Women in the Venezuelan Revolution

Against the Current, No. 115, March/April 2005

Global Women's Strike

[This contribution by Global Women’s Strike (http://womenstrike8m@server101.com) is adapted from an unpublished article by Selma James and Nina Lopez-Jones. The Global Women’s Strike’s connection with Venezuela began when GWS was invited by the Venezuelan Women’s Institute to attend the first Women’s International Solidarity Conference in July 2002, and again in 2003 for the first anniversary of the reversal of the coup.

GWS has since formed Bolivarian Circles in a number of countries; produced two documentary videos — the latest a video of interviews with oil workers on their entry into the revolution — and other information to publicize and defend women’s gains and direction in the Bolivarian process; denounced the U.S. trade union federation AFL-CIO for funding and supporting in other ways the corrupt Venezuelan union CTV which was involved in the coup; and organized a U.S. speaking tour for Nora Castañeda, President of the Women’s Development Bank, in January-February 2004, to counteract wide media disinformation regarding the Bolivarian “proceso.”

The tour raised over $90,000 for women’s grassroots projects, reversing in a token way the flow of funds from Latin America to the United States and Europe ($2.5 trillion in the past 20 years).]

IN THE REFERENDUM of 15 August, 2004 Venezuelans reaffirmed Hugo Chávez as president by a vote of 59% to 41%. We know that the 59% was overwhelmingly the voice of the poorest, not only reaffirming Chávez in power but insisting that the program of change continue and increase.

When five of us from Global Women’s Strike groups in London, the United States, Peru and Guyana went to Venezuela as international observers for the referendum, the “NO to the past” signs we saw all over Venezuela made it clear there was no turning back. Two-and-a-half months later, Chávez achieved a near-sweep in the October 31st regional elections, winning 20 out of 22 states.

The 41% of who voted against Chávez in the referendum are led by a small but vocal elite, who own almost all TV channels and newspapers. Before Chávez they were in charge of Venezuela’s considerable revenue from its nationalized oil. They retain control of much of industry. Thus their interests have structured the economy.

But the elite’s coup in 2002 failed, as did their sabotage of the oil industry, both U.S.-backed. Before the referendum, one of their number, ex-president Carlos Andres Perez, called publicly for the assassination of Chávez. They continue to insist that the referendum defeat they suffered was fraudulent, despite its unanimous endorsement by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and the Carter Center, the Organization of American States, and over 100 independent international observers.

Venezuela is the world’s fifth largest oil exporter, yet 80% of its population, mainly people of African and Indigenous descent, were still living in poverty after 40 uninterrupted years of rule by those who now lead the opposition.

With powerful friends in Washington, Chávez’s opponents object to his anti-poverty programs which challenge the structure of power — untold wealth at one pole and an impoverished majority at the other — in favor of the majority.

There is no more striking example of this than Banmujer, a bank set up by President Chávez in response to women’s demand for a micro-credit bank which would benefit the poorest families and communities. Banmujer is central to restructuring the economy and to supporting and encouraging the self-activity of every sector beginning with the grassroots, tackling poverty in all forms.

To date Banmujer has awarded more than 45,000 micro credits and is building a network of users, which is now national, to act together, educating themselves politically and organizationally to appreciate their own power and how to use it. Here is how Nora Castañeda, an economist appointed by President Hugo Chávez to head Banmujer and who is the point of reference for this grassroots network, explains the bank’s purpose:

“Micro credits are an excuse to empower women. We believe that the economy must be at the service of human beings, not human beings at the service of the economy. We are building an economy based on cooperation and mutual support, a caring economy. And since 70% of those who live in conditions of poverty in the world are women, economic change must start with women.”

Unlike other micro-credit banks, such as the Grameen in Bangladesh, Banmujer’s interest rates are government-subsidized. Banmujer is based on helping to develop cooperation among women. Credits can only be obtained if women get together to work out a project which is both viable and what the local community wants and needs.

The users of Banmujer, housewives and mothers who have formed such co-operatives and associations, have been active everywhere: from agriculture to education and health missions, neighborhood groups, water and land committees. Banmujer users were among the first to mobilize to defeat the coup in 2002, thereby saving their constitution, their president, their democracy, their revolution.

Again in 2004 they led the way in forming UBEs (Electoral Battle Units) to ensure victory in the referendum and the regional elections. These grassroots women know what they have already won in “el proceso.” As a mother who risked her life demonstrating against the April coup told her husband when he tried to stop her from going, “Don’t you understand, it is for my children that I am going!”

The Venezuelan Constitution, passed by over 70% of voters, is the first in the world to recognize that women are workers. Article 88 states:

“The State guarantees equality and equity between men and women in the exercise of their right to work. The State recognizes work in the home as an economic activity that creates added value and produces social welfare and wealth. Housewives are entitled to Social Security in accordance with the law.”

This Article, one of 350, is as Nora Castañeda has said, “the most revolutionary article” because it values women’s work of survival. And this work is the linchpin of every economy, a truth which capitalist economics, which begins with money and the market rather than with human survival, let alone the planet’s, has succeeded in hiding. Further, in recognizing the unwaged caring work women do, the Constitution begins to value most of the world’s work  — of women as well as of men — which, because it is unwaged, has been unvalued, often invisible, and never “the economy.”

The International Wages for Housework Campaign, which gave birth to the GWS, has been fighting for decades to make this work visible: quantified and valued. It has taken a revolution for this social and economic recognition, that an international movement fought for, to be enshrined in a national constitution. As Castañeda has explained:

“We [Venezuelan women] were invited [by the first Chávez government] to submit proposals and we did.  The women’s movement and the Indigenous movement picketed, every day, for four months while the Constitutional Assembly was sitting, and we got what we wanted. The members of the Assembly, women and men, recognized the historic importance of our struggle.”

Many other important laws and policies have been passed reinforcing anti-sexism, anti-racism and the movement against every kind of discrimination. For example, Article 14 of the Land and Agricultural Development Law (aimed at achieving food security and sovereignty so that the population is well fed and is rid once and for all of its colonial dependence on imports for 65% of its food) assigns priority to women-headed households in the distribution of land, and entitles pregnant women to food subsidies before and after giving birth.

All this helps explain the 59% who voted for Chávez in the referendum. But who are the 41% who voted against him; what are their intentions, and can they be won over? Or must they continue to be Washington’s lever in Caracas?

Along with the elite, most of Venezuela’s middle classes have opposed the redistribution of wealth and especially the way Chávez is carrying it out. They complain that it is “dictatorial” to bypass state institutions and create parallel structures based on the direct participation of the previously most excluded sectors.

Yet according to Dr. Thais Ojeda, who is a member of the Clase Media en Positivo (Middle Class Positive), it is the state institutions that have blocked reforms. Dr. Ojeda is deeply critical of her peers; people in many countries may recognize their own experience with professionals in what she describes.

“For the first two years Chávez thought that doctors and educators, whom you expect to be more socially aware, would support changes that were for the good of the majority. But that didn’t happen. Only 2% of doctors support the process of change, and obstacles were put in the way of ideas, orders, directives that came from the Minister of Health or of Education, so they never got implemented, never reached the grassroots. In response, the government set up a parallel national system of neighborhood health clinics and education campaigns.”

Known as missions, these are implemented by the users and those most concerned with the health and well-being of the family: that is, women, the main carers.

The professionals, used to running the state, are resistant to the will of a majority who, like Chávez, is the color of their servants. Caring professionals were never expected to give anything but cursory care to the ones who could not pay.

Says Dr. Ojeda: “I come from state hospitals, I know.  Doctors are paid for six or eight hours work but the pay is low so they work for two or three hours, and spend the rest of the time in private hospitals for high salaries.”

While a new crop of Venezuelan doctors is training in Cuba to minister to all, the government is relying on 13,000 Cuban doctors who have come to serve the Venezuelan grassroots.

Ojeda’s political training has a source deep in modern Venezuelan history. Her father Fabricio headed the Democratic Front that defeated the 1950s dictatorship. Two years later he resigned from parliament in protest at the corruption of the elected parties. He was imprisoned and then assassinated in 1966, when his daughter was a child. This Venezuela is still at the back, and sometimes at the front, of people’s mind.

Blanca Eekhout, who started by heading Vive TV, the new government channel, tells a similar story of obstacles put in the way of change.

“As the legislation giving rural people the right to idle land came into force, over eighty rural leaders and their families were assassinated by powerful landowners.  They had no protection.  We reported on it and when Chávez saw our program he sent soldiers to ensure that taking the land that our constitution says is theirs would not be a death sentence.”

Blanca is now also head of Canal 8, the main government channel.

With the vote of confidence of the majority under his belt in the referendum, fires raging in Iraqi oil fields, Siberian oil paralyzed and oil revenue rising, Chávez has announced that the reforms so far have been superficial; it is now time to deepen the revolution. “In this new stage, I demand strict application of the constitution and the land law.”

At the same time, Chávez is making conciliatory appeals to those who voted against him to work together for change. Finding some accommodation with the opposition can begin with its grassroots, those who have benefitted from serving the middle class but are not part of it, and who are now benefiting from the government’s missions.

At polling stations for this first-ever referendum there were clear indications that violence — the only alternative to finding accommodation — is avoidable. From 6 a.m. to well after midnight on the long day of voting, millions of opposing voters queued together for as much as fourteen hours to cast their ballot: YES that Chavez go, NO that he stay. In town after town they chanted together: “We want to vote! We want to vote!”

“This is the largest turnout I have ever seen,” exclaimed President Carter. “There are thousands of people in line, waiting patiently and without any disturbance.” The venom of the elite’s spokesmen may not be representative of the inclinations of all their voters.

Thus violence appears inevitable only if Washington insists on intervening further in a country that has demonstrated a deep commitment to peaceful change.

As for the professionals and small business people who voted against Chávez, in a society where the hierarchy is shifting daily, their monopoly of skills is insecure. Dr. Ojeda believes: “As grassroots people get the educational skills that the missions provide, they will begin to replace those professionals who never addressed their problems, and many of those professionals will leave the country.”

Some may indeed decide to take the plane to Miami. But some may be drawn into the promise, the energy and above all the excitement of this massive movement. It appeared to us that the grassroots women of Venezuela were giving leadership to their country — and to us all.

Videos on Venezuela

1. Documentary: “The Bolivarian Revolution: ENTER The Oil Workers”
Produced by the Bolivarian Circle of the Global Women’s Strike, July 2004, 34 minutes. Available in Spanish, or with English subtitles. VHS PAL or NTSC, or DVD, Price: $10.

2. Documentary: “Venezuela — a 21st-century revolution”
Produced by Global Women’s Strike, May 2003, 60 minutes. Available in Spanish, or with English subtitles. VHS PAL or NTSC, or DVD, Price: $10

ATC 115, March-April 2005