Venezuela’s political crisis spilled over into the spirit realm this week, when the governor of the state of Amazonas threatened to put a shamanic curse on President Nicolás Maduro and his administration.
Broadcast live on the Periscope app, the threat was mostly political theater. But it pointed to a broader problem for South America’s long-ruling leftist governments.
The indigenous minority groups fighting mining, deforestation and oil drilling in the region used to see left-wing leaders as their natural allies in a mortal struggle against global capitalism. Now, many see those leaders and their parties as just as rapacious as any foreign corporation, if not more so.
It’s another telling example of the way the rise and fall of left-wing populism in South America has fractured the region's traditional political coalitions.
In Bolivia and Ecuador in particular, two nations with large indigenous populations, leftist leaders who rose to power with the backing of traditional native groups have seen some of that support flip to fierce opposition. It’s also proving true in Venezuela, which has a much smaller indigenous population, but one that initially supported the late Hugo Chávez and has largely turned against Maduro, his unpopular successor.
The main reason for the breakup? Land-use conflicts across the region have grown mostly more intense, not less, because left-wing populists such as Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales have financed their ambitious social welfare programs with revenue generated from the exploitation of natural resources.
“At the outset, indigenous groups mostly embraced these leftist governments because of their rhetoric behind land rights and social justice and inclusion,” said Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank specializing in Latin America.
“But disenchantment quickly set in among some indigenous sectors as governments quickly discovered that, just like more right-leaning governments, they needed the revenue that comes from development projects in forestry, mining, oil extraction and dam building,” Shifter said.
As the commodity boom of the millennium's first decade began to fade, those governments have tried to maintain spending levels by taking on new debt — mostly in the form of Chinese loans — in exchange for opening up more and more land to extractive industries. That has brought them in direct conflict with indigenous groups that expected the anti-capitalist rhetoric of leaders such as Correa and Morales to give them more control over their ancestral lands, not less.
In crisis-racked Venezuela, where deadly street protests have raged for the past six weeks, the cash-strapped Maduro government has opened up vast new areas of Amazonian territory to mining and other industries. As indigenous leaders in states such as Amazonas have defected to Venezuela’s opposition, the strains with the government have worsened.
Gov. Liborio Guarulla, who has run Amazonas since 2001, said the government informed him this month that he had been banned from running for office again for 15 years, citing corruption accusations he denies. Guarulla responded by saying he’d hex Maduro and his administration with something called “the Curse of the Dabucuri.”
“I assure you that they will not die without torment, and that before they die, they will begin to suffer and their souls will wander through the darkest and most pestilent places before they are able to close their eyes,” said Guarulla, a member of the Baniva ethnic group.
Venezuela’s economic downturn has hit indigenous groups hard. Hundreds of members of the Warao minority have left Venezuela’s Orinoco Delta region for Brazil this year, according to Reuters, and now survive by begging on the streets of Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon basin.
The clashes between the oil-dependent government of Ecuador and the country’s lowland tribes — some of whom eschew contact with the outside world — is even more acute. The government has entered into oil-for-debt agreements with China that have effectively opened up some of the Amazon basin’s most ecologically sensitive areas to drilling. That includes national parks and indigenous reserves once considered off-limits, and as that territory is increasingly encroached upon by the noise of heavy construction equipment, deadly clashes have erupted.
During Ecuador’s most recent presidential election, conservative candidate and former banker Guillermo Lasso was narrowly defeated by ruling party candidate Lenin Moreno, Correa’s former vice president. But Lasso won in the Amazon lowlands and many of the country’s Andean highland areas with large native populations, having secured the endorsement of Ecuador’s largest indigenous party.
Lasso, a free-market conservative, had even promised to put new restrictions on high-altitude mining projects in a region where indigenous groups have resisted such plans.
Sebastian Hurtado, a political analyst in Quito with the Profitas consulting firm, said indigenous groups’ environmental and anti-mining message long ago “put them in conflict with a government whose clear interest was the exploitation of natural resources in order to finance an ambitious spending and investment plan.”
The government still enjoys the support of some indigenous leaders and organizations, Hurtado noted. In some areas of the Amazon basin where oil drilling has expanded, the government has preserved support by building new homes, roads and other infrastructure to offset the impact of the industry.
Moreno, who takes office May 24, has said he will continue with Correa’s “Citizens' Revolution,” which Hurtado notes has also produced tensions that aren't only about natural resources.
“The Citizens’ Revolution has actively sought to limit the resources and abilities or civil society groups, through legislation and a more efficient use of police forces to control protests and demonstrations,” Hurtado said.
Still, he said, it was unlikely that South America’s rightward turn would give the region's indigenous peoples more political influence in their fight to protect land from development. “I think indigenous leaders have been and will continue to be aligned with 'the left,' " he said. “But many of them today — though not all — don't consider leaders to be part of it.”