By SIMON ROMERO
Published: October 6, 2008
PUERTO AYACUCHO, Venezuela — Three years after President Hugo Chávez expelled American missionaries from the Venezuelan Amazon, accusing them of using proselytism of remote tribes as a cover for espionage, resentment is festering here over what some tribal leaders say was official negligence that led to the deaths of dozens of indigenous children and adults.
Some leaders of the Yanomami, one of South America’s largest forest-dwelling tribes, say that 50 people in their communities in the southern rain forest have died since the expulsion of the missionaries in 2005 because of recurring shortages of medicine and fuel, and unreliable transportation out of the jungle to medical facilities.
Mr. Chávez’s government disputes the claims and points to more spending than ever on social welfare programs for the Yanomami. The spending is part of a broader plan to assert greater military and social control over expanses of rain forest that are viewed as essential for Venezuela’s sovereignty.
The Yanomami leaders are wading into a politicized debate about how officials react to health care challenges faced by the Yanomami and other Amazonian tribes. In recent interviews here, government officials contended that the Yanomami could be exaggerating their claims to win more resources from the government and undercut its authority in the Amazon.
Meanwhile, the Yanomami claims come amid growing concern in Venezuela over indigenous health care after a scandal erupted in August over a tepid official response to a mystery disease that killed 38 Warao Indians in the country’s northeast.
“This government makes a big show of helping the Yanomami, but rhetoric is one thing and reality another,” said Ramón González, 49, a Yanomami leader from the village of Yajanamateli who traveled recently to Puerto Ayacucho, the capital of Amazonas State, to ask military officials and civilian doctors for improved health care.
“The truth is that Yanomami lives are still considered worthless,” said Mr. González, who was converted to Christianity by New Tribes Mission, a Florida group expelled in 2005. “The boats, the planes, the money, it’s all for the criollos, not for us,” he said, using a term for nonindigenous Venezuelans.
The Yanomami leaders offer a far different image of the tribe than those found in anthropology books, which often depict it in Rousseaulike settings with painted faces and clad in loincloths.
There are about 26,000 Yanomami in the Amazon rain forest, in Venezuela and Brazil, where they subsist as seminomadic hunters and cultivators of crops like manioc and bananas.
They remain susceptible to ailments for which they have weak defenses, including respiratory diseases and drug-resistant strains of malaria. In Puerto Ayacucho, they can be seen wandering through the traffic-clogged streets, clad in the modern uniform of T-shirts and baggy pants, toting cellphones.
Earlier this decade, the anthropology world was consumed by claims by the writer Patrick Tierney that American scholars may have started and exacerbated a measles epidemic in the late 1960s that killed hundreds of Yanomami.
And claims of medical neglect emerged before Mr. Chávez expelled the American missionaries, who numbered about 200. They administered care to the Yanomami with donated medicine from the United States and transported them to clinics on small propeller planes using dozens of airstrips carved out of the jungle.
New Tribes, the most prominent of the expelled groups, has denied Mr. Chávez’s charges of espionage but declined to comment for this article, citing the tense relations between Venezuela and the United States.
Mr. González and other Yanomami leaders provided the names of 50 people, including 22 children, who they said died from ailments like malaria and pneumonia after the military limited civilian and missionary flights to their villages in 2005. The military replaced the missionaries’ operations with its own fleet of small planes and helicopters, but critics say the missions were infrequent or unresponsive.
The Yanomami leaders said they made the list public after showing it to health and military officials and receiving a cold response. “They told us we should be grateful for the help we’re already being given,” said Eduardo Mejía, 24, a Yanomami leader from the village of El Cejal.
The official in charge of transportation in Amazonas’s interior, Gen. Yomar José Rubio of the 52nd Infantry Brigade in Puerto Ayacucho, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But other officials here questioned the claims.
“The missionaries were in Amazonas for 50 years, creating dependent indigenous populations in some places, so their withdrawal was bound to have positive and negative effects,” said Carlos Botto, a senior official with Caicet, a government research institute that focuses on tropical diseases.
“But one cannot forget that the Yanomami and other indigenous groups have learned how to exert pressure on the government in order to receive food or other benefits,” he said. “This does not mean there aren’t challenges in providing them with health care, but caution is necessary with claims like these.”
The dispute has also focused attention on an innovative government project created in late 2005, the Yanomami Health Plan. With a staff of 46, it trains some Yanomami to be health workers in their villages while sending doctors into the jungle to provide health care to remote communities.
“We have 14 doctors in our team, with 11 trained in Cuba for work in jungle areas,” said Meydell Simancas, 32, a tropical disease specialist who directs the project from a compound here once owned by New Tribes Mission.
Dr. Simancas said that more than 20 Yanomami had been trained as paramedics, and that statistics showed that doctors had increased immunizations and programs to control malaria and river blindness across Amazonas.
The Yanomami leaders complaining of negligence acknowledged Dr. Simancas’s good intentions. But they said serious problems persisted in coordinating access to doctors and medicine with the military, which the Yanomami and government doctors both rely on for travel in and out of the rain forest.
Dr. Simancas suggested the claims of the dozens of deaths originated in the village of Coshilowateli, where a holdout American evangelist group, Padamo Mission, has fought expulsion by arguing that its leaders cannot be expelled because they hold Venezuelan citizenship.
“There is subjective data that could be worth investigating,” Dr. Simancas said, referring to Coshilowateli, “but it comes from a community in a situation of political tension.”
Michael Dawson, a leader of Padamo Mission, denied the claims of negligence were exaggerated or politically motivated. He also said they originated not in Coshilowateli, but in villages where the Yanomami were converted to Christianity by missionaries Mr. Chávez had expelled.
“It is easier for them to just blame us rather than admit they have really not helped the Indians much,” said Mr. Dawson, 53, who was born and raised among the Yanomami. “Every name on the list is a verified case of an emergency where repeated requests for help went out over public airwaves via ham radio.”
For their part, Yanomami leaders point to what they consider to be a broad pattern of neglect and condescension from public officials. “They put pictures of Yanomami everywhere, on tourist brochures, in airport lobbies, even on ambulances here in Puerto Ayacucho,” said Andrés González, 38, a Yanomami leader.
“That’s where they want us, in pictures, not positions of power,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Yanomami who do make it here for medical care stay at a squalid compound once owned by foreign missionaries who were expelled in 2005. In the property’s trash-strewn yard, women cook manioc in steel pots over a fire, under the shade of a mango tree.
The men lounge in hammocks slung in an open-air shed. Pedro Camico, 36, said he traveled here from El Cejal after one of his children died of malaria; she was not on the Yanomami leaders’ list of 50 dead. He stood by his son, Misael, 4, also sick with malaria but with the hope of recovery through medicine here.
“I have one child dead and another alive, but I am here with my son,” Mr. Camico said. “I am one of the lucky ones.”