PUERTO AYACUCHO, VENEZUELA
VENEZUELA, besieged by drug traffickers, guerrillas, and gold prospectors encroaching from across the Brazilian border, is trying to assert its presence in the Amazon region. But National Guard plans to recruit Amazon Indians to defend the remote jungle have received a cool reception from the Indians, who often have not had good relations with the guard.
At a recent conference called by the guard to announce its plan, the Indians complained about everything from the lack of schools and health facilities to abuses by National Guard soldiers. They say the guard sometimes stops them on the way to market and steals their produce.
The guard's proposal, which goes by the name Border Security and Indian Aid, seeks increased government spending on the 15 Amazon Indian ethnic groups to make them feel more a part of the country.
``Our policy is to integrate the Indians into national development,'' said Gen. Atilio Zambrano Castellanos, who commands the National Guard in Venezuela's Amazon Federal Territory. ``It's something we have to do.''
Politicians and businessmen in Puerto Ayacucho, the Amazon's regional capital, say the National Guard's plan is long overdue. Until recently Venezuela has focused its economic development on the easily accessible petroleum reserves in Caribbean coastal areas, leaving the Amazon untouched.
The collapse in the world price of oil, however, is forcing Venezuela to look more closely at the Amazon as a potential source of wealth from minerals, farming, hydroelectric power, and tourism.
Indians in the area say they welcome new investments that could bring much-needed jobs and social benefits. But they say they want more than an improvement in their material welfare.
``In order to integrate Indians into the nation, they'll have to be seen as something more than third- or fourth-class citizens,'' Tito Prato, president of Venezuela's Indian Council, told a recent conference called by the National Guard to unveil its new policy. ``We are the most important resource the Amazon has.''
Comprising the southern quarter of the country, Venezuela's Amazon is the size of the state of Missouri. But so few people live there that its population density is about equal to that of Alaska. About half the 70,000 residents are Indians.
Most Indians are found along the loosely guarded, 1,000-mile-long frontier that separates Venezuela from Brazil, with its gold prospectors, and Colombia, with its drug traffickers and guerrillas.
Colombian traffickers smuggle cocaine through the Venezuelan Amazon in boats traveling down the Orinoco River and on to the offshore island of Trinidad. From there the drugs are shipped to Europe and the United States.
The guerrillas of Colombia's National Liberation Army are active in border areas to the north, but Venezuelan officials fear the rebels will eventually spread into the Amazon. Brazil, though, is the biggest worry.
Venezuelan officials privately complain that Brazil's aggressive policy of Amazon colonization threatens Venezuelan sovereignty by pushing more and more settlers over the border.
Referring vaguely to the schemes of ``neighboring nations,'' Rafael Angel Polon'ia Ortega, governor of the Amazon Federal Territory, says Venezuela is ``running the risk of losing part of our territory by the year 2010'' if it doesn't populate the Amazon.
The National Guard hopes to strengthen border defenses by building better ties between the Indians and the central government in Caracas, 350 miles to the north of Puerto Ayacucho, but the barriers facing the new policy became obvious at the recent conference, where Indians and officials took sharply different points of view. Officials there exhorted the 100 Indians in the audience to defend the Venezuelan fatherland.
According to Luis J. Gonz'alez Herrera, former governor of the Amazon Federal Territory, Indians must become border ``soldiers.''
``Brothers, we're being discriminated against,'' said Andr'es Romero, a delegate from the Guajibo tribe. Saying he was ``very tired'' of hearing officials talk about bettering the lives of the Indians but never carrying out promised projects, Romero called the assembled speakers nothing but ``enemies of the Indian.''
Amazon Indians in such countries as Ecuador and Brazil have been demanding more rights for years, but the the conference marked the first time that Venezuelan Indians have spoken out forcefully on their own, according to observers.
``This is really a watershed,'' said Rub'en Montoya, co-director of the Amazonia Project, affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.
Observers said the new stirrings of Indian militancy pose some unexpected problems for the National Guard, which will now have to follow a line of careful diplomacy if it hopes to incorporate Indians into the defense of Venezuela's Amazon frontier.