mind that the family has to sleep rough in a park at the mercy of thieves and the rainy season's flash thunderstorms, or that the children go barefoot on hot asphalt streets. ''We get to eat,'' she says.

Perez is one of Venezuela's 314,000 Indians who are hoping that the nation's new Constitution will vastly improve their lot. The Constitution, approved by referendum last December, gives Venezuela's 29 tribes long-sought rights over their ancestral lands, as well as guarantees of bilingual and bicultural education and health care that includes traditional medicine. But now the battle is beginning over turning those rights into enforceable law.

Indians make up 1% of the population in this oil-rich nation, generally living in remote pockets of abysmal poverty. Their main problem has been lack of land titles, which has allowed ranchers, companies, and even state agencies to dislodge them from the subsistence farms they have occupied for generations, says indigenous-rights lawyer Eric Gutierrez. With little schooling, Indians often end up as homeless beggars.

President Hugo Chavez is seeking to change that. In last year's Constituent Assembly charged with writing the new Constitution, he reserved seats for representatives elected by the indigenous communities themselves. One of their major gains was an article ruling that exploitation of natural resources in Indian habitats is subject to approval by the tribes occupying the land. Critics say this gives Indians the legal leverage to block oil, mining, and other economic development on more than 50% of Venezuelan territory. Others fear that Indians could establish autonomously ruled regions or that companies could negotiate directly with them, bypassing government entities. But Guillermo Guevara, head of the Amazon Regional Indigenous Peoples' Organization, says tribes have no radical intentions and merely want legal backing in order to preserve their traditions. Exactly how much power the indigenous will have is to be determined by the National Assembly, which will be writing the laws stemming from the new constitutional principles over the next year.

ANGEL FALLS. The new Constitution is already having an effect. In May, the National Parks Institute agreed to hand over 80% of the annual admission fee--about $280,000--from Canaima National Park to the 10 Indian communities that live there. Canaima, boasting Angel Falls, the tallest waterfall in the world, is a prime tourist destination. In April, at the behest of indigenous groups, the Environment Ministry rescinded a permit granted to the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Investigation for Amazon medicinal plant research, ruling the researchers had not properly consulted Indian communities. ''The practice of exchanging little mirrors for gold continues, only now it's little mirrors for knowledge,'' Guevara says. ''We're just trying to control our own destiny.''

The new Constitution may put an end to the controversial practice of deporting Indian beggars from Caracas streets. Each year, hundreds of Warao Indians leave impoverished Delta Amacuro in eastern Venezuela to beg amid the capital's chrome and marble office towers. Like rural migrants from all over Venezuela, the Indians come because there are few jobs at home, where they survive on subsistence fishing and farming and selling handcrafts. They typically live in a city park for a couple of months until municipal officials round them up and put them on a bus for the long journey home. Lawyer Gutierrez says the deportations clearly violate the Warao's constitutional right of free movement, but Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma says the Indians' living conditions pose a health menace. ''Human rights defenders always pop up, but we can't have people living in public parks,'' he says.

Gutierrez acknowledges the city may be within legal bounds, as it has the duty to maintain public order and sanitary conditions. The matter has never been taken to court. Still, he notes that non-Indian migrants are rarely deported, even if they are living on the street. Of course, the Indians have their own solution: When their savings run out, they just come straight back.





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Indians Are Getting a New Deal...But It's Still Rough in Caracas (int'l edition)

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