Venezuela Facts
Area:    912,050 sq. km.
Capital:    Caracas
Total Population:    21,483,000 (source: UN, 1995, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The indigenous of Venezuela have few of the risk factors for rebellion. They are minimally cohesive and have restricted their activities largely to nonviolent protests in the recent past. Venezuela is also one of the longest established democracies in Latin America. Furthermore, under the 1999 constitution passed under the leadership of President Hugo Chavez, both political and economic remedial policies are in place to address indigenous concerns.

Indigenous are likely to continue low to moderate levels of protest. However, in recent years, these have been directed less at the government and more consistently at international financial institutions and the large-scale development projects they fund. Indigenous, on the whole, support the Chavez administration.

Analytic Summary

There are some 27 different indigenous groups in Venezuela, but only four of those groups have populations in excess of 10,000 people. The Wayuu (also known as the Guajiro) is a semi-nomadic traditional group living along the Columbian border on the Guajiro peninsula. Of surviving indigenous groups today, the Wayuu are the most assimilated, having adapted to the modern economy (LANG = 2). A community of 10,000 Wayuu live on the outskirts of Maracaibo, though health and sanitation is a problem here as few have running water or drainage. The Yanomami, the most isolated indigenous group, live along the Orinoco and Amazonian tributaries in southern Venezuela. The Piaroa live along the Colombian border in central Venezuela and the Warao live along the Caribbean coast near the border with Guyana (GROUPCON = 3).

Venezuela's indigenous peoples were traditionally warlike, presenting fierce resistance against the Conquistadors. Most native groups either fought until they were destroyed or were forced into the Venezuelan interior. Many groups (especially the Yanomami) have had limited contact with Venezuelans and are largely ignorant of the outside world (CUSTOM = 1). However, in the last half a century, Venezuelan mestizos and some whites have come into greater contact with the Indians. (ETHDIFXX = 8)

In 1948, indigenous grievances were first acknowledged by the Venezuelan government through the establishment of the National Indigenous Commission. The foundation of the Central Office on Indigenous Affairs (OCAI) followed in 1952, though the degree to which it has protected indigenous rights has varied with the times and political tides. The 1990s has seen considerable progress in the protection of indigenous culture and political rights (POLSTAT = 2).

As a whole, the indigenous people have still not been wholly integrated into the political system. The isolation of many groups has apparently made it difficult for them to participate meaningfully. For many years, indigenous groups have been requesting a system of proportional representation for ethnic minorities. They are significantly underrepresented in the legislature and government and even fewer work for agencies overseeing indigenous affairs. Because of their lack of representatives in the Venezuelan Congress, they have formed the Indigenous Congress of Venezuela as a forum for protecting indigenous rights. Indigenous peoples have rarely succeeded in obtaining protection of their ancestral lands from development and other forms of encroachment.

The situation facing indigenous Venezuelans has historically been quite bleak. Many lack health and educational services and are undernourished (ECOSTR99 = 10). Many also lack clean water and sewage facilities. Increased contact with non-indigenous persons of both Venezuelan and non-Venezuelan descent has increased their susceptibility to diseases such as cholera, hepatitis-B and malaria. Despite the protection of the Venezuelan government, Yanomami land is still encroached upon; the Guiana Gold Rush (which started in 1989) introduced disease, as well as prostitution (MIGRANT = 2). The military has repeatedly tried to protect the tribe and the resources of the region from exploitation, but the soldiers often bring diseases just as the goldminers. More than 2,000 Yanomamis have been killed due to conflict and disease since 1986.

In addition to gold mining and oil ventures, power line construction in the Gran Sabana, Orinoco delta, Mapauri, and Canaima National Park has affected the Pemon, Karina, Akawaio, Arawako, Ye'kwana, Warao, and Wayuu peoples. Indigenous groups have knocked down electrical towers and demonstrated to protest the project. International environmental groups (such as Conservation International) have provided some support for these indigenous groups, though how effective this support has been remains unclear. In 2000, President Chavez and 54 indigenous leaders signed an accord that would respect the rights of indigenous communities in the area and allow the project to continue – a sign that the Chavez administration may be more willing than past regimes to negotiate and facilitate the demands of indigenous peoples. Also, in 2001, Chavez announced several programs – including establishing indigenous-run cooperatives, provision of telecommunication centers and scholarships for indigenous youth – designed to alleviate indigenous poverty (ECDIS01-03 = 1).

Other indigenous groups of Venezuela suffer from similar problems. The Wayuu are pastoralists who have required grazing land in the Guajiro Peninsula, which is regularly encroached upon by cattle ranchers (DEMSTR99 = 6). The Warao and the Karinas in the northeast have been adversely affected by oil exploration. Karinas land has been overtaken by oil companies, and bauxite mining has affected groups in the interior.

Discontent with the ability of the government to protect indigenous rights led to the establishment of autonomous institutions (GOJPA03 = 2). In 1989, the National Indian Council of Venezuela (CONIVE) was founded to save their lands and defend Indian rights in the face industrial and commercial development. CONIVE represents more than 23 indigenous ethnic groups, and has begun to work with other indigenous groups in South America to discuss strategies and advocate for internal and international pressure to preserve indigenous lands and rights.

In 1998, Hugo Chavez won the presidential elections by a landslide, replacing the unpopular Rafael Caldera, whose administration was plagued by constant protests from workers and indigenous people over IMF-backed economic measures. With strong backing by the poorest Venezuelans, Chavez was sworn into office in February 1999. By December 1999, he had pushed through his plan to write a new Constitution. The Constituent Assembly, in charge of drafting the constitution, consisted of 131 members, three of which were elected only by indigenous Venezuelans. An 11-member Commission on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was able to get a chapter on indigenous rights included in the new constitution, which was ratified by referendum in December 1999. This marked a turning point in the degree of institutional representation afforded to indigenous Venezuelans, and marked the first time indigenous rights (i.e., cultural recognition and sovereignty, land rights and resource control, and access to basic public services) had been constitutionally recognized (POLDIS00-03 = 1). While three indigenous parliamentary members introduced a bill to clarify how the rights are to be implemented, it remains to be seen if they will be secured in practice. In 2002, 31 indigenous languages were made official languages, in addition to Spanish.


Amnesty International. Various reports. 2002-2003.

Area Country Study: Venezuela (1990). pp. 63-66.

C.I.A. World Factbook, 1994.

Inter Press Service.

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Los Angeles Times.

New York Times.

Perrin, Michel. The Way of the Dead Indians. 1987.

"Population: Amerindians, Venezuela's Forgotten People." Inter Press Services, July 12, 1993.

Reuter's Textline Service.

U.S. State Dept. Human Rights Report. 1993, 1994, 2001-2003.

U.S. State Dept. Background Notes. 1995

Washington Post.


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