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In South America, China and the U.S. Battle it Out

Recently, I sat down with Gonzalo Sebastián Paz, a lecturer in international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Sebastian Paz is an expert on South America's ties to Asia. He has previously taught graduate courses on the Southern Cone and Latin America at Argentina's La Plata National University and the University of Salvador. At those institutions, he also taught courses on international economics and politics with a heavy emphasis on Asia. He is one of the few Argentines to have lived and worked in South Korea, and was the recipient of a Korea Foundation Fellowship.

NK: Recently we've seen the rise of left leaning regimes throughout South America, many of which have espoused an anti-U.S. discourse. Simultaneously, many South American countries are cultivating greater economic ties to China. What are China's fundamental economic objectives in South America?

SP: I think China's most important focus is economic. In order to keep growing at high rates, 9 or 10% over the past twenty years, China needs a healthy supply of raw resources. I'm not saying there is nothing political, but this is a secondary consideration. The most important goal is to have access to iron, oil, copper, and gas.

NK: What kinds of infrastructure projects has China funded, and what is behind the policy?

SP: Usually China is willing to help with infrastructure projects that are related to sources of raw materials. That is: ports or other facilities or railroads connecting to mines, allowing shipment of the raw materials to China.

China's Growing Energy Profile

NK: What about energy projects: how significant is the Chinese presence here?

SP: The Chinese presence is still not very significant. But, energy is one of China's top priorities and it expects to invest in this area in future. Fundamentally, China does not trust international financial markets, which are dominated by American companies. The biggest oil companies in China are owned by the state. China wants ownership over the sources of energy all over the world, and they want easy access to this energy. So, China has a very different strategy: it seeks the actual ownership of mines and oil fields.

NK: To what extent will China become a player in the Bolivian energy sector?

SP: I think it's an option on the table. I am sure the Bolivians would prefer to have the Venezuelans engaged, or to a lesser extent the Brazilians or Argentines. But, you need to remember that President Evo Morales visited China before taking office. Even before conducting a state visit to Buenos Aires, he traveled to Beijing.

China Not Willing to "Cross the Line"

NK: What about transportation networks, how are they being refashioned to redirect trade towards Asia?

SP: This is a very old idea. The first country to think up this idea was Japan, in the 1950s and 60s. Japan developed a very important relationship with Brazil and Peru, countries that received a lot of Japanese emigration. In the 1960s and 70s the Japanese sought access to raw materials and infrastructure projects were designed around this central objective.

Currently, China is pursuing a very similar strategy but there is a difference between the Japanese and the Chinese. The Japanese were very concerned about the United States. The Chinese are more flexible in this regard, but they will never cross the line. They are operating in the backyard of the United States; they know this and will never risk endangering the relationship. But, they are willing to take more risks than the Japanese.

China is very interested in the expansion of the Panama Canal; the Chinese have said that they would be interested in the creation of an Inter-Oceanic canal in Nicaragua, and in Argentina they are investing heavily in a railway project. The bottom line is that China is not basing its policy around the needs of countries, but wants to extract raw resources for its own benefit.

NK: How large is the Japanese economic presence in South America in comparison to China?

SP: The Japanese presence is older than the Chinese. But recently Japan has been pursuing a new industrialization strategy, relocating many declining industries to other parts of Asia. Fundamentally, Latin America has not been a priority for Japan over the past 25 years. So, China is the new presence in Latin America and its investment in the region is lesser than the United States, Europe or even Japan. However Chinese investment is growing fast.

NK: To what extent has China eclipsed the U.S. in terms of trade, financial investment, and financial assistance?

SP: Fundamentally, China is not buying products from Latin America in order to achieve political influence, or to use this as leverage to pressure countries, or to try to split Latin America off from the United States. The Chinese are buying soy because they need to feed the people. So, the Chinese policy is economically driven though it may have political consequences.

In 2004, the Argentine government asked China for some economic support so as to pay off its debt to the International Monetary Fund. The Chinese refused. I think this is a very important case that proves my point that China doesn't want to make waves in the Americans' back yard. They know they cannot cross certain lines. They do not want to subvert the institutions that are regulating U.S. hegemony in Latin America. But, they are willing to push farther than the Japanese did in the past.

NK: If you could look into your crystal ball, ten years from now how would you foresee the ongoing relationship between China and Latin America?

SP: China is currently growing because it is connected to the U.S. and Europe. To some extent therefore, the relationship between China and Latin America is conditional on relations between China, the United States, and Europe. So, I don't want to be too linear here, but there is an assumption that China will continue to grow as it will have access to American and European markets. If this happens, China would continue to import raw materials from Latin America. But this is merely an assumption and nothing more. If something should happen to the United States-China relationship, we might have an entirely different situation.

China's Military Gambit

NK: What about defense projects? How significant is the Chinese contribution?

SP: Most Latin American countries supported the Rome Treaty for the International Criminal Court. The United States completely rejected this new organization. The U.S. has asked many countries to grant concessions on this treaty [note: when Latin American countries signed on to the treaty, the United States cut military training to some nations as punishment].

This created an opportunity for China to assert itself. China has provided weapons sales to Latin America. There have been hundreds of Chinese military visits to Latin America, and vice-versa. These exchanges have been very important. Meanwhile, Venezuela, Uruguay and Argentina have refused to send any more military personnel to the so-called School of the Americas [a U.S. training facility located in Fort Benning, Georgia, which was recently renamed WHISC or Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation].

The Chinese have also sent some police officers to Haiti. This is the first ever Chinese military presence in the Western Hemisphere. In that Caribbean country, we have a United Nations peace keeping operation. The United States hasn't been too concerned about this, because the Haiti operation is essentially being run by Mercosur [a South American trade bloc] countries. So, even as the U.S. is getting bogged down in the Middle East, Mercosur is helping the United States by securing Haiti.

Meanwhile, the Chinese have expressed interest in Bejucal and Lourdes, which are former Soviet bases in Cuba. Chinese President Hu Jin Tao visited one of them. There are some reports that China plans to set up a listening station in Cuba so as to spy on U.S. communications. However, I personally am not sure if this is true as the source of the information is the Cuban exiles, who are interested in promoting this view for their own political ends.

NK: To what extent is the growing China role a concern at the State and Defense Departments here in Washington, as well as the White House?

SP: There have been several hearings in Congress, in which representatives of the Defense Department have spoken. The U.S. Southern Command in Miami has been very concerned about this growing Chinese presence. Within the Republican Party, there has also been rising concern about the issue. In testimony, officers at the U.S. Southern Command have remarked that conducting military sanctions against Latin American countries that supported the Treaty of Rome has proven to be a counterproductive strategy. The U.S. policy has allowed China an opportunity to expand its military aid and diplomacy. Because of South Com's testimony, three months ago the U.S. government decided to abandon its sanction policy against many Latin American countries.

China, Latin America, and Human Rights

NK: Do you find it ironic that, even as South American governments proclaim their adherence to social and economic justice, they seek to pursue an alliance with China which has a horrible human rights record?

SP: This is a complex issue. As you probably know, the first country to pursue an Asian strategy was Chile. Under Pinochet, Chile was criticized for its human rights record and the government sought to break out of its diplomatic isolation by pursuing ties to Asian countries that never made a big issue out of human rights.

Pinochet sought diplomatic relations with South Korea, Taiwan, China, and the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos. Similarly, immediately following the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Chinese sought to break out of their diplomatic encirclement by approaching Latin America. In fact, the first trip by Chinese dignitaries after the massacre was to Latin America.

But most countries, not to say all countries of the world, are far from consistent on human rights and China and they make many exceptions. Within the European Union, even France and Germany have recently debated selling weapons to China.

South American Views of China

NK: If China does become a major political and economic player in South America, what do you think the response from civil society and social movements will be?

SP: One needs to look at this on a country by country basis. In some countries China is viewed as a friend whereas in others it is viewed as a threat, economically speaking. Mexico fears China, and the Mexican government has the numbers to prove it. The Mexicans have lost thousands of jobs because of Chinese exports. In the Southern Cone however, China is perceived as a partner. You cannot understand the miraculous Argentine recovery after the financial crisis of December 2001 without considering the boom in soy exports to China.

Industrial workers in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico are quite worried about this new relationship with China because they fear they may lose their jobs. Other sectors may be happy because they see China as an alternative to U.S. imperialism and hegemony. I think right now there is little ideological clarity amongst social movements in South America. There is a big soup of indigenous movements, ecological groups, socialist/former Marxist movements, and not all of them have a consistent set of values.

NK: Has China sought to portray itself differently from the U.S. so as to dispel Latin Americans' concerns about imperialism and outside interference?

SP: China used to be the champion of Third World-ism. Now it's trying to become the champion of a multi polar world, which is something different. I don't think that China is perceived as a force which can challenge the United States. I think many people in Latin America overestimate China's capacity to change the rules of the game at an international level. China has actually been playing by the rules in many respects.

Nevertheless, U.S. policies have created an opening for China in Latin America. I'm not saying that China respects international law, but in the past few years there's been a lot of anger with the U.S. over the war in Iraq. As you remember, Mexico and Chile were members of the Security Council and they refused to authorize the use of force.

This was a very difficult decision, because these two countries were the closest friends of the U.S. in Latin America. Of course there have been some exceptions; the Salvadorans sent some forces to Iraq. But by and large, public opinion in Latin America was opposed to the U.S., which did not respect international law.

NK: What about the Amazon region, which has witnessed a lot of social unrest against development projects? What are Asian countries' plans for the area and do you think there could be social unrest in the area against China or others if development plans continue to mimic what we have seen in the past?

SP: Clearing the forest in the Amazon and exporting soy is an effort to link up to China, and there may be mining projects as well. We need to see to what extent the various governments within the Amazon region are able to control social groups. At this point I don't think any social movements in Venezuela would seriously be able to contest Chavez's power. This may not be the case in other countries such as Bolivia under Evo Morales, where the authorities are not nearly as well established.

From Tango to Tae Kwan Do

NK: In Peru during the 1990s, Alberto Fujimori, who was of Japanese descent, used his racial ancestry to propel himself to the presidency. In that case, Fujimori was able to play off people's perception that Asians were hard working. How deeply rooted is this idea?

SP: Cultural images of Asia in Latin America have been promoted through movies and books from the United States and Europe. But now, through direct experience and direct contact, Asians and Latin Americans are beginning to forge new ideas about one another which are unmediated by external cultural artifacts. This development is really something novel, and it hasn't occurred for decades or even centuries.

The first humans that lived in Latin America came from Asia, so if you want to trace the relationship you can go back pretty far. The second important event was the Manila Galleon. This was the backbone to trade in the Pacific for 250 years, and it was really very important. The third component was Asian immigration to Latin America in the 19th and 20th centuries. Economic growth and the so-called "Asian miracle" shaped Latin Americans' perceptions further and led to envy.

The image of the "Other" is different depending on the country. In Buenos Aires, if you think about Asia your reference point is the Japanese, who have dry cleaning businesses or work in the flower industry. In Peru, the reference point is the chifa [Chinese restaurant].

Cultural awareness of Asia has grown with the rise of Asian food, which is now available throughout Latin America. Martial arts are also popular, including Tae Kwon Do, Karate, and Tai Chi. I was one of the first Latin American experts to live in Asia. I remember there was an excellent professor of Tae Kwon Do from Korea who went to Buenos Aires to teach. Five years later he returned to Seoul and became a tango professor. This was amazing.

Meeting up at Macondo

SP: For Asian leaders, Latin America was a remote area, unstable, and incapable of fostering economic development. However, this view took a big blow with the economic crisis in 1997. The crisis started in Thailand and then spread throughout the region, and as a result Asians were humbled.

APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) is the most important and symbolic meeting within the Asia Pacific region. A couple of times APEC meetings have been held in Latin America, which is something pretty new and impossible to imagine say, twenty or thirty years ago.

The 2004 APEC meeting in Chile, in particular, was really important in putting Latin America on the map of the Pacific Rim. It was really very interesting to see Asian leaders asking the Mexicans and Chileans how to deal with the IMF following the 1997 meltdown. So, this changed the idea of the "Other" for Asian elites. Still, very few people in Asia know anything about Latin America.

NK: You spent some time living and working in Asia, what was your experience?

SP: I remember when I was living in Seoul in 1996 there were very few Latin Americans. Most people worked in the various embassies. We used to meet in a small café called Macondo. They used to play salsa music in Macondo, which at that time was totally unknown in South Korea and people didn't know how to dance to it. When I returned in 1999 there were thousands, if not millions of young people dancing salsa much better than me—we Argentines are usually not very good salsa dancers.

Chile and the "Platform" to Asia

NK: Currently there are a lot of different proposals concerning hemispheric integration in South America. There is Mercosur, which Venezuela recently joined. However, Venezuelan President Chavez has even been critical of Mercosur, and has called on countries to further more progressive trading arrangements such as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA). Bolivia under Morales seems to favor Chavez's views on ALBA.

Chile, on the other hand, has an entirely different view about integration. The country hopes to act as a "platform" to Asia and a means by which South America could gain access to the Asian market.

Which of these visions do you think will predominate?

SP: In the past, Latin America was not considered to be part of the Pacific Rim, and did not share in the institutions, markets, or organizations. Chile and Mexico were one of the first Latin American countries to gain access to markets and institutions within the area. At first, Chile saw the Pacific Rim as its own area, and did not see itself as a platform for other South American countries. Chileans were not really willing to allow Argentine wheat or corn to be exported through Chilean ports. They weren't interested in this; they wanted the markets for themselves.

But other economic sectors, who did not share the interests of the agricultural sector in the central valley of Chile, began to imagine a different role for their country: as a gateway for Asians to do business in Latin America, and for Latin America to do business in Asia. But this was not initially the attitude during the time of Pinochet and slightly after. So, Chile has changed its attitude in terms of its role as a bridge between the two regions.

Another development was that Asia realized that Chile was a very small market, and a nation of only 15 million people. Asia was interested in the big countries in South America, Brazil and Argentina for example, which did not have any coastline on the Pacific. At the end of the day, China managed to set up direct links with Brazil and Argentina and because of this all the institutional architecture that had been built up within the Pacific Rim during the 1980s and 90s became less relevant.

On the other hand, the end of the Cold War made it possible for a greater convergence of political values, and later the Washington Consensus was pushed as a remedy for much of the region's ills. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1990s this recipe was perceived as a failure in Latin America and this created a crisis. This resulted in the emergence of left wing populist leaders such as Chavez, Morales, and others.

But, the Chileans have created a model that has been successful to an extent. The first free trade agreement ever signed between a Latin American and an Asian country was Chile and South Korea. So, the Chileans are pursuing a strategy which has nothing to do with Chavez's ideas.

Meanwhile the Mexican economy is totally integrated into the U.S., to the extent that some people joke that Mexico no longer belongs to Latin America. Brazil and Argentina have tried to carve out an economically and politically autonomous region of their own in the Southern Cone.

This idea of autonomy has become more complicated now from a political standpoint with the inclusion of Venezuela within Mercosur. There is an expectation that Venezuela could help to supply the energy needs of Mercosur, but we will have to see how this works out.

Gonzalo Sebastián Paz is a lecturer in international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is an expert on South America's ties to Asia. He has previously taught graduate courses on the Southern Cone and Latin America at Argentina's La Plata National University and the University of Salvador.

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Bombing Venezuela’s Indians

For Hugo Chavez, large, industrial mega projects could turn into a political mine field. The contradiction between Chavez’s rhetoric stressing social equality, on the one hand, and environmental abuses on the other, was driven home to me over this past summer when I attended the first ever environmental conference of Lake Maracaibo. The event was held in the city of Maracaibo itself, the capital of Zulia state, and organized by the government’s Institute for the Conservation of Lake Maracaibo (known by the Spanish acronym ICLAM).

Somewhat oddly, outside of the dining hall where conference participants ate lunch mining companies had set up promotional booths. Walking through an adjacent hallway, scantily clad women working for mining and oil companies plied me with glossy pamphlets and even candy. Later during the conference itself, one panelist, a representative from the local development agency Corpozulia, gave a rosy presentation about new port and infrastructure projects planned for the state of Zulia.

Later, I went back to the luxurious Hotel Kristoff where the government had put me up for the duration of my stay. One morning, sitting at a table overlooking the hotel pool, I was joined by Jorge Hinestroza, a sociologist at the University of Zulia and former General Coordinator of the Federation of Zulia Ecologists.

Sierra of Perija: Area of Conflict

Hinestroza spoke to me of destructive coal mining in the Sierra of Perija, a mountain range which marks a section of the border between Venezuela and Colombia. The area, which is home to large coal deposits, has suffered severe deforestation.

Industrial coal production, Hinestroza explained, had damaged Indian lands. He complained that America Port, a new project proposed by Corpozulia, would prove "catastrophic for mangrove vegetation in the area." The project, he continued, was linked to coal exploitation. What’s more, Corpozulia itself owned the mining concessions.

According to reports, the Añú community, comprised of 3,000 people living around the Lake Sinamaica region in Zulia, is concerned about the devastation that would result from the construction of a deep-water port in the area, for exporting coal.

If Chavez does not attend to rising calls for greater environmental controls, he will lose support amongst one of his most loyal constituencies, the indigenous population. Already, industrial mega projects have led to angry protest and undermined public confidence in the regime. For Chavez, it is surely one of the thorniest problems that his government must confront.

Launching Raids into Indian Country

Though Indians inhabiting the Sierra of Perija have had to confront extensive coal mining in the Chavez era, it’s not as if indigenous peoples living in the area are strangers to conflict. In the first half of the twentieth century, Motilon Indians [also known as the Bari], which included several indigenous groups inhabiting the area of Perijá, confronted British and American oil prospectors.

In 2001, I was living in Maracaibo doing research for my dissertation dealing with the environmental history of oil development in Lake Maracaibo. Working in the historical archive, I was struck by historical accounts of oil prospectors headed to Indian country.

In 1914, for example, one oil expedition marched into the jungle accompanied by a large company of 50 peons. In seeking to penetrate Motilon Indian country, oil prospectors were aided by the Venezuelan government. As one oil pioneer put it, "we had for arms 12 Mauser military rifles from the government. Every man had either a revolver or a rifle."

Oil prospectors on one expedition discovered a Motilon house, but were forced to make a harrowing escape in canoes along river rapids when Indians appeared. The oil men shot back, hitting at least twelve men.

One oilman commented: "I do not like the idea of destroying a whole community of men, women and children. But this would be the only thing to do unless peace is made … If oil is found up the Lora [River], peaceful relations with the Indians would be worth several hundred thousand dollars to the company."

"It Would Be Convenient to Suppress Them with Gas or Grenades"

Eventually, oil infrastructure in Indian country proceeded. Indians had to contend not only with armed prospectors but also growing contamination from open earth oil sumps and dwindling hunting grounds.

For the growing American community in Maracaibo, the Motilones were a nuisance. One English language paper, the Tropical Sun, remarked, "It would be convenient to suppress the Motilon Indians by attacking them with asphyxiating gas or explosive grenades."

There are no documented cases of large scale artillery attacks on the Motilon Indians. However, Father Cesareo de Armellada, a Capuchin priest who later played a pivotal role in contacting groups of Motilones, claimed that

"It was said by some sotto voce and others even admitted publicly that in the Colombian region [of Perija] thenational army organized raids under the slogan of: there is no other way. And it is also saidthat in the same region the Motilones were bombed by airplanes. The same thing has been repeated to me by many people living within the Venezuelan region of Perija and Colon."

De Armellada continued that "Secret punitive expeditions" were organized against the Motilones.

Oil Companies: Bombing the Indians

Some reports suggest a fair degree of cooperation between the government and oil companies in organizing armed expeditions. Not surprisingly, the government’s policy of allowing oil companies to enter Motilon territory led to greater violence. The U.S. Consul in Maracaibo, Alexander Sloan, noted that a state of open warfare existed in Motilon territory:

"During the last year the Indian attacks have increased in frequency and bitterness. On several occasions lately boat crews have abandoned their tows, because they were attacked so fiercely and so persistently by the Motilones [sic] that they considered it necessary to get away as speedily as possible."

Even more alarming, "attacks on trains have been made only within recent months, and in these attacks the Indians have shown a persistence that they never exhibited before."

According to de Armellada, in the 1930s and early 40s the oil companies were able to encircle the Motilones in a tighter ring stretching over several hundred square kilometers. However, this had resulted in many deaths.

There is some evidence that the oil companies even resorted to aerial bombardment. One British diplomat noted that the Motilones hated strangers, and were "embittered" as a result of an attempt by an American company to bomb their settlements.

The diplomat did not specify which company was involved in the attacks, although it would seem at least possible that this was Creole Petroleum Corporation, an American company which sought to open up Motilon territory to oil expansion, and which had planes.

Overflights of Indian Country

De Armellada sought support from the oil companies in the form of over flights of Indian villages. The over flights were accompanied by a propaganda effort launched by de Armellada, who sought to present his ideological justification for the expeditions. De Armellada promoted the Motilon effort through Topicos Shell, a glossy Shell company magazine.

In May 1947, Creole Petroleum Corporation provided de Armellada with a twin engine flying boat. The company was a powerful subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey and was in a position to lend credibility and resources to the Capuchin priest. Creole’s head of public relations, Everett Bauman, recalled later that de Armellada came up with the idea of dropping bundles of gifts as well as his own picture from a plane. By dropping gifts to the Indians, de Armellada hoped, Motilones would later prove receptive to missionary efforts. With his newfound support, de Armellada organized an over flight of Motilon villages in an effort to establish peaceful relations.

Shortly after one of de Armellada’s flights took off, the expedition sighted Motilon dwellings from the air, consisting of rudimentary thatched shelters. Noted Caracas Journal, "The Indians were nowhere to be seen, having rushed to hide in the undergrowth, in alarm at the roar of the plane’s motors."

The plane dropped a number of goods on the village such as cloth, salt, flour, hoes, needles, thread, and mirrors as tokens of good will. The airplane was also careful to drop De Armellada’s photo, "thus ensuring the missionary a gentlewelcome when he arrives accompanied by two other monks, into their [Motilon] territory." Throughout 1947, the Capuchins continued their over flights of Motilon territory, dropping similar "bombs" of gifts and boxes.

Triumph of Missionaries and Big Oil

Fortunately for de Armellada, on the fifth flight in December 1947 Motilones no longer hid in the jungle but stepped outside their huts accompanied by their pet dogs. Encouraged, de Armellada picked up the pace of the overhead flights, which ran weekly for the following three months. "The enthusiasm displayed by the Indians," noted de Armellada, "increased as much as ours."

The Indians lost their fear, and Motilon children began to play with the parachutes which accompanied box gifts. Observing that the Indians had taken to their gifts, the Capuchins dropped pre-made clothes, large dolls, and even two goats. According to de Armellada, the Indians waved donated Venezuelan flags in the air when missionary flights passed overhead.

Meanwhile, De Armellada made a plea in Topicos Shell for more assistance. Anyone who considered themselves a proper Christian had a "sacred duty" to help the effort. With the help of Creole Petroleum Corporation, which drew up a map of Motilon areas based on aerial photographs, de Armellada was able to locate 14 Motilon huts along the Lora River and northwards. Various families lived in each house, with a variable number of individuals oscillating between 20 and 50.

De Armellada’s successes paved the way for future missionary efforts in Motilon country, and by the early 1960s the Capuchins had established various missionary centers within Indian territory. The missionary advance was accompanied by yet more intrusion by oil companies and landowners, and Motilones were displaced towards nearby towns.

Chavez: A New Beginning for Zulia Indians?

In the mid-1990s, Indians in the Sierra of Perija continued to face daunting challenges. For example, Wayuu and Yupka peoples lost their lands to large, state-controlled coal mines and oil drilling.

In 1998, the election of Hugo Chavez to the presidency stood to dramatically change the plight of indigenous people. In contrast to earlier regimes, Chavez took a more anti-missionary stance on indigenous policy. For example, he expelled the New Tribes Mission, an American missionary group working with Venezuelan indigenous communities. Chavez accused New Tribes of collaborating with the CIA.

Chavez’s 1999 Constitution represented a big step forward for Indians. Under article 9, Spanish was declared the official language of Venezuela, but "Indigenous languages are also for official use for indigenous peoples and must be respected throughout the Republic’s territory for being part of the nation’s and humanity’s patrimonial culture." In chapter eight of the constitution, the state recognized the social, political, and economic organization within indigenous communities, in addition to their cultures, languages, rights, and lands.

What is more, in a critical provision the government recognized land rights as collective, inalienable, and non-transferable. Later articles declared the government’s pledge not to engage in extraction of natural resources without prior consultation with indigenous groups.

Chavez himself has distributed millions of acres of land to indigenous communities. The move forms part of the so called Mission Guaicaipuro which shall provide land titles to all of Venezuela’s 28 indigenous peoples.

Indians to Chavez: Land Policy a "Fraud"

Despite the passage of the new constitution, however, Indians from the Sierra of Perija have protested the government which they claim does not pay sufficient attention to their needs.

In 2005, hundreds of Wayuu, Bari and Yukpa Indians traveled to Bolivar Square in Caracas. Bare-chested, wearing traditional dress and wielding bows and arrows, they denounced mining operations in Zulia.

Interestingly, the indigenous protestors were staunch Chávez supporters and most sported red headbands with pro-government slogans, while others wore red berets, symbolic of Chavez’s governing Fifth Republic Movement party.

One protest sign read, "Compañero Chávez, support our cause." Another declared, "Vito barí atañoo yiroo oshishibain (We don’t want coal mining)".

Despite their pro-government leanings, Indians said that efforts to formalize their ancestral lands constituted a "fraud." In a statement they declared, "They will allocate lands to us but later try to evict us to exploit coal."

The leader of the Wayuu delegation, Angela Aurora, said that coal mining in Zulia had deforested thousands of acres of land as well as contaminated rivers. Mining additionally had killed or sickened local residents with respiratory diseases caused by coal dust.

Sierra of Perija and Contradictions of Chavismo

Though Chavez has derided globalization and large financial institutions, the case of the Sierra of Perija reveals a fundamental contradiction within Chavismo. In fitting irony, Douglas Bravo, a former communist guerrilla from the 1960s and 70s, was also present at the indigenous protest in Caracas. Bravo now devotes his time to promoting environmental groups.

"This is a manifestation of an autonomous and independent revival of the popular movement," he said. "At the same time," he added, "it is the beginning of a new stage in the independent environmental movement, against globalization and the multinationals."

In a sense, Bravo is right. The Sierra of Perija is in the crosshairs of important economic development. The government has sought joint ventures between the public coal company Carbozulia and various foreign companies including Vale do Rio Doce of Brazil, the British-South African Anglo American, the Anglo-Dutch Shell, Ruhrkohle from Germany and the U.S. Chevron-Texaco.

On the one hand, Chavez needs political support from indigenous peoples. But he also seeks important hemispheric integration, which could jeopardize this support. The Venezuelan northwest is vital to solidifying ties with Brazil and Mercosur, a South American trade bloc [for more on these inherent contradictions, see my earlier Counterpunch article, "The Rise of Rafael Correa: Ecuador and the Contradictions of Chavismo," November 27, 2006].

"If We Have to Die For Our Lands, We Will Die"

Some government officials have big plans for Zulia. In 2004, Carbozulia and Companhia Vale do Rio Doce of Brazil created a new consortium, Carbosuramérica, to undertake additional mining operations in the region. Activists fear that Zulia is fast becoming an exit platform to the Caribbean Sea, and that the area is serving the interests of transnational companies. While the companies seek to get their products out, the environment is being sacrificed.

Mining and ports projects within Zulia in turn form part of the IIRSA, Initiative for South American Regional Infrastructure Integration (promoted by Brazil and the new South American Community of Nations).

Chavez, who is trying to construct an alliance of left leaning regimes in South America, knows that he must secure vital diplomatic support from President Lula of Brazil. But if the Venezuelan government presses ahead with its development agenda in the Sierra of Perija, the regime will have to reckon with severe domestic opposition.

During the indigenous protest in Caracas, Cesáreo Panapaera, a Yukpa leader, declared, "We want the government to hear us: we don’t want coal. Here are our bows and arrows, and we will use them against the miners if they come to our lands. And if we have to die fighting for our lands, we will die."

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Hugo Chávez: Environmental Hypocrite or Ecological Savior?

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