Wednesday, October 14, 2009

AP: Venezuela folk religion seen in secretive rituals

(Statue of Maria Lionza a few blocks from my old apartment in CCS)

By ARIANA CUBILLOS (AP) – 20 hours ago

SORTE, Venezuela — Thousands of Venezuelans congregated for candlelit rituals on a remote mountainside where adherents make an annual pilgrimage to pay homage to an indigenous goddess known as Maria Lionza.

Many smoked cigars in purification rituals, while others closed their eyes lying face-up surrounded by candles and elaborate designs drawn on the ground with white powder.

Some calling themselves the "Vikings" pricked their tongues with razor blades, drawing blood that ran down their chins and chests. They said they could not reveal the esoteric secrets that govern their traditions.

The rituals, which began late last week and lasted through Monday, are held every year in the name of the indigenous goddess Maria Lionza, who according to legend came from the mountain at Sorte, near the northwestern town of Chivacoa.

Some repeated the word "strength" while dancing atop flaming embers in a ceremony honoring the goddess early Monday at the start of the annual Oct. 12 rituals. Many camped in tents while dedicating several days to the spiritual ceremonies.

The traditions centered on Maria Lionza are hundreds of years old and draw on elements of the Afro-Caribbean religion Santeria and indigenous rituals, as well as Catholicism. Believers often ask for spiritual healing or protection from witchcraft, or thank the goddess for curing an illness.

Venezuela is predominantly Roman Catholic. The church disapproves of the folk religion but has long since abandoned its attempts to suppress it.

A statue on a Caracas highway divider honors Maria Lionza, depicting her naked and sitting astride a wild tapir.

Followers of the sect regularly leave offerings of flowers, liquor, coins or fruit at shrines honoring the goddess or other folk saints.

Repost and Analysis: Venezuela Grants Land to Indigenous Communities On Indigenous Resistance Day

**Teaching, dissertating, and the collapse of CA have kept me pretty tied up lately. Sorry. Here's a re-post from Kiraz at after a few thoughts on race in historical and contemporary Venezuela.**

'Ain't no black in the Tricolor'?
A few years ago Venezuela renamed Columbus Day -- 'Día de la raza' in the past and in many other Latin American countries, one of the worst euphemisms for rape I've heard -- 'Día de la resístencia indigena,' the day of indigenous resistance. In 2004, the statue of Columbus that once loomed over the central Plaza Venezuela in central Caracas was felled by a number of groups openly claiming responsibility for the action. No one has sought to replace it.

The Bolivarian government has created social missions and National Assembly seats for the native minority, seeking not only to better standards of living for the first nations of Venezuela, but also to raise general culutural awareness of the contribution of indigenous people to Venezuelan identity in the past, present and future.

One of the most striking aspects of the Bolivarian government's commitment to indigenous rights -- once one gets past the shock of a government that is actually concerned with first nations in the first place -- is its disproportion. As the article below notes, though indigenous peoples make up 1.6% of the population, they are constitutionally mandated three seats in the National Assembly. There is no such similar measure for Afro-Venezuelans, though they are estimated to comprise up to 20% of the population (the failed constitutional referendum of 2007 would have corrected this).

Venezuelan statistical and census tools do not measure Afro-Venezuelans as a distinct demographic unit, though activist networks have been organizing to have this changed by the 2010 national census.

Like most countries in Latin America, Venezuelan elites have historically identified with the European and US imaginaries. In the posh east side of Caracas, Basque, Spanish and Portuguese flags are almost as common as the tricolor (and even then, the tricolors flying in Plaza Altamira tend to be the 7-starred flag of the 4th republic).

While Eurocentrism is without doubt the chief factor in the marginalization of Afro (and for that matter, indigenous) Venezuelans, other factors of political history and cultural geography are at play as well. Venezuela is considered by many to be an 'Andean' nation. Past presidents have for the most part come from the mountains or the llanos (Chávez himself is a llanero). This despite the fact that Venezuela enjoys nearly 3,000 km of Caribbean coastline that is much more densely populated than the sparse and ungodly hot llanos (*really, though, Venezuela is an urban nation, with 87% of the population in cities as of 2001).

Venezuelan 'criollo' (creole -- a term that originally and still is anchored to white Venezuelans) elites resisted early 20th century discourses of mestizaje such as Vasconcelos' notion of 'la raza cósmica' in Mexico. These 'positive' eugenics narratives valorized the race-mixing of the colonial and post-colonial Latin America and, despite their offensive essentializations, could be seen as (albeit failed and inadequate) attempts to forge a distinctly American identity and path of development.

The rich and powerful of Venezuela consistently looked instead first to Paris and then to Miami for their orientation. Rather than build a national, Venezuelan culture, they built mega malls and imported modernist architecture à la le Corbusier. In this context, both Afro and Indigenous Venezuelans were marginalized, and continue to be, despite social programs aimed to address material inequality and cultural imperialism.

Indigenous rights movements have a longer history and a continental organizational structure. While this partially explains the results they have been able to garner from the state and society (this both in terms of government misiones and land grants and violent attacks -- like this one yesterday in Zulia -- on indigenous movements that seek to move beyond the symbolic and into the substantive; occupying land, resisting the hacendados, remaking their lives in their own terms), there remains the cultural and historical geography in place to which I referred earlier.

The Andes and the llanos are mostly comprised of mestizos and a few whites. The Caribbean is the center of the Afro-Venezuelan population. The lion's share of historically easy-to-access are in Zulia, around Lake Maracaibo, making the state with the one of the country's largest indigenous population also a center of the nation's wealth. The resulting gap in wealth and living standards is so striking it hurts.

Caracas continues to be a town dominated by the rich and the white and the often explicitly racist; descendants of the mantuano elites of the colonial and post-colonial era.

The barriers to adding some blackness to the increasingly mestizo criolloismo will be hard to overcome. However, advances made by the indigenous populations of the country provide hope for a cautious optimism as the struggle continues.

Venezuela Grants Land to Indigenous Communities On Indigenous Resistance Day

Indigenous Resistance Day in Caracas (Prensa YVKE Mundial)

Caracas, October 13, 2009 ( - Celebrating 517 years of indigenous resistance to invasion and colonisation Venezuela marked Indigenous Resistance Day on Monday with a street march through the capital, Caracas, the granting of title deeds to indigenous communities, and a special session of the National Assembly.

Across the Americas October 12 is widely celebrated as Columbus Day, the day in 1492 when Christopher Columbus, representing the Spanish Crown, first arrived in the Americas. In 2004 the Venezuelan government officially changed the name to Indigenous Resistance Day.

In Caracas, thousands of members of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), together with members of Venezuela's 44 indigenous groups, marched to the National Pantheon, in order to celebrate achievements for indigenous peoples under the Chavez government and claim their rights as the original inhabitants of the country.

A special session of the National Assembly then took place in the Pantheon, where the remains of 16th Century Indigenous Cacique (Chief) Guaicaipuro lie as well as those of Venezuelan independence leader Simon Bolivar, who fought against Spanish colonialism.

Also during a special ceremony in Zulia state, Venezuelan Interior Relations and Justice Minister, Tarek el Aissami, handed over title deeds covering some 41,630 hectares of land to three Yukpa indigenous communities in the Sierra de Perija National Park.

"Today we join in this celebration of Indigenous Resistance Day, the day of the dignity of the indigenous peoples of Latin America and particularly of the Bolivarian and Revolutionary Venezuela," stressed the minister.

Yupka community spokesperson Efrain Romero said, "It's historic to receive title to the lands we inhabit," and added, "We reaffirm our fight for this revolution to continue advancing (...) we reaffirm our support for President Hugo Chávez."

In recent years the Sierra de Perija region has been the scenario of a fierce conflict between large "landowners" and the indigenous communities who were forcibly driven off their lands during the Perez Jimenez dictatorship in the 1940s.

The situation came to a head in July 2008 when Yukpa indigenous communities occupied 14 large estates to demand legal title to their ancestral lands. Estate owner Alejandro Vargas and four others, armed with guns and machetes, responded by attempting to assassinate the Yukpa cacique (chief) Sabino Romero, who was leading the occupations, and beat and killed Romero's elderly 109-year-old father Jose Manuel Romero.

Then on August 6 hundreds of armed mercenaries, hired by large landowners, attacked the indigenous communities.

At the time Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez slammed what he described as the "ambiguous attitudes" of some government functionaries in dealing with the land demarcation process and ordered an investigation into the violent attacks.

"There should be no doubt: Between the large estate owners and the Indians, this government is with the Indians" Chavez said.

During his speech today El Aissami emphasised that the delivery of title deeds of land to indigenous peoples is one of the policies promoted by the National Executive to ensure comprehensive recognition of the ancestral territorial rights of indigenous peoples.

Sergio Rodríguez, a spokesperson for the Environment Ministry clarified that other areas belonging to Yukpa communities are yet to be demarcated but said the ministry, together with the indigenous communities and other agencies that comprise the National Demarcation Commission, "will continue to work to resolve the situation. Our goal is to provide land titles to those Yukpa sectors that lack them by the end of the year."

However, another dispute in the Sierra de Perija region between the Barí, Yukpa, and Wayúu indigenous peoples resisting coal mining on their lands on the one hand and the state-owned Corpozulia, still has not been fully resolved.

The government is also expected to hand over title deeds covering 5,310 hectares to the 366 strong Palital community, belonging to the Kari'ña ethnicity in the state of Anzoategui.

Speaking at the closing ceremony of the III Congress of the Great Abya Yala [the Americas] Nation of Anti-Imperialist Indigenous Peoples from the South in the remote Amazonas state, Minister for the President's Office, Luis Reyes Reyes, also granted credits to representatives of indigenous communities to assist in agricultural production.

Despite many unresolved issues, indigenous peoples have made significant advances in Venezuela over the last 10 years. The Bolivarian Constitution adopted in 1999, through Art. 8 specifically emphasises recognition and respect for indigenous land rights, culture, language, and customs. According to the constitution, the role of the Venezuelan state is to participate with indigenous people in the demarcation of traditional land, guaranteeing the right to collective ownership. The state is also expected to promote the cultural values of indigenous people.

Article 120 of the Constitution also states that exploitation of any natural resource is "subject to prior information and consultation with the native communities concerned."

In 2003 the government also initiated the Guaicaipuro Mission, a social program aimed at the promotion and realization of indigenous rights as recognised in the constitution.

Venezuela's indigenous people, who comprise approximately 1.6% of the population, also have three indigenous representatives in the National Assembly.