The following is a response to a June 10 report from US news portal The Intercept on female sterilization in Venezuela. It is written by women’s rights activist Sahili Franco Cipriani, who is a woman’s rights investigator, producer, and activist in Venezuela.
Alongside the economic blockade inherent to the sanctions which the empire of the North and some European nations have imposed on Venezuela, the economic war[i] brings to a simmer a complex and unprecedented crisis.
Shortly after the death of [ex-President Hugo] Chavez, shortages and hoarding of contraceptives began progressively and in a violent fashion, depriving Venezuelan women of the power to decide over the full development of their lives, their bodies and some of their sexual and reproductive rights. Especially affected were the vulnerable sectors of women: poor, black, indigenous, trans women.
On June 10, 2018 the US news portal The Intercept[ii] posted a video entitled ‘No birth control options, desperate Venezuelan women resort to illegal abortion and sterilization’, coverage which was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation[iii].
In the video, journalists Lou Marillier and Daisy Squires included a chronicle of the harsh reality of four Caracas-based women in their day to day reality of bringing up children, deciding how many children to have or not have, their sexual and reproductive needs, and the impossibilities of the full exercise of their rights due to lack of material conditions in a country caught up in a non-conventional war. The chronicle tells of their decision to undergo a permanent sterilization due to not having the capacity to continue carrying, giving birth to, or raising more sons and daughters.
The video was published on YouTube the next day, July 11. Part of the text of the chronicle, and which serves as a synopsis on the Intercept’s channel, reads:
“A rising number of young Venezuelan women resort to extreme measures to not give birth to another child. They are in great trouble, in a country where abortion is forbidden by law and a box of birth control pills costs the equivalent of 10 minimum salaries. Their determination illustrates the depth of the economic crisis that is going on in Venezuela, the worst in the history of the country, and its disproportionate impact on women.”
This story is a short documentary (9.59 minutes in length) which focuses on the decision of some women to be sterilized so as to not become pregnant, in which the narrative appeals to the universalization of women and looks to reflect the reality of all Venezuelan poor women.
To publish the private lives of four Venezuelan women does not represent, even minimally, the general reality of women and the complexity involved in the socio-political evolution of Venezuelan life.
In the first instance, using the story of only four women to represent, at least, the half of the Venezuelan population is spirited to say the least. The universal woman does not exist, given the diversity of the identities of Venezuelan women, but in the discursive resources that represent symbolic and media-based violence against women commonly found in reports made by portals or foreign organizations, which are far from the realities that they try to reflect.
“If the situation in the country were different I would have had my baby, but as it is not, I have to do this due to the shortages we are living through.”
That is the voiceover that opens the documentary, with visual footage of the ‘eyes of Chavez’[iv] on the steps of El Calvario[v], as well as early morning queues for The Civil Association for Family Planning Clinic (PLAFAM) [vi] to acquire Cytotec[vii] pills.
What are the journalists who include this message looking to say? Why this voiceover with images of the famous symbol of Commander Chávez and long queues to access a service and some abortion pills? Nothing which is visually or audibly used in an audio-visual project is incidental; everything is carefully designed.
Later in the video, the first words read:
“Venezuela, once the richest Latin America nation, is on the verge of an unprecedented economic crisis. Beset by inflation and crime, food and health, including contraceptive methods, are in short supply.”
Taking into account the previous seconds, how would a spectator far from the Venezuelan reality understand this? What story would they start to form in their heads based on the minimum context given here?
Now, from a journalistic and research perspective, I have to ask the team of reporters and producers how and why do crime, inflation and shortages of food, health, and access to contraception in Venezuela come to be? Why have things worsened in recent years? What relationship might this have with the international situation of Venezuela in the political arena? If we begin to tell the life of a poor Caracas woman saying that due to the crisis she cannot continue getting pregnant or having children, would it not be consistent to at least explain why this complex situation arises? The work of journalists is also to deeply analyse the situation which they intend to describe so as to achieve a true synthesis of events.
The video continues, and a map of PLAFAM offices in the Altagracia sector appears alongside the caption “a box of birth control pills costs more than 8 minimum wages,” but it does not explain what PLAFAM is nor why the girl that speaks is going to that Health Centre and not to any other. Nor does it explain that that health centre has the cheapest pills in Caracas.
At the same time, it takes advantage of the already legendary “queues” to indicate that the girl must arrive early in the morning and queue for seven hours to be served.
Then another phrase appears over the long PLAFAM queues that says:
“Women in Venezuela are resorting to extreme measures, such as sterilization, which is irreversible, and abortion, which is illegal there.”
When Hugo Chávez ran his  presidential campaign, the rates of poverty, illiteracy and social neglect in Venezuela were alarming. Privatizing, exclusionary and disinvesting dynamics in the public sector during the last decades of the 20th century were trademark policies of governments of the Puntofijo pact[viii], that not only froze social spending, but actually reduced it (this was the principal cause of the popular uprising of 1989 called “El Caracazo”).
Once the Bolivarian Revolution was installed, social investment became the number one priority of the national budget, with public policies for health and education as a maximum priority. It is since the economic blockade began that drugs, medicines and medical care have started to decrease at a rate inversely proportional to the achievements made under the Revolution: maternal mortality and teenage pregnancy have increased rapidly in a long and complex six years of political history since 2012.
At what point in the history of Venezuela were women able to abort freely, without risks and with policies endorsed by the governments? Was there ever free and open access to contraceptives and inclusive sexual education? Is the Bolivarian Revolution responsible for the deterioration of sexual and reproductive rights of the Venezuelan people? Is it at the beginning of the crisis that Venezuelan poor women start aborting illegally?
Indeed irreversible sterilization and clandestine abortion represent extreme measures (both of which involve psycho-emotional health risks), but in no way do these options start to appear with the economic war, and even less so does said war cause poor women to abort, despite this practice continuing to be penalized.
So begins the story of the third experience.
In the video we can see a woman preparing a homemade mixture and telling another how to continue with the Cytotec dosage:
“You cook the rue with malt; once it is hot you drink a glass. This is called Cytotec. You drink two glasses and introduce two in your vulva.”
By showing these scenes, The Intercept is directly promoting the use of inappropriate medical practices which lack respective follow-up for abortion pills, and which could end in an emergency hysterectomy or death when not applied properly and in the indicated dose.
As a means of communication with international reach and readership, it is their responsibility to use content that reflects truthful information and is not risky to the public, and this is not the case. [To self-administer as the video demonstrates] is a very serious mistake that could adversely affect the life of women who undergo clandestine abortions.
It seems that this report seeks to speak from the women to the world describing their harsh reality, but uses resources such as the exacerbation of gender stereotyping (victimizing poor women because only they can undergo a pregnancy, give birth and raise children) and speculation (in the media, speculation is the over-exposure of the image of women with violent ends, such as the commodification of the female body, the apology of crimes against women and gender stereotyping), using their private lives and their bodies to tell an inaccurate, unfinished and decontextualized story. Does this not resemble sensationalism, taking advantage of the circumstance of a human being to commercialise and capitalise on their life?
“The position of the Venezuelan Government on reproductive health is contradictory. They offer small stipends to pregnant women and newborn children, but also financially support periodic free sterilization campaigns in public hospitals,”
reads another paragraph of the synopsis of the video.
Do the journalists of this story know what those “stipends” are and what they represent? Do they know what the Homeland system of social protection is[ix], the homes of the Homeland[x], and the National Plan of Humanized Childbirth[xi]? Do they know the politico-discursive difference between allowance and social protection?
We remember that all audio-visual products are communicational due to their ability to reach the public and be shared, so that according to their discursive perspective and hegemony and paradigm of thought, they have the capability to directly influence a specific group of one or more populations because they are replicable and socializable at the same time, thanks to communications technology.
To say that in Caracas (i.e. Venezuela) girls (i.e. everyone) coming to the public hospitals and maternity clinics public aged 14-18 are “desperately” trying to perform a sterilization is, in effect, to fix a media and political position. And it is precisely this aspect for which I criticize The Intercept. Have they done a thorough investigation on those alleged free sterilization campaigns? I doubt it.
The consequences of the imposition of the patriarchal macho hegemony in colonized societies (as is forced maternity, a catholic-patriarchal imposition) and later discrimination by class, race, and ethnicity, affect the decision making power of women. This is accentuated in moments of crisis. It is one thing to allege that the impossibility of women to make decisions is the net product of the crisis, and another is carrying out a deep-reaching investigation into the matter.
The Intercept calculates that due to the minimal salary and inflation, contraception is not readily accessible or affordable for the majority of the Venezuelan people, and that, furthermore, other medicines are given priority over contraceptives. Now it is up to us to contextualise. According to the [Venezuelan state-run newspaper] Correo del Orinoco, the Vice minister for Health in charge of the network of hospital attention, Indhriana Parada, has denounced in the plenary session of the 71th World Health Assembly that “The financial blockade has impeded Venezuela from carrying out banking operations to acquire vaccinations and medicine through the Rotary Fund and the Strategic Fund of the Pan-American Health Organisation, which has caused setbacks in the vaccinating plans in the country (…) Imperialist and interventionist sectors are calling to decree a supposed humanitarian crisis. They call for humanitarian channels but, at the same time, block off our chances of acquiring medicine and food for the Venezuelan people”
The problem is not that the minimum wage isn’t enough to pay for contraceptives; the problem is that firstly the entrance of contraceptives into the country is blocked, and the few which do enter is sold at inaccessible prices for poor women. Rich women, on the other hand, do have access to them as they can pay for them in the pharmacies, just like they can pay for abortions in private clinics (and yes, this is an illegal practice).
While the Bolivarian Government has searched for the way to bring medicine to the country by signing agreements with the WHO for oncological medicines, the situation for contraceptives continues to be problematic. They start to appear on the shelves, but at exorbitant prices: “There is a global shortage of contraceptive medicines in health centres (…) and those that are available are of an extremely elevated price for universal, popular accessibility,” states the representative of the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) in Venezuela, Jorge Gonzalez Caro. Family planning is reflected in the Bolivarian Constitution, and it also appears that the State is responsible for securing the necessary methods for this. This is made much more difficult in the midst of a financial blockade which is caused by the economic measures imposed on Venezuela and its people.
We must be careful in the perspective and discursive take we use to communicate things (this video is inundated with meta-messages), especially when we talk about human rights. The economic blockade against the Venezuelan people is a severe violation of human rights. The impossibility of affording or finding contraception and of the free development of sexual and reproductive liberty does not stem from an insufficient minimum wage, but rather from the murderous economic blockade which continues to assault the people. Given all this, the President of the Republic and the respective authorities are designing, tirelessly, counter responses to see off the economic attacks, with programs of social protection which have been implemented and initiated.
Women are obligated by the patriarchal and capitalist system to be mothers, and the distance which exists between this thought paradigm and the real consequences which the economic blockade has brought to the Venezuelan people, and the horrendous repercussions which women have seen in their lives, is abysmal. Women do not submit themselves to unsafe abortions due to the crisis. Women have always submitted themselves to abortions, legally or illegally. The difference now is that the crisis and economic blockade make things even more difficult.
In recent years, and with much effort, feminist and women’s rights social movements in Venezuela have carried out activities in favour of the legalisation of abortion, using the principal argument of guaranteeing the human rights of the Venezuelan women, progressively lowering the indices of maternal mortality and avoiding the contradictions between laws (whilst the Constitution protects the right to life, the Law on the Rights to Women for a Life Free From Violence protects cultural and medical rights of women to include obstetric and symbolic violence as a punishable crime, and the Penal Code punishes women who take a free decision to develop their lives and abort).
With the June 20 2018 campaign “Let’s talk about abortion”, organisations such as the RIAS (Network for Safe Abortion), Leftist Cultural Front, Feminist Spider, with the support of other collectives like Tinta Violeta and ASGDRE (Sex-Gender diverse Revolutionary Alliance) and women’s rights activists and the equality of gender grouping from the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) had the right to speak at the Women’s and Gender Equality Commission of the ANC. A document was handed in which describes and argues the respective proposals in favour of the legalisation of abortion which should appear in the new constitutional text, in favour of Feminist Venezuelan Socialism. This should not point towards only protecting the human rights of women in all areas, but also towards preventing emergency situations which could take the lives of more Venezuelans.
The Bolivarian Revolution has been able to install in the collective psyche of the Venezuelan population a perspective of gender, class, and ethnicity with public policies and social programs like the Mothers of the Barrio program, Inside the Barrio [healthcare] program, Homes of the Nation program, National Plan of Humanised Birth, Local Committees of Supply and Production (CLAP), and the National Plan of Vaccination. These national programs bring about a change in the thought paradigms which excluded the population, especially those in a situation of vulnerability (poor, indigenous, afrodescendent, or campesino women). They also collect the experiences and needs of the people, and convert them into lines of socio-political action, such as the progressive build-up of sexual and reproductive rights.
The ‘About Us’ section of The Intercept indicates that its journalism looks to be fair in coverage, they insist that news outlets should be true, rigorous, comprehensive, and ethical in their reporting and methods, and transparent about how they have come to their conclusions with their readers. They also have a section where one may send an email to [email protected] to request a correction to one of their publications.
It is necessary, now more than ever in the era of revolution in communications and information, to build a responsible, critical, bold, prudent, serious journalism with sufficient capacity to understand the historical, political, social and economic context of the news covered. The hegemonic look of US journalism on Latin American countries has historically been condescending and arrogant, amongst other things. The Venezuelan reality is highly complex, deeply rooted in historical-political experience and the conformation of identities of diversity of its people. As such, it deserves at least mature and intelligent coverage.
The Intercept has failed almost completely in the task of showing up and communicating to its public the reality of poor Venezuelan women who confront an almost eternal resistance and survival under a war of fourth generation without historical precedent. According to The Intercept’s own political editorial line, they should be willing and able to correct such imprecisions. In this sense, one may forget to fulfil the dutiful process of denouncing on the website and with the editorial team, with evidence and arguments based on precision, so that they may edit the video, correct it and re-publish it. This is the minimum which one can do to fulfil the “rigorous, comprehensive, and ethical” journalism.
Thanks to YL, JL, TR, RI, RM, and LP for their invaluable help in this discussion. We will continue advancing in the plain knowledge and coherent evaluation of the information published about the economic crisis in Venezuela, so as to protect our land, identity, and people. Everything personal is political, and the communicational is imperative.
[i] The “economic war” is a phrase used by the Venezuelan government to encapsulate planned conspired activities which attack the national economy. These can include hoarding of goods, extraction smuggling, currency manipulation, speculation, sanctions, embargoes and other phenomena. Left wing critics of the government question the conspiracy behind this phrase, suggesting that such aspects are rather natural expressions of a surplus-value generating capitalist class. Right wing critics claim that such an economic war is mere cover-up for government inefficiency.
[ii] The Intercept, founded by US journalist Glenn Greenwald, is an electronic magazine that covers politics, national security, civil liberties, the environment, international relations, technology, criminal justice and the world media.
[iii] International Women’s Media Foundation is an organization which looks to position the presence of women in the media field.
[iv] It is common in Venezuela to see the ‘eyes of Chavez’ painted on public works as a reminder to all of who was the founder of the policies which led to the construction of such works. They are ever present, for example, in the buildings of the housing mission that has provided over 2 million homes to Venezuelan families at almost no cost. They are also the party political symbol of the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV).
[v] El Calvario is a recuperated public park in the centre of Caracas. Previously abandoned, it now houses coffee shops, recreational spaces, libraries, museums, and is a popular tourist attraction.
[vi] The Civil Association of Family Planning PLAFAM is a non-profit institution focused on the contribution to the full exercise of human rights in the area of sexual and reproductive health of adolescent young men and women without discrimination.
[vii] Cytotec is a common abortion pill.
[viii] The Puntofijo pact was an agreement signed between social-Christian COPEI party and social democratic Democratic Action (AD) party, in 1958,to alternate governments. This pact was ended by the surprise victory of Hugo Chavez in 1998.
[ix] The Homeland system of social coverage looks to provide direct benefits for those who need them, including single mothers and pregnant women.
[x] The Homes of the Patria looks to assign direct benefits to households based on their demands and income.
[xi] This is a government program which looks to promote natural childbirth and sex education.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.