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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

MasterBlog en Español: Left Behind in Venezuela to Piece Lives Together

September 18, 2010

Left Behind in Venezuela to Piece Lives Together

CIUDAD GUAYANA, Venezuela — The first scavengers one sees in Cambalache, a sprawling trash dump on this city’s edge, are the vultures. Hundreds drift through the veil of smoke that rises from the refuse each day at dawn.
The carrion birds vie with children and their parents for scraps of meat discarded by Ciudad Guayana’s more fortunate residents. Those toiling under the vultures’ wake mutter to one another in Warao, an indigenous language spoken in the nearby delta where the Orinoco, one of the world’s mightiest rivers, meets the Atlantic.
“I’m hungry, and my children are hungry,” said Raisa Beria, 25, a Warao who came here to scavenge for clothes and food.
In one outing this month, Ms. Beria found some rotting chicken still in the packaging from Arturo’s, a Venezuelan fast-food chain. Her daughter, Eugenia, 4, grasped a chicken wing. Flies circled around her small hand. “This is how we live,” Ms. Beria said in accented Spanish.
Such harrowing scenes of misery are supposed to be receding into Venezuela’s history. The country claims in figures it gives the United Nations that it vies with historically egalitarian Uruguay for Latin America’s most equitable income distribution, as a result of oil-financed social welfare programs.
Moreover, President Hugo Chávez has made empowerment of indigenous groups a pillar of his 12-year rule. He has financed indigenous health care projects, an indigenous university and a new ministry for indigenous peoples, who are estimated to number about half a million in Venezuela.
Officials said this year that Venezuela’s tribes had reasons to celebrate the “end of exclusion” because “equality, rights and peace now reign.” Still, if Cambalache’s squalor is any indication, some indigenous people still face a more vexing reality than his government’s words suggest.
Reflecting Venezuela’s political complexity, most of the Warao interviewed here expressed loyalty to Mr. Chávez, even as they ate out of Ciudad Guayana’s garbage. The people interviewed cited their access to some social programs, including literacy projects, as reasons for their allegiance, while others professed more visceral sentiments including pride that Mr. Chávez had affirmed that his own grandmother was a Pumé Indian.
Politics aside, about 300 Warao now live in shacks and tents on Cambalache’s edge, near the banks of the Orinoco. Most migrated from Delta Amacuro, an impoverished state of labyrinthine swamp forests that is home to thousands of Warao.
Scholars who study the Warao people say they put down stakes here around the early 1990s, when a cholera epidemic killed about 500 people in the delta. Many Warao there live in homes built on stilts and eat a diet based on a tuber called ure.
In the delta, oil drilling and demand for heart of palm, the vegetable harvested from the inner core of palm trees, put more pressure on Warao areas. Ciudad Guayana, a Brasília-like industrial city designed by planners from Harvard and M.I.T. in the 1960s, absorbed various Warao communities fleeing poverty.
Some Warao wander the broad avenues here, begging for food. Others sell wares like bracelets at intersections. Others subsist at Cambalache, located minutes from boutiques selling luxury goods and the headquarters of government factories adorned with huge photos of Mr. Chávez.
At Cambalache, the Warao scavenge for food, aluminum, copper wiring and clothing. The daily struggle they describe is a Hobbesian nightmare.
They say thieves prey on those who sell scrap metal to dealers. Some Warao women, they say, sell their bodies to outsiders, contributing to reports of H.I.V. infections in the community. Some perish under the trash-compacting trucks, including a 14-year-old boy who was crushed to death in July.
Faced with these conditions, the Warao here adapt. Adults carry knives tucked into their belts. They shrug at Cambalache’s stench and at the ash from its daily fires, which clogs the airways of those working at the dump.
Bands of Warao children sift through the piles of garbage. On a recent hazy morning, a girl plucked from the trash a half-consumed plastic bottle of Frescolita, a Venezuelan soft drink whose flavor resembles cream soda, and quenched her thirst with what remained inside.
Christian Sorhaug, a Norwegian anthropologist who has lived among the Warao, doing field work here during the past decade, said, “Cambalache is the worst place I have ever seen in my life.”
Entire families arrive at sunrise each day, chasing after trucks that unload fresh cargoes of trash. One truck that arrived at Cambalache this month had painted on its side the name José Ramon López, Ciudad Guayana’s mayor, under the words “Socialist Beautification Plan.”
The authorities know about the Warao who live at Cambalache. Their living conditions are a highly sensitive issue.
The mayor’s office, which refers to the area where the Warao live as “UD-500,” said in a statement that it was planning to build more homes for the indigenous families
Warao leaders and researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, informed federal health officials in 2008 of an outbreak of a rabieslike disease that killed dozens in Delta Amacuro, only to have the authorities refuse to see them, attack them in speeches, try to discredit their findings and open a criminal investigation into their report.
A Cuban doctor working for the government provides basic health care to residents, forwarding Warao with serious diseases like tuberculosis and measles to public hospitals. Wilhelmus van Zeeland, 69, a Dutch priest who works with the Warao at Cambalache, said health care programs had helped lower deaths from sanitation-related diseases since he arrived here in 1999. Corporación Venezolana de Guayana, a state-owned industrial conglomerate, recently donated 15 cinderblock houses to the Warao here.
Pedro La Rosa, 42, who is considered the leader of the Warao at Cambalache, said at least 30 more homes were needed. “We’re never going to leave this place,” he said in an interview. “We’ve claimed this land and made our life in this dump, and this is where our future rests.”
The Warao keep arriving at Cambalache, dividing themselves between squatters who stay and those who come for a few weeks to scavenge goods to sell back in the delta.
Sometimes it is hard to tell who belongs to which group.
As the smoke from Cambalache’s fires blew across the Orinoco, Ismenia La Rosa, 41 — unrelated to Pedro La Rosa — welcomed a visitor to her tent among those the Warao call “floaters,” for their urge to return home to the delta’s swamp forests.
She cradled her newborn son, merely six days old and still lacking a name. He was her fifth child, she said, with an exhausted expression that revealed neither happiness nor sorrow. “My son was born in Cambalache,” she said. “I think this is where he’ll stay.”
MasterBlog en Español: Left Behind in Venezuela to Piece Lives Together: "and they still support their comandante!!! September 18, 2010 Left Behind in Venezuela to Piece Lives Together By SIMON ROMERO CIUDA..."


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