Lisa Lynn Henrito Percy, Guardian of the Pemon People, has been accused of secessionism and treason by the Venezuelan military high command, which triggered urgent action by Amnesty International. In a context of predominantly male leadership, this female leader stands out for her uniqueness as an indigenous woman in a region threatened by mining and smuggling, as well as for her tenacity in defending her land and her people’s self-determination.
A short woman with long, dark hair faces a major of the Venezuelan Army who is guarded by three men in olive-green uniforms. Neither the men’s insignias nor height seem to intimidate her. “If you want to do in this municipality what you are doing in the rest of the country, you are very much mistaken, because there is a people here and we are not going to allow it,” she tells him, defiantly. With strong, determined mannerisms, she stands her ground in the argument with the military man who was trying to get past an indigenous checkpoint on a road in Great Savanna, Southeastern Venezuela. “You are looking out for your own interests. We are defending ours. You know full well who are corrupt here and now you are trying to accuse an entire people,” said the woman in an anonymous video.
The woman who firmly achieved the military’s withdrawal from the road is Lisa Lynn Henrito Percy, a native female leader of the Pemon indigenous people, who have lived in the territory demarcated as Venezuela’s southern state of Bolívar (bordering with Guyana and Brazil) since ancient times.
“If you want to do in this municipality what you are doing in the rest of the country, you are very much mistaken, because there is a people here and we are not going to allow i”Lisa Lynn Henrito Percy
The video, which ends with applause and cheers from a group of indigenous people, recorded one of the many clashes that the leader has faced with military men in the last four years. It is not posted on YouTube and it has not been leaked to social networks. It is shared among the Indigenous communities through modest cell phones as an amulet of courage and pride in a region without Internet connection or electricity service and where gasoline scarcity makes it difficult to traverse Mainline 10, a road that crosses the East of Canaima National Park and connects Venezuela with Brazil.
Lisa Henrito (46) is convinced that the battle she has fiercely waged since the ‘90s will end in her death or incarceration. However, this prospect does not frighten her: she simply sees it as her unavoidable fate.
“I always tell my people: If I have to die fighting this battle, I don’t want to die in vain. I want to be sure that you will continue fighting. And if I’m imprisoned, don’t try to free me. You need to understand that what they want (the military) is the land, not me. Don’t waste your efforts trying to get me out, the fight is that way,” she says to her fellow Pemon as she extends her arms and hands in front of them, as if delineating the path her people should follow if something were to happen to her.
“If I have to die fighting this battle, I don’t want to die in vain. I want to be sure that you will continue fighting. And if I’m imprisoned, don’t try to free me”Lisa Lynn Henrito Percy
Lisa has dedicated more than half of her life to fight the power, a struggle so intense that she feels the passing of time has been harder on her. “I feel as if I’ve lived for a thousand years,” she states.
According to Henrito, that struggle has made her develop a “collective mentality” that prevents her from thinking about herself whenever she receives a threat. That was what happened when she learned that, on a primetime program on Venezuelan state-run TV channel VTV, broadcast on July 23, 2018, Brigadier General Roberto González Cárdenas, a high-ranking military officer, accused her of leading a secessionist movement within the Pemon tribe and of “betraying the homeland.” At that moment Lisa remembered her parents and was concerned about how the statement made against her on screen might affect them, and about the true intent of such slander.
“‘They’re starting the attack and they’re trying to justify military intervention,’ was my first thought. I try to stay rational when such things happen. The attack was on me, but it was intended to create an overall smear campaign against my people – Lisa reflects. It was also clear that they had no evidence of anything and, if they ever produced any, it would be fabricated. They wanted to justify a military intervention to continue trafficking gold and arms. Their final goal was to militarize our territory,” she adds.
The high-ranking officer’s accusation triggered a series of repudiation actions. Amnesty International raised an alert about the attack and sent appeals to the Ministry of Interior, Justice and Peace, the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples and the Ombudsman’s Office.
“Lisa Henrito is being stigmatized for her work as an activist with Pemon indigenous women’s organizations that demand an end to the militarization and mining exploitation of their ancestral territories without informed consultation or prior social impact studies,” reads the statement sent by the organization in August of that year. “The State must guarantee the protection of Lisa Henrito’s physical integrity and put an end to the defamation against her and the stigmatization of her actions defending the rights of her communities.”
Amnesty International based its warning on the Venezuelan Constitution and on the international mechanisms that protect indigenous peoples and their territory, while urging the authorities to “refrain themselves from using expressions that discredit, stigmatize, insult or discriminate against them.”
“The State must guarantee the protection of Lisa Henrito’s physical integrity and put an end to the defamation against her and the stigmatization of her actions defending the rights of her communities”.
The accusations against Lisa were also condemned by the Council of General Caciques, the Pemon people’s representative authority, which in a statement dated July 25, 2018 rejected the “campaign to discredit the indigenous peoples’ struggles as well as their spokespersons,” while ratifying the ancestral identity of the Pemon people and their territorial rights as legitimate inhabitants.
However, beyond prison and death, there are things Lisa Henrito does fear. She worries that her people, the Pemon, will disintegrate; that her nephews, traumatized by the military’s persecution of the indigenes, will never be able to return home after being displaced to Brazil following the Kumarakapay massacre in February 2019; that the young people who rise up against Nicolás Maduro’s government will see their hopes buried forever. “They are destroying an entire generation and some (Pemon) leaders don’t see that,” she says in a frail tone, very different to the one she uses to raise her voice to the military.
For at least two decades, the 46-year-old activist has joined in the defense of her ancestors’ land and confronted all interference, regardless of its origin. As a result, today she cannot leave the south of Bolívar State because of the risk of arrest, or her fear of traveling to Caracas, Ciudad Bolívar or Puerto Ordaz to expose the threats and risks facing her people.
“Just because I speak English and was born in Guyana, the military accuses me of being part of the U.S. State Department and even of being behind the installation of the UNHCR’s tents”Lisa Lynn Henrito Percy
Lisa is being criminalized from the highest power centers, despite the fact that during Hugo Chávez’s government she held positions in the Ministry of Health. “Just because I speak English and was born in Guyana, the military accuses me of being part of the U.S. State Department and even of being behind the installation of the UNHCR’s tents,” she says. She is referring to the assistance camps set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the Brazilian border to house displaced Venezuelans fleeing misery. They are also evidence of the humanitarian emergency in Venezuela that Nicolás Maduro’s government took months to admit.
“Lisa Henrito is a leader recognized not only by the local Pemon community, but internationally as well. She has studied in foreign universities as an UN-endorsed expert on indigenous peoples and has acted as advisor to the Council of Caciques in sector 6 of the Pemon territory. That is why Amnesty International issued the protection alert as soon as a military officer criminalized her on a state-run tv channel program,” says Olnar Ortiz, a human rights defender and coordinator of the Indigenous Peoples’ Criminal Forum.
Lexys Rendón, an indigenous rights activist and researcher for the NGO Provea, explains that Lisa’s education and training have notably differentiated her from the more traditional indigenous leaders and allowed her to have “an extra ability to analyze and understand the facts.” She also describes Henrito as a committed woman who is proud of her culture and represents “a reference point for indigenous Pemon women leaders.”
Deftly wielding the appropriate legal and constitutional tools, Lisa boasts of defending the Pemon people’s territory and self-determination, the fourth largest indigenous people in Venezuela according to the last census in 2011. The population of “the children of the sun,” as described by their own origin myth, exceeds 30,000 indigenous people, most of whom live in the south of the Bolívar state.
A Mining Fence
The creation of the Orinoco Mining Belt in February 2016 marked the intensification of the conflicts for the Pemon people. To carry out this Government promoted mining mega-project, covering 12% of the national territory and intended to encourage the production of strategic minerals such as gold, diamond, coltan, iron and bauxite; Nicolás Maduro’s administration did not perform the due, free and informed consultation with the original inhabitants of the affected ancestral lands, as established by the Venezuelan Constitution and the Law on Indigenous Peoples and Communities. The government also failed to carry out environmental impact studies on this singular biodiversity area where 151 mammal species, 587 birds, 111 reptiles and 95 amphibian species coexist according to reports by La Salle Foundation.
Although the Orinoco Mining Belt polygon is theoretically confined to the North of Bolívar State, it impacts on the neighboring Great Savanna municipality, location of Canaima National Park, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1974 for its immense natural value. Within 3 million hectares of forests, rivers, valleys, savannas and tepuis, the oldest rock formations on the planet, illegal mining takes place despite being forbidden as an Area Under Special Protection Regime (Abrae, in Spanish). This activity is largely performed by its original inhabitants, the Pemon, driven by economic collapse and the decline in tourism, main source of income in this paradisiacal place.
The pernicious effects of the Orinoco Mining Belt were highlighted in the December 2019 updated report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which records “the high levels of violence in the state of Bolivar, and the presence of irregular armed groups, involved with the illegal production of natural resources.” The report states that between November 22 and 23, 2019, at the Ikabarú community (located within Pemon territory,) eight people were killed with firearms, including a Sergeant of the Bolivarian National Guard, a Pemon native and a teenager.
“mineral extraction, especially in the states of Amazonas and Bolívar, has led to violations of [indigenous peoples’] various collective rights”
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had already warned about the presence of military forces, criminal gangs and armed groups in Pemon territory as one of the causes for the loss of control of indigenous lands in a previous report on Venezuela in July 2019. The document highlights that “mineral extraction, especially in the states of Amazonas and Bolívar, has led to violations of [indigenous peoples’] various collective rights, including the right to maintain their customs, traditional livelihoods and a spiritual relationship with their land.”
Lisa Henrito denounces all this as a proud leader of the Pemon people.
Dawns of a Struggle
Lisa recalls her beginnings as an activist in the courtyard of a stonewall house in Mana-krü, an indigenous settlement in the border town of Santa Elena de Uairén, capital of the Great Savanna municipality. This same area was besieged by the military and government-supported armed groups between February 22 and 28, 2019, preventing the entry of humanitarian aid promoted by the National Assembly and Acting President, Juan Guaidó. The incursion left 7 dead, 57 wounded, 65 prisoners and 960 displaced persons who had to flee the repression and bullets.
“My name is not indigenous, it’s actually more gringo. But my name really sums up my life very well: the missionaries’ influence on my parents, the encounter when Adventist missionaries came to the lands of what is now the Great Savanna, the clash with the Catholics,” recounts Lisa Henrito, eldest daughter of the first Adventist Pemon pastor to graduate in Theology.
He was born in Paruima, Guyana, a border area which is part of the vast Pemon territory divided between the aforementioned country, Venezuela and Brazil. Her mother, however, is a native of the community settled on the banks of the Kamarang River, and her grandparents are from the Taurepan tribe, located in Kavanayén, in the heart of Venezuela’s Canaima National Park.
“I come from a lineage of leaders,” she says, standing tall. Motivated by their father’s studies, the Henrito Percy family lived for a while in Trinidad and Tobago and then returned to Guyana, where Lisa studied high school. English and the Taurepan dialect were her first languages. It wasn’t until she reached the legal age that she and her family moved to Venezuela and learned Spanish. She studied and graduated in Business Administration at an Adventist university in Nirgua, Yaracuy State.
It was after this experience that Lisa arrived in her ancestors’ land and settled in Maurak, an indigenous community about 30 minutes away from Santa Elena de Uairén, capital of the Great Savanna municipality, on the Brazilian border. She always kept in her mind her father’s advice: “You are going to study, but to support and help your people.” She followed it to the letter.
Lisa soon joined the defense of the territory. In 1995, she raised her voice against the construction of the Empresa Nacional de Turismo del Sur (Turisur) Hotel Complex, a private project that had the backing of the National Parks Institute (Inparques) but not that of the indigenous people for the construction of a hotel in Sierra de Lema, the gateway to the Great Savanna. Therefore, the project undermined indigenous communities’ right to decide and participate in the administration and use of natural resources in their habitat.
In her 20’s, Lisa joined the Pemon leaders protesting the construction and it was then that she found inspiration in indigenous leaders such as Juvencio Gómez, Silviano Castro and Alexis Romero, whom she still considers her “struggle role models” thanks to their firm and frontal stands. The demonstrations against Turisur in Ciudad Bolívar and Caracas resulted in the indigenous being given the floor at a hearing before the Ministry of the Environment, institution that halted the project in October 1996 when, after a management audit, it determined that the permits granted by Inparques were invalid because they violated the Canaima Zoning Plan.
With the same impetus, Lisa participated in the legendary protests against the Great Savanna power lines in the late ‘90s and also protested to stop Decree 1850, which authorized mining inside the Imataca Forest Reserve.
“I think she is very ‘in-your-face’ and very belligerent, and when something bothers her she expresses herself in the same way. That can be very difficult to understand for a people among which women don’t have that leadership, but male caciques do”Lexys Rendón
However, both struggles were unsuccessful, and the projects were carried out. This led Lisa to retreat and work as an administrator at Canadian mining company Crystallex, which operated in the gold mining area of Bolívar State at the time. It was there that she learned about the harsh conditions mine workers faced. Then, she took over the administration of an Adventist private school in Maurak, one of the 119 indigenous communities in the Great Savanna municipality.
Soon after, Lisa became chief of Maurak, the indigenous community where she still lives. Her tough character, her work to defend the territory, her academic background and the knowledge she had to develop projects to benefit the indigenous people were the reasons why the leaders nominated her to run for the three-year term in 2002. So far, she has been the only woman to achieve such status in Maurak, at 29 years old.
Lisa has stood out as a Pemon leader in a context where women’s role as guarantors of indigenous culture and the permanence of their peoples is attached to motherhood, to planting in the conuco and to preparing casabe, kachiri and tumá, the typical Pemon soup that is eaten collectively. She has earned the respect of her indigenous brothers and sisters in Latin America, where only one in 10 indigenous girls finish high school, according to the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
But being a leader has led her to face discrimination directly. One of her community’s elders confessed to her that he did not agree with her being chief simply because she was a woman.
She found the same resistance even among her own female neighbors. “Once they questioned my participation in an assembly to discuss the problem of early pregnancy in indigenous communities because what would I know about that if I didn’t have a husband or children?” says Lisa.
There are those who criticize Lisa for her strong and combative character, but that may be exactly why her presence creates such an upset within her culture’s customs and roles. “I think she is very ‘in-your-face’ and very belligerent, and when something bothers her she expresses herself in the same way. That can be very difficult to understand for a people among which women don’t have that leadership, but male caciques do,” says Lexys Rendón, director of the Laboratorio de Paz organization.
The specialist explains that this rejection by some may have another explanation. “It is easier to blame her and maintain a non-confrontational position because they know they are vulnerable and because some leaders favor the government politically or get involved with it in commercial, economic or mining aspects. The Pemon have gone through a very strong cultural change due to the government’s co-opting and intervention. Lisa is different from many indigenous women leaders and indigenous men. She is strong-willed, I know, and she may seem overwhelmed by her people’s problems in some discussions. But I can understand her from where I’m standing, because she is aware that part of the Pemon people do not have the will to join the struggle,” stresses Rendón.
“It is easier to blame her and maintain a non-confrontational position because they know they are vulnerable and because some leaders favor the government politically or get involved with it in commercial, economic or mining aspects”.Lexys Rendón
Lisa has also experienced machismo beyond Maurak’s borders. The fact that she was chief for three years allows her to wear a plume at ceremonies. When she wears it at indigenous meetings outside Venezuela, women leaders look at her, astonished. The privilege of wearing that garment is reserved exclusively for men in several Latin American countries.
Lisa blames the Pemon People’s Council of General Caciques for never appointing a woman. She admits she has considered running, but she knows that it would be a hard task. “That is the highest authority. It’s a lot of responsibility. I know I can do it, but if I’m going to do it, I’m doing it right,” she declares.
Henrito does not want to start a political career either. She is not interested in being a mayor, much less a governor. “As an indigenous person, the law protects my constitutional rights. If I get involved in politics, they’ll take me prisoner,” she says.
Proximity to Power
After her tenure as chief, Lisa was appointed treasurer of the Indigenous Federation of Bolívar State during 2005, a public position that excited her until she began to see how corruption networks had begun to encircle the institution, which she now considers fully co-opted by the Chavista government.
“The money the Federation received was never used for its intended purpose”Lisa Henrito
It was the days of the Canaima-GEF project, a natural resource management plan within Canaima National Park to harmonize the Caroní River basin’s economic and social activities with the Pemon’s original rights to such lands. The funds came from the World Bank, provided by the Global Environment Facility (GEF.) “The money the Federation received was never used for its intended purpose,” Lisa says.
The leader decided to resign just nine months after taking over the office. Six years later, the Executive Branch started administrative proceedings against her for allegedly approving money movements related to the Fund. They never managed to prove her guilty.
Lisa’s next step was to enroll in the Ministry of Health’s Indigenous Health program in 2006. Since she was a little girl she was inclined to care for the sick, which is why she used to go to the hospital in her community to talk to patients. When she grew up, she continued to go on Sunday afternoons to sing to and encourage them.
Community leaders proposed that she present and manage a health association for her fellow countrymen, which became the Indigenous Attention and Orientation Service (SAOI, in Spanish,) which was installed in the main health centers in Venezuelan states where indigenous ethnic groups live. The Ministry of Health appointed her as Bolívar State’s regional operational coordinator for a new department that, in the midst of the complex humanitarian emergency the country is going through, has now disappeared from hospitals.
The complex humanitarian emergency can be seen as the result of a combination of political instability, conflict and violence, social inequalities and poverty
The complex humanitarian emergency can be seen as the result of a combination of political instability, conflict and violence, social inequalities and poverty which, in the health sector, resulted in doctors’ exodus, treatment and medicines shortage and precarious healthcare conditions within the public hospital network.
Henrito’s venture into public service was short-lived. Lisa says that in 2007, a year after starting her work in civil service, she retired. “The political attacks against me began,” she says. In the light of the government’s inability to provide indigenous peoples with medicines and supplies, she asked for the collaboration of American Adventist doctors, who were driven out by the government upon their arrival. They started referring to Lisa as an “agent of the empire.”
Lisa is also an academically-trained leader. In 2010, she took the Diploma Course in Strengthening Indigenous Women’s Leadership, given by the Fund for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC) and the Intercultural Indigenous University (UII, in Spanish,) which allowed her to travel in 2010 to Guatemala and Mexico to continue her training. Six years later, she graduated as an expert on indigenous peoples’ human rights from the program of the Deusto University’s Human Rights Institute in Bilbao, which led her to Europe and to an internship at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva.
She immediately began sending messages to the indigenous leaders she knew, “What happened here? How could you allow this?
When she returned to Venezuela in July 2016, in the midst of the economic and social crisis, she received a low blow.
In downtown Caracas, Lisa saw how locals were looking for food in garbage cans, how they begged her for food every time she sat down at a restaurant table. When she arrived in Santa Elena de Uairén, she saw first-hand how the bus terminal had been taken over by criminals. She describes each scene with a saddened expression, still aghast of what she witnessed. She immediately began sending messages to the indigenous leaders she knew, “What happened here? How could you allow this?” she asked.
That was the germ of Lisa’s most rebellious action in all her career as an activist: creating an office of special indigenous jurisdiction provided in the Organic Law on Indigenous Peoples and Communities, which grants the power to autonomously resolve their own conflicts, always safeguarding human rights.
The Tuenkaron of the Savanna
“Tuenkaron is a character who lives in waters, rivers and streams. It’s a small person, usually a woman with long, beautiful hair. She guards nature from the defilers of the environment where she lives, she is protective of her habitat, punishes defilers and whoever sees her gets sick or faints.”
One of the first tasks of the special jurisdiction was to create a Pemon Territorial Guard in 2016 to guarantee the territory’s security. They decided to do so because of the increasingly palpable presence of armed groups in indigenous territory and the murder of a mother and two children of a non-indigenous family settled in Santa Elena de Uairén, a case that involved the Bolívar State Police and criminal groups. Lisa was one of its main organizers and leaders.
The increase in violence in the idyllic Great Savanna has an outbreak date: 2016, coinciding with the moment the Maduro administration made the Orinoco Mining Belt official.
in the three military attacks on indigenous communities that took place in the last two years, the victims were always indigenous persons, never military officers.
The Pemon Territorial Guard also arose due to the inaction of military authorities in dealing with crimes against indigenous people, despite complaints from the general caciques about armed gangs’ actions in the region. Denying the official accusations, Lisa insists that the members of her tribe (over 300 people) have never carried weapons. “If we had been, the result would have been very different,” she says, stressing that in the three military attacks on indigenous communities that took place in the last two years, the victims were always indigenous persons, never military officers.
Under the special jurisdiction, indigenous patrols installed road checkpoints to stop gasoline smuggling, a scarce commodity charged at international rates in the Great Savanna while in the rest of the country it is practically free. The patrols also allow them to collect a “tax” of sorts from illegal miners for gold extracted in the region, since they do not receive anything from the Venezuelan State. “We were protected by the Law on Indigenous Peoples, which establishes that any economic activity carried out in this territory must benefit the communities,” says Lisa. She adds that unlike the illegal checkpoints of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB, in Spanish,) “ours did give the resources back to indigenous communities. We have rights, but we also have duties. We kept a detailed account of expenses, such as medicine; we even bought tires for the GNB’s cars.”
La Guardia Territorial Pemón se convirtió en una especie de fiscalía que impartía justicia en la zona. “Por cometer ciertos delitos como robo, tráfico de drogas y prostitución, aplicábamos castigos de la normativa indígena: rapar el cabello ‘coco pelao’, encierro de 72 horas dentro de un silo, latigazos, cámara de ají (colocar picante en las partes íntimas) y trabajo comunitario”. Lisa es de las que piensa que el principal problema de Venezuela no es la corrupción sino la impunidad. “Si no se aplican sanciones, la persona sigue robando”.
The Pemon Territorial Guard became a kind of public prosecutor’s office, administering justice in the area. “For certain crimes such as robbery, drug trafficking and prostitution, we applied indigenous punishments: full shaving of the head, 72-hour confinement in a silo, whipping, chili pepper chamber and community work.” Lisa firmly believes that Venezuela’s main problem is not corruption, but impunity. “If no sanctions are applied, people continue stealing.”
For almost two years, the Territorial Guard took over the regional police post in Santa Helena de Uairén. They “cleansed” Ikabarú of criminals, a historically mining indigenous community some 70 kilometers from the capital of the Great Savanna municipality. “We were not going to allow armed groups into our territory, wherever they came from. We indigenous tribes gained a certain degree of prestige because people saw that we were actually doing something to guarantee the region’s security,” she explains.
“We were not going to allow armed groups into our territory, wherever they came from. We indigenous tribes gained a certain degree of prestige because people saw that we were actually doing something to guarantee the region’s security”Lisa Henrito
But three years after its creation, the Pemon Territorial Guard’s scope of action has been reduced to indigenous communities following the military attack on the community of Kumarakapay (also known as San Francisco de Yuruaní) on February 22, 2019, where three Pemons lost their lives; these indigenous persons lived in that village, which serves as a base camp on the route to the mythical Roraima tepui, a sacred mountain for the Pemon and one of Venezuela’s most famous tourist icons.
“The biggest threat to the Pemon people is the military,” Lisa says without hesitation.
The leader does not only refer to the most recent assaults, such as that of Canaima Sector 2 (December 2018,) Kumarakapay and Santa Elena de Uairén (February 2019) and Ikabarú (November 2019,) where five indigenous people lost their lives in violent manner. She also speaks about the murders of five Pemons by criminal groups operating in the mining areas of Bolívar state between 2016 and 2017.
On September 26, 2018, José Vásquez, a commander of the Pemon Territorial Guard in the community of Tusaren, was murdered. Police investigations pointed to former National Armed Forces officer Edward Frederick Curuma as perpetrator of the intentional murder with aggravating factors.
“The biggest threat to the Pemon people is the military”Lisa Henrito
Tensions between the Pemon and the military date back to the end of the ‘90s, with the installation of the power lines over Pemon communities for power transmission to Brazil from the hydroelectric plant in Bolívar State. There have been episodes where indigenous people have activated the special indigenous jurisdiction and imprisoned military officers for practices they deemed abusive and in breach of the law. Such a case took place in October 2011 in the Amanaimü mining sector of La Paragua, bordering with Canaima National Park, where about 550 members of 13 Pemon communities arrested and disarmed 19 Armed Forces officers they caught practicing illegal mining in a reservoir that had been closed two months earlier.
Two years later, representatives of 12 indigenous communities of Urimán Sector 3, Great Savanna municipality, arrested and seized the weapons of 43 army officers after the Strategic Region of Integral Defense of Guayana (Redi Guayana, in Spanish) suspended flight authorizations that were allegedly illegal, when in fact they were facilitating the transport of food and patients from remote communities in the South of the country.
“The threat to indigenous leaders is proportional to the struggle for their peoples’ resistance and vindication of their territories”Vladimir Aguilar
“The threat to indigenous leaders is proportional to the struggle for their peoples’ resistance and vindication of their territories,” stresses Vladimir Aguilar, an expert lawyer in indigenous law and director of the Working Group on Indigenous Affairs (WGIA) at Los Andes University, Mérida State.
The Pemon people cannot be conceived of as a unified homogeneous group, warns sociologist and researcher Isaam Madi. Based on their religious differences, he explains that within the Pemon territory, there are leaders and sectors that have been co-opted by Chavismo and are bowing to it while others fight for their identity and autonomy, which are usually the most attacked by the government. Lisa Henrito belongs to the latter group.
Aguilar completes the sociologist’s statement stressing that political partisanship has divided the Pemon. “It is obvious that those who have been at the vanguard of the struggle for territorial claims have been subjected to all kinds of repudiation. But this is a harsh reality suffered not only by resisting Pemons, but also by any indigenous leaders of any people,” he remarks.
“It is obvious that those who have been at the vanguard of the struggle for territorial claims have been subjected to all kinds of repudiation”.Vladimir Aguilar
The government denied the involvement of the Bolivarian National Guard and the Army in the Kumarakapay attack. Far from acknowledging the death of three Pemons, Diosdado Cabello, president of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV, in Spanish,) alleged that it was a “false positive” and accused the opposition party Voluntad Popular and congressman Américo de Grazia as masterminds of such events.
The Minister of Indigenous Peoples, Aloha Nuñez, did not condemn the attack on the Pemon people in February 2019 either. A month after the Kumarakapay and Santa Elena de Uairén massacre, the officer reduced the events to a “confrontation between gold smugglers and the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB)” provoked by “mercenary groups hired by the mayor of Great Savanna who attempted to provoke violence.”
Blood in Kumarakapay
Lisa shivers when thinking of the Kumarakapay massacre as if she were a native of the indigenous village located on the road crossing the eastern sector of Canaima National Park.
She grieves over the dead and the wounded land left by the military attack that occurred in the early hours of February 22 last year, at a time when the National Assembly and interim President Juan Guaidó activated an operation to bring humanitarian aid into the country from Colombia, the Caribbean islands and Brazil to alleviate the most serious emergency in Venezuelan history.
The indigenous people of Kumarakapay were anxiously awaiting the arrival of medical supplies, medicines and food, and that was why they stopped the passage of four military convoys that intended to close the border by orders of Nicolás Maduro’s administration. The army’s response to the community’s action was to shoot them with their rifles, killing three indigenous persons and wounding another 14. Some still have the bullets lodged in their bodies, while others were left with motor disabilities or paraplegic.
At least eighty community members fled to Brazil due to the military harassment. Nothing was ever the same again in Kumarakapay.
Military repression did not stop there. In the following days, military officers also opened fire on people demanding the entry of humanitarian aid into Santa Helena de Uairén. The persecution in Kumarakapay continued because, on the same night of the attack, illegal raids took place in the village. Fearful, the indigenous took refuge in the nearby mountains or locked themselves in their homes for days without being able to even go to their conucos to get food. At least eighty community members fled to Brazil due to the military harassment. Nothing was ever the same again in Kumarakapay.
Part of Lisa’s family is among those who decided to cross the border, never to return. She weeps as she remembers her brother and nephews who had to flee down the trails to Brazil because of the armed persecution against the Pemon. She chokes up when talking about indigenous children currently living in border shelters drawing the houses they left behind with the Venezuelan flag on them, asking when they will go back.
The town of Kumarakapay is not the only place which was granted precautionary measures of protection by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on February 28, 2019, after it was determined that it was in a “situation of gravity or urgency” because its inhabitants’ rights to life and personal integrity were at “risk of irreparable harm.” Following the GNB’s assault on Canaima Sector 2 where Pemon-Kamarakoto citizen Charly Peñaloza was murdered while working as a miner on the Carrao River in December 2018, the area was also granted such precautionary measures. And more recently, the massacre of the Ikabarú mining community in November 2019, where eight people lost their lives, including a Pemon, Edison Ramón Soto Suárez.
“All these attacks are part of the progressive militarization of the Pemon territory,” says Lisa.
“We are all victims. The shooting and seizing of the village was to secure control of our resources: gold, water and wood, as well of the border where the smuggling of goods and strategic materials abounds”.Lisa Henrito
She believes that “with the Kumarakapay and Ikabarú massacre, the Pemon people were deeply wounded.” A year after the first tragedy, she is convinced that the alleged blockade of humanitarian aid was just a façade to attack the Pemon and militarize the Great Savanna. “We are all victims. The shooting and seizing of the village was to secure control of our resources: gold, water and wood, as well of the border where the smuggling of goods and strategic materials abounds.”
Lisa believes that Kumaracapay has always been an “organized, exemplar” community that has not been spared due to its independent political position. “We know very well that for the government there can be no independents: you’re either red or against them. By defending ourselves, we are affecting many of their interests such as trafficking in money, gold, weapons and fuel.”
Lisa admits that after the military assault on Canaima, some chiefs negotiated with the government. She believes that the attack on December 8, 2018 where Charly Peñaloza died was not accidental, but a strength measuring exercise. “They managed to make deals with some indigenous leaders and set the entire struggle back,” she states.
Lisa is openly against mining in Pemon territory, although she understands that indigenous peoples have ancestrally resorted to the activity in order to subsist, not to enrich themselves as the Western conception dictates. “Some communities continue to hold this vision, others less so, especially some higher instances which are not part of the people. Of course, there are those who don’t care about destroying their river just to get the latest Nike sneakers. I don’t support gold mining unless the people decide to participate, but only as a partner of the State, because this is our territory.”
“They’re killing our peoples and there’s no justice”.Lisa Henrito
The threats do not deter Lisa Henrito, quite the contrary. “What army officer is in jail for the Kumarakapay massacre? They’re killing our peoples and there’s no justice. We Pemons are not to blame for the attacks, but we do have a responsibility to be critical and support our agenda. We must value what we are, what we have, continue our struggle. If they come and try to divide us, they have another thing coming. I’m not here to be loved by my people, but to fight for them.”