La Guajira is living an emergency

La Guajira went from experiencing a generalized crisis to becoming an emergency territory aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Education, food and transportation are totally abandoned, while power and drinking water services are described as a luxury by its inhabitants. The widespread violation of the human rights of indigenous people threatens their uses and mores, spirituality and culture in an environment of injustice and political control.

Text: Mariela Nava
Pictures: María Alejandra Sánchez

The Bolivarian indigenous municipality of Guajira is in northern Zulia state. With an extension of 2,369 kilometers and a projected population of 75,000 inhabitants, this territory is home to the Wayuu ethnic group, the largest indigenous population in Venezuela.

The living conditions of the Wayuu have drastically deteriorated due to the complex humanitarian emergency in Venezuela and the consequences of the health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of the Venezuelan State’s historical debts in guaranteeing the satisfaction of the most essential needs in this sub-region, the human rights of indigenous peoples are being violated.

There are 14 indigenous communities in the foreign axis of the parish of Sinamaica, capital of La Guajira municipality. With a population of approximately 1,660 inhabitants, they suffer from the precariousness of public services. There is no potable water or electricity. Health, transportation, and education services are precarious.

Homes of the population of Caño Paijana, one of the 14 communities that make up the foreign axis of the Sinamaica parish, capital of the Guajira municipality.
Kerwin González walks 40 minutes a day to bring drinking water to the house he shares with his family.

In the village of Caño Paijana, one of the 14 communities that make up this foreign axis, Kerwin González lives with his parents, siblings, and nephews. They are eight in total. They live in a Great Housing Mission Venezuela house without electricity, drinking water, or domestic gas.

«I walk 40 minutes a day to get to an artesian well that we have 600 meters from the house. I get up early and prepare the donkey we have with two carafes. I make two trips to bring 100 liters of water that we use for bathing and drinking,» said the young man.

Like the González family, the 15 families that make up the hamlet located on the border with the Padilla Island Municipality repeat the same task. This natural water is not potable and does not have adequate treatment.

The inhabitants state that for a little more than two years, the water trucks have not been providing services continuously in the community, which is why each family locates the freshwater vein in the main pipes that cross the area and builds an artesian well.

Also, for more than two years, the 265 families living in the villages of Caño Paijana and Cardoncito have had no electricity service.

Greilis González, Kerwin’s sister, said that one day the community’s main transformer exploded and was never repaired.

The daily tasks of the González family are reduced to obtaining water and firewood to cook, food such as grains and rice, the foods they consume the most in the only two meals they eat a day.
Children from the Caño Paijana community.

«When it’s hot, we have to put up with it because there is nothing to do. They asked for poles and wires to put in the transformer, but they haven’t brought them. We are used to sleeping in the heat, to living in the dark. Drinking cold water is a luxury; sometimes we buy ice,» she said resignedly.

In the Venezuelan Guajira, temperatures can reach 34 degrees Celsius in the shade. The climate is hot and oppressive, typical of an arid climate. In this environment, the sacrifice of not having potable water becomes even more extreme.

People in La Guajira do not accept the bolivar as the official currency in the Venezuelan Guajira. For this reason, the mayor’s water trucks demand five to seven thousand Colombian pesos for 200 liters of water, equivalent to a pipe, or 15 thousand pesos for a thousand-liter tank when they go to these villages.

Paying this amount for water is a great demand for the families living in these villages, impoverished by Venezuela’s hyperinflation and the lack of livelihoods in this economic context.

Nélida González, the mother of the family, said in a timid voice that living in these conditions is difficult. She said that the family’s daily chores are reduced to getting water and firewood to be able to cook, generally grains and rice which is what they consume the most in the only two meals they have a day. «We don’t eat dinner and we don’t eat protein because there is not enough money, only two of my sons work. Sometimes we eat fish.»

To eat in La Guajira, you have to walk 

The food programs promoted by the Venezuelan state to ensure food security also do not reach the community consistently. «Here there is Mercal, but the bag comes sometimes; it is not a regular one. They bring it when they want to,» said Kerwin.

After two months, in the last week of January, the inhabitants of Caño Paijana had to walk 12 kilometers to reach the village of Sinamaica where they bought the bag that corresponds to them per family.

Payment for each Mercal bag in Guajira is made in Colombian pesos, even though it is Venezuelan territory, and the national currency should be allowed to circulate.

To make the situation even more ironic, the receipt of these payments and the distribution of this food program depends on a national governmental entity, the mayor’s office of La Guajira.

«That time we paid 10 thousand pesos for the Mercal bag; it brought two kilos of flour, five kilos of rice, one kilo of pasta, a sauce, mayonnaise, and a coffee. That is enough for five days; then we have to buy more food. That bag costs in cash 20.00 bolivars or five dollars, but here you don’t see the bolivar; everything is in Colombian pesos», clarified Gonzalez.

It is noteworthy that the content of these products distributed by the State is not sufficient to guarantee or promote a healthy diet for the population, as they lack proteins and enough quantity of food to meet the needs of a family’s diet.

Just as the inhabitants of these villages walk to buy a bag of food from Mercal, they must also walk miles to access health care and education.

Greilis said that her younger siblings walk to the nearest school, Los Puertecitos.

In the community of Caño Paijana, families live without electricity, drinking water or domestic gas.

At one time, there was a public transportation service for the population living in the foreign axis. With the fuel crisis and the lack of resources to maintain a vehicle, now there is no truck to provide the service.

Greilis continued, «The children started walking an hour each way to school this year. Since there is no electricity, there is no virtual education. If we get sick, we have to walk to the village; therefore, we stay at home and treat ourselves with medicinal plants. There are no supplies in the hospital of Paraguaipoa; we have to buy them».

For José David González, general coordinator of the Human Rights Committee of La Guajira, the lack of observance and attention to the needs of the Wayuu population results in a systematic violation of fundamental rights in the indigenous territory, which threatens their way of life, culture, spirituality, uses and customs that are not respected by the governmental entities. «Children and families that inhabit this territory, are at high risk due to the lack of attention from the agencies that have the obligation to guarantee their right to essential services. La Guajira is in crisis,» he says.

«All the outrages that the Wayuu have suffered radically change our daily life and mobility,» said the human rights defender.

Abandoned schools

For indigenous peoples, children are sacred. Their first school is the home, where they learn principles and values, but, in addition, the boy learns from his grandfather how to be a working man, how to be a father, and the importance of his home. In the case of girls, the maternal grandmother is responsible for transferring knowledge from generation to generation. She teaches them weaving and housework.

Their second home is the school, but the panorama is sterile. Although Venezuela has signed international agreements on the human rights of indigenous peoples, the Wayuu children are helpless.

Part of a bust of Simón Bolívar in the Botoncillo Basic School, located on the foreign axis of the Sinamaica municipality.
The Botoncillo Basic School is one of the 7 schools in the foreign axis of Sinamaica, all in a state of abandonment.

In the foreign axis of Sinamaica, there are seven primary education schools, all of which are in a state of abandonment.

Heberto Ferrer, director in charge of the National Educational Unit Los Puertecitos, explained during a tour of the institutions that the lack of electricity, drinking water, and food deteriorates the quality of education even though parents and representatives, together with the teaching staff, make great efforts.

«The conditions are not in place here to provide quality education. We don’t have sanitary accommodations; the children go outdoors. The water we have is because we manage it ourselves. With the collaboration that some representatives give for the enrollment of children, we buy water.»

The return to classes during the pandemic barely allows the school administration to buy a 200-liter pipe that is zealously used for the cleaning of the youngest students.

There are 200 students enrolled in Los Puertecitos National Educational Unit: 49 in three, four, and five-year-olds and 151 students from first to sixth grade. In addition, there are 14 teachers and three mother cooks.

The National Food Corporation is responsible for school canteens in La Guajira, but in recent years the planning and execution of these food programs have been irregular and infrequent.

In October 2021, the management of Los Puertecitos school received 10 bags of food from the Local Committees for Supply and Production to serve its population of two hundred children and teenagers. Three months later, by the last week of January 2022, the delivered amount of food was reduced to two bags.

«The bags only bring carbohydrates. They don’t bring protein.» Ferrer confessed that sometimes they barter with the families of parents who are fishers and exchange rice or flour for fish. «Otherwise, we have to make lucky rice with sausage or mortadella,» he said, referring to the small amount of sausage they use.

Desks in an open-air classroom at the Los Puertecitos National Educational Unit.
The general situation of community schools worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Heberto Ferrer, director of the U.E.N. The Puertecitos.

The COVID-19 pandemic worsened the overall situation in the community schools, according to Heberto.»Heretofore, the water supply was free, the feeding programs arrived every 15 days, and uniforms were provided at the beginning of the school year, but now we have received nothing».

Moved by the reality of his students, he said: «Sometimes the children come barefoot, or with broken tires; this is not the education we used to give years ago. Children no longer have the same performance».

Although there are 200 children enrolled, daily attendance is only 50%. When there is a snack, the attendance rate rises to approximately 70%. «That happens because children often do not have any of the three meals at home, so they walk a kilometer to get to school to eat.»

The preparation of food in this school is also one of the obstacles to the effectiveness of food programs. The mother cooks decided to build an artisanal wood stove because they do not have piped domestic gas supply to prepare food. There is also no access to domestic gas cylinders due to the high cost.

«We ask the children to bring a stowage, a stick of firewood, so that we can cook because we have no gas service. Gas bottles are very expensive. The 48-kilo one costs 75 thousand pesos or 20 dollars, and the 18-kilo one is 50 thousand pesos or 35 dollars.»

Scarce sources of work also limit education. Parents can barely feed their children, making it impossible to buy school supplies. «Some come to school without notebooks, so we work with recycling sheets because we can’t leave the child without studying,» said Heberto.

Studying on an empty stomach

In the Virgen del Carmen sector, in Paraguaipoa, there is an infrastructure of a mission base that was rescued by the community four years ago. Today, the ‘Maternal Sein Virgen del Carmen’ nursery school is located there and cares for 52 children from one to four years of age.

Isabel Correa -who has a four-year-old daughter studying there- says that at least twice a week her daughter misses classes because she has no food.

«Some mothers like me are not able to feed our children before they come to school. Food is the most important thing; that’s why we want you to help us with resources to be able to get ahead with our children,» said the mother.

Without toilets, water, or electricity, this nursery is functioning due to the efforts of teachers, parents, and representatives. Each parent or representative brings a little water for the children’s consumption, and we look for a way to set up a bathroom with a neighbor. The National Food Corporation said that the food would arrive in October, but it never did. Then they told us that in December and nothing so far,» said the teacher in charge of administration, Fidel Urdaneta.

The Virgen del Carmen nursery, in Paraguaipoa, works in a structure recovered by the community 4 years ago.
The teaching staff and representatives of the Virgen del Carmen nursery are waiting for government support, since the structure lacks sanitary rooms, water and electricity.

No specific studies have been published on the food insecurity situation of the Wayuu population in the Venezuelan Guajira, which is reflected in the frustration of parents, representatives, and teachers concerning the education of children and teenagers.

«We know that there are many cases of malnutrition, being the most serious cases in the Sinamaica Lagoon and El Arroyo. They are communities at high risk due to hunger. The government is absent, there is no attention, nobody speaks for our territory, for our children, nor the Wayuu and Añú families», says the human rights defender, José David González.


Paraguaipoa in the dark

After the change of regional government in the state of Zulia in November 2021, Dr. Leonardo Lyon assumed, on January 10, 2022, the direction of the Dr. José Leonardo Fernández of Paraguaipoa Binational II Hospital in the Guajira parish. It is one of the most affected health centers in the context of the Complex Humanitarian Emergency in Venezuela.

This health center should have capacity for 35,000 people, but on any given day, its corridors look dark and desolate due to constant power failures. The first week of 2022 they were without electricity

«We don’t have any rationing; we only know there is a power outage, but not when the electricity will come back,» says Abraham Granda, the administrator of the new hospital management. The blackouts in this area of La Guajira can last for two or three days, or even longer.

Leonardo Lyon, recently appointed director of the Paraguaipoa Binational Hospital, one of the most affected health centers in the context of the complex humanitarian emergency in Venezuela.
A large area of ​​the health center is closed for remodeling that was not completed.

The lack of maintenance on the electrical poles and transformers, in addition to the weather conditions in the area, keep the inhabitants in anxiety because this is what triggers the damage of the electrical infrastructure. «The problem here is the saltpeter; if they would do maintenance every 15 days, the failures would be less. The poles wash in October when it starts to rain,» says Granda.

Ivett Pacheco, human resources manager, said she is concerned about the lack of response that the staff can provide in an emergency. «When the power goes out, you can’t attend deliveries; if an injured person arrives at night, there are no emergency lamps, nothing.»

Although the health care center has a power station with sufficient capacity to keep all its areas operational, it has not been working for more than three months. «What they tell us is that it needs service, but we still don’t have the resources,» continued Granda.

While awaiting a government response and assistance from the United Nations agencies in the field, the new administration of the binational hospital has reported the shortcomings present in the hospital: of five air conditioners, only one is fully functional, two are half working and the rest are damaged; the general services have no bags, bleach, brooms, or gloves for cleaning and the lack of supplies is estimated at 90%. Key emergency medicine is not available.

Darkness reigns in the corridors of the Binational Hospital due to the constant failures of the electrical service.
Una niña recorre los pasillos oscuros del área de emergencia del Hospital Binacional de Paraguaipoa. En ocasiones las fallas eléctricas se extienden por varios días.
The courtyard of the Paraguaipoa Binational Hospital serves as a dump for accumulated waste that, since it is not removed by the municipal sanitation service, is incinerated.

Medical personnel can only tell the patient what supplies, and medications are needed to treat him/her. In the emergency room there is no alcohol, masks, or gauze to provide care to the person who arrives.

There are no reagents in the laboratory, and the imaging unit needs specific supplies to ensure its operation. At present, this unit is in disuse.

It also does not have ambulances for the transfer and referral of cases. With the change of administration in the Zulia state government, the mayor’s office took away the two specialized ambulances the health center had.

The backyard serves as a garbage dump because the municipal garbage collection service is deficient. «There is a lot of garbage accumulated because the sanitation service does not arrive. We haven’t seen it in the village for a long time, since before the pandemic; therefore, the garbage accumulates and what we do is burn a little at a time,» said the administrator.

For now, the new administration managed to activate an artesian well to have water, but the pipes have deteriorated due to inoperability. «For now, we pour the water into a storage tank and take it out with a bottle; the pipelines got damaged because they had not been used in many years,» said Granda.

The new director of the Hospital, Leonardo Lyon, assured that the transition of the regional government has forced them to wait for resources. «We have already presented to the Governor’s Office of Zulia all the needs we have, but since they have just taken over and they are working on the national budget, we are still waiting for help,» he said.

Pacientes esperan en la sala de observación del Hospital Binacional de Paraguaipoa. En el área de Emergencia no hay alcohol, gasas ni insumos para atender a los pacientes.
The existing power station in the hospital has not worked for more than three months due to lack of service.

The outlook for the survival of the Wayuu people

The sustained deterioration in the quality of life of the Wayuu ppopulation is evident in the daily lives of the inhabitants of La Guajira municipality.

For the sociologist and Wayuu culturist Rubia Luzardo, the Venezuelan state’s protection of the fundamental human rights of the indigenous peoples of La Guajira is null.

«Unfortunately, this is not something new. There have been years of absence of an effective policy in public services. I do not observe the accompaniment of an organization that seeks to protect the rights of the indigenous communities. It would be enough to walk around and observe to have a small notion of the reality», she says.

In addition to the lack of essential public services such as drinking water, electricity, and domestic gas, there is the abandonment of the school system and food programs in the communities on the periphery of La Guajira, which prevents indigenous children and teenagers from accessing quality education. Also, the abandonment and ineffective response to the problems of the principal health center of the indigenous sub-region.

View of Sinamaica square. The sustained deterioration of the quality of life of the Wayuu population is evident in the daily life of the inhabitants of the Guajira municipality.

«For reasons of historical derivation, which have to do with ethnic discrimination in Venezuela, the Venezuelan state has a pattern of behavior that attacks indigenous peoples,» says Jesus Urbina, coordinator of Transparencia Venezuela.

For Urbina, La Guajira is not experiencing a crisis, but an emergency. Without economic plans of any nature, which have triggered deterioration in the health system, public services, food, and education, not to mention the lack of access to the Venezuelan currency.

He explains that according to the projections of the last years in La Guajira, there are approximately 75 thousand inhabitants, being a small number in the electoral roll, but despite this «there is an iron political control that seeks to guarantee the greatest number of votes of the people for whoever is exercising power on a national scale.»

«They control the vote with crumbs, with handouts, with that precarious social policy in the food and health area, they control the people with the food bag. It is very painful, but it is a fact in La Guajira», said Urbina.

Without economic plans to alleviate its problems, La Guajira is experiencing an emergency, where access to food, education and basic services is not guaranteed by the Venezuelan State.

Since 2010, the former president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, decreed the creation of Military District No. 1 in the Venezuelan Guajira. This decision went against the ancestral rights of indigenous peoples to their territories and was made without consultation with the Wayuu communities.

The indigenous territory must be respected by the State Public Forces, but this is not being fulfilled, because there have been episodes of repression and abuses by the military authorities, such as those that occurred in April 2020. Also, extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions, and illegal searches have been reported and are still awaiting justice.

«When we work in the communities, and there is a presence of public officials, we emphasize respect for the Wayuu woman and the man as the authority of the family. Many of the violations that occur against human rights are due to lack of training of the alijunas – non-indigenous people – even though the law is very clear,» says José David González, on behalf of La Guajira Human Rights Committee.

Within the framework of the human rights of indigenous peoples, the protection of their free development and cultural preservation becomes fragile in a nation that recognizes itself as multiethnic and multicultural in its national constitution.

This is the sixth text that includes Faces of the Emergency, a series of chronicles, promoted by Codhez and presented in alliance with El Pitazo, to make visible stories that deserve to be told in the context of the complex humanitarian emergency in Venezuela.

Translation: Alejandra León

La Guajira is living an emergency

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