Rain Forest Tribe’s Charge of Neglect Is Shrouded by Religion and Politics

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 s.
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.