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Democracy's limits

Jaime Turón would seem to exemplify both democracy at work in Latin America and the increasing respect being paid to the culture and rights of indigenous peoples. A Ye'kwana Indian, in 1996 he was elected the first mayor of Venezuela's Upper Orinoco District, a vast land of forest and savanna on the border with Brazil that is probably best known for also being the homeland of the Yanomamö people.

But on a recent visit to Washington, D.C., Turón expressed anything but satisfaction with the recent events. Instead, he voiced anger, frustration and fear about what is happening to his 22,000 constituents, and the little he can do about it.

As he described them, events in the Upper Orinoco District are the latest chapter in the troubled history of contact between America's indigenous peoples and European influences. The process there began with the arrival of Salesian missionaries early this century, he said, starting the erosion of the local culture and introducing diseases against which the indigenous people had no immunity. In recent years, gold miners have invaded the area, poisoning streams, usurping land and further spreading disease. Record flooding devastated the region in 1996, and now El Niño has brought drought and fires, which have destroyed Indian garden plots.

His people are weakened by hunger and disease, said Turón, and thousands have died. Moreover, his authority is being challenged by the missions, ideological extremists and guerrillas.

Anthropologist Napoleon A. Chagnon, who accompanied Turón in the U.S., has organized shipments of medical supplies to alleviate the health crisis. But logistical and other problems have prevented most of them from getting through to the intended beneficiaries.

Chagnon said that more than anything else, Turón's constituents need a helicopter or a hospital boat to reach remote villages. It wouldn't be much, but it could help.

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