Social Issues

Venezuela’s largest indigenous group struggles against poverty, neglect

By Hector Pereira

Maracaibo, Venezuela, Aug 9 (EFE).- Some of the Wayuu indigenous inhabitants of San Vicente de Mapuey, a community of northwestern Venezuela, make a living from salt mining, while others depend on the sale of yucca and handicrafts.

But all of the inhabitants of that community, as well as others to the west of the oil city of Maracaibo, feel they have been neglected by the Venezuelan authorities, whom they accuse of failing to provide basic services such as potable water, health care, electricity, public transportation and cooking gas.

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is observed every year on Aug. 9, but in Venezuela it is just another date on the calendar and one that goes completely unnoticed in San Vicente de Mapuey, where there are no television sets and local residents spend most of their time walking under a scorching sun in search of water and food.

“There are no public services here. There’s no electricity, there’s no water, there’s nothing. The roads aren’t paved,” Erasmo Gonzalez, a resident of that arid community outside Maracaibo, told Efe.

Aged 26, single, with no children and a high-school graduate, he differs from many of his peers who already have large families.

“This is a community that’s been neglected. A lot of political parties come, promise things and don’t follow through,” said Gonzalez, who is unemployed and says he was unable to go to university due to a “lack of support.”

Like Gonzalez, 29-year-old Marines Baptista says she is out of work and is single, although in her case she has five children to support.

On a typical day, she weaves hammocks, burns the garbage that accumulates due to a lack of waste collection service and walks a distance of two kilometers (1.2 miles) to a farm where the nearest water tap is located.

In the Wayuu-majority Ziruma neighborhood of Maracaibo, artisan Omaira Hernandez says she only has potable water in her home once every two or three weeks and therefore has to pay for that precious commodity when circumstances turn desperate.

As for her labor as an artisan, the sexagenarian says she is proud of the work she has done for the past 56 years.

“This is my only source (of income). This is what I had, I have now and what I’m going to have. I’ll die making handicrafts,” the woman said at a stall at an ethnic market where items of Wayuu culture are sold.

Yet amid the widespread neglect facing the Wayuu, an indigenous group numbering some 400,000 that is spread over the northern parts of Colombia and Venezuela, some action is being taken at the political level, including by Maracaibo city councilor Ines Gonzalez.

“We’ve decided to go to the communities (to address) three specific issues: malnutrition, schooling and identity,” the vice president of the municipal commission for indigenous peoples said, adding that tens of thousands of people living on the city’s western outskirts are in need of assistance.

Gonzalez says there is an urgent need to provide medical care and transportation service for these communities, noting that when a person gets sick they are typically given concoctions that do not cure their illness.

“We’ve seen cases of children who have died as a result of severe malnutrition and diarrhea that was not treated on time,” she said, though adding that there are no official figures to corroborate that affirmation.

“We Wayuu are human beings. We’ve also made important contributions to society. Wayuu brothers and sisters who are doctors, lawyers, teachers, the generations who have been working to change the focus of our culture without neglecting our customs or our roots,” Gonzalez said. EFE


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