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200 chapter nine Changing Tides and Mixed Feelings With the new constitution of 1999, Venezuela officially became a multicultural and pluri-ethnic nation. This final chapter is devoted to describing some of the changes that have since occurred in the Venezuelan state’s relations with indigenous peoples. I begin by describing the general shift in the treatment of the “indigenous issue,” revealing how the image of Indians has become a key symbol of the government-led nationrebuilding process known as the Bolivarian Revolution. I then examine how the Ministry of Health has chosen to implement multiculturalism through the work of the Indigenous Health Office (IHO) and one of its main programs, the Yanomami Health Plan (YHP). This chapter is less analytical than the previous ones, drawing more closely on my personal experience within the IHO and the YHP, on the one hand, and of working in Amazonas and with the Yanomami, on the other. Without generalizing aspirations, I hope to illustrate the jumbled scenario of progress and setbacks that results when an entrenched bureaucratic state culture attempts a paradigm shift of the kind that the Bolivarian project aspires to and of the kind required to improve indigenous peoples’ health. The Indigenous Issue in Venezuela Until the drafting of the new constitution in 1999, Venezuela was one of the least progressive countries regarding indigenous legislation among the American nations. The relative invisibility of Indians in the national Changing Tides and Mixed Feelings • 201 imagination and the official abandonment and delegation of the Indian issue were hallmarks of the nation’s attitude toward indigenous people.1 The task of assimilating Indians in the national cultural and economic milieu was either delegated to different missionary orders or left to the natural integration of peoples expected from the expansion of economic fronts, the population of apparently empty spaces, and the spread of development and modernity. Dominant Hispanist views of national history normally characterized Indian cultural and economic ways as obstacles to civilization (Carrera Damas, 2006:24) and as hindering progress in national development schemes. Since the 1970s the stubborn, yet ultimately fruitless attempts to transform indigenous shifting agriculture into modern farming to increase productivity are good examples of this view (Freire, 2007). Government agencies responsible for Indian affairs have been batted back and forth from ministry to ministry during the last fifty-odd years. Their budgets and political clout have always been lacking. Even when the 1961 agrarian reform provided legal possibilities for indigenous land tenure, it did so at the expense of imposing on Indians peasant models of land use and socio-political organization. Furthermore, at least in Amazonas , no indigenous community ever received anything beyond provisional land titles under the agrarian reform (Colchester and Watson, 1995:15). People considered “indigenists” were few in number, and despite their great efforts, their success in raising consciousness in sectors of the population beyond the political left was limited. Nor should it be forgotten that criollos hunted Pumé Indians in the Apure lowlands until the 1960s (Monsonyi, 1972:46). For the Indians to be made invisible something else had to conceal them (cf. Arvelo-Jiménez, 1972). Venezuelan national identity has been predicated upon the notion of mestizaje, the mixing of Indian, black, and white blood. An indigenous component of national identity was celebrated not as a living aspect of today’s multicultural scenario but rather as a historical component of nation building; Indians were not ethnic minorities but historical forebears. Probably within the education system, this dominant discourse has been more effective. One only has to recall how history was taught in schools: the comparatively short space in books and time in classes devoted to pre-Columbian history indicated that history started with the arrival of Europeans. Indians were portrayed as lazy or feeble, which is why Spanish colonizers sought the muscle of African slaves. Generally speaking, given that the Indian was perceived as having little of good in himself, the process of colonization was cast more, to paraphrase Thomas (1994:124), as the operation of welfare than conquest, conversion to Christianity being very 202 • Chapter 9 much the vehicle and symbol of improvement. The opening words of an influential historian, Guillermo Moron, on the subject of “the Aboriginals” in a high-school history textbook exemplify this view: Should indigenous communities be preserved? This cannot be desired by anybody. Communities are destined to slowly disappear although today’s comprehensive and well-established political action is speeding up this process. We must hope that in a...


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