Lizardi Prada is a homemaker, the founder and general coordinator of Venezuela's first Homemakers Union, and an elected municipal council member in the city of Merida. In this interview with Venezuelanalysis.com, Prada gives unique insight into the fight for women's rights in the Venezuelan context. Prada speaks about the union's creation and day-to-day functioning, it's agenda for homemakers' rights, it's relationship to the Catholic Church, the role of class, the balance between autonomy from and support for the government, men's and women's reactions to the union, and abortion.
Could you please state your name and position?
Lizardi Prada, General Coordinator of the Homemakers Union of the State of Merida.
Please tell me why you formed a homemakers union, and what was the process like?
Well, starting with a struggle that began in the year 2001, a group of revolutionary and socialist women tasked ourselves with organizing a union to struggle for the rights of our women, to give benefits to women, and also for what is established in our Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, specifically in Article 88, which says that homemakers have the right to association. Now, we have more than five unions nation-wide, one is in the state of Lara, we have another in Vargas, another in Aragua, another in Bolivar, and the other is here in Merida.
A homemaker is that woman, or man since there are also male homemakers, who has been working in the home, struggling with children, cleaning, ironing, cooking, raising children, many times carrying the family on her shoulders, carrying her husband's problems and the problems all around her, and she never had the opportunity to work, she never had the opportunity to have a fixed salary, so today there are people who are 50 or 55 years old who do not have any kind of economic investments. They are our domestic workers, too, who you see, our alternate workers, our pieceworkers who have never had a fixed salary, and so the idea is to channel economic assistance temporarily or permanently to our affiliates.
In the union we dignify women through workshops and training, cooperatives, and we also manage and channel the needs of each woman through the different entities that exist. We also inform women; many homemakers are not informed. Sometimes people tell them, "Hey, they're going to take away your children and your home!" like they [the opposition] said before the referendum [of December 2007] and the amendment [referendum in February 2008]. And so, we have to have the women organized to tell them this isn't so. Many do not have a radio to listen to our president, to learn about the social programs. Thus, we bring the people who run the different institutions, the directors of social programs, to our women so that they meet them and tell them their needs.
We are all fighters and we look out for each other. For example, this week Mrs. Carmen did not come. Why didn't she come? What happened to her? I am going to pass by and see what happened. When a family member dies, we are there, we go and visit in those difficult moments. Some of our homemakers have children in jail. We help there too; we've done projects with the women in the jails. We've brought books, we talk with them, that's the idea of the union. It's a lot; there's still a lot to do. It's a long path.
How is the union similar to and distinct from traditional unions?
This union is sui generis, meaning it is a union that does not have a budget or pay dues, and does not receive funding from the national, regional, or local government. That is to say, we owe our existence to the people, the social sector. In other unions, they pay monthly dues.
Is the union governed by the labor code?
Yes. Our union is registered in the workplace inspection agency.
You are a women's movement and also a workers movement. Can you talk about this, please?
In our homemakers union, the women are integral homemakers. Why do I say integral? Because we are teachers. We help our kids in their formation, with their homework. We are doctors because we are always the ones who attend to the health of the home. We are decorators. We are chefs. We are cleaners. What's more, we are people who... there are some who also work professionally, and are homemakers as well. That is why we say we are integral homemakers, integral professionals, because we are everything, everything in one person, in the homemaker. We are also lovers, girlfriends, wives, mothers, and daughters.
How is the women's struggle related to the class struggle? Is there a difference between women from the working class and women from the bourgeois class?
The members of our union are more than anything people who do not have economic resources. We invited these people because ours is a Bolivarian revolutionary union, because it is born from the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
And, the union is not of any political party. What do I mean by this? Here we accept homemakers from all different political stripes because all of them have needs, all of them have children, and because a good socialist must share. True socialism is helping your fellow human and be in solidarity with their needs.
You can't just say "you, you are bourgeois, get out of here." No! But there are different priorities of women from distinct classes. There are some, for example, who need housing assistance most. There are others, most of them from a class that has more resources, and they do not need housing or food assistance or a walking cane, they need help paying for their medications. In many cases they are alone; their children have left and they have been left alone in their homes. But we attend to all the affiliates equally.
Is your goal to change the role of women in the home and in the family, or simply to dignify the role of women as homemakers?
No, not to change, no, because this is what is ours, it is ours. To be a homemaker is natural in women. Our goal is to dignify women. Look, there is a big difference. It is one thing to be feminist, which is very different, because it suggests becoming independent from men. No! It's about dignifying the women, giving them information and the education and the help that they do not have.
Do the women in your union participate in government programs?
The Women's Bank has given credits to the women, and they have facilitated training workshops. Also, the Sovereign People Foundation [of the Ministry for Popular Economy] has very kindly adorned us and helped with the cases of our affiliates. Many are seeking permanent economic aid in the form of a pension, which would be the minimum wage for those elderly affiliates who need medicines and medical attention. Other social programs initiated by our President Hugo Chávez also support us. We continue to seek the social security indicated in Article 88 of our constitution. That's not just the economic part; social security includes an education, it includes a dignified home, and health care. Also, the IMMFA [Meridan Institute for Women and Family] helps with the legal part with regard to all the violence there is in our families. They have a legal team.
With the Mothers of the Slum Mission (Misión Madres del Barrio), I have had a very bad experience in which we registered 64 people in need and they were not attended to, and there they remain, without attention. What's required are people who have social sensitivity, the directors on the regional and local level must have social sensitivity. But by talking with the Minister [for Women and Gender Equality], María León, we will find another path. It's not the institution itself that's to blame, but the functionaries and directors.
We know this is a big expense for the state, but we also have these people who have suffered for decades, and it is only now that the revolution is opening doors for them. There are 700,000 people entering old age, and we must recognize that these people have given their whole lives to the struggle for our homeland, for the country. Many of these grandmothers were there during the dictatorship. They know what the previous governments were like, and how they covered their mouths.
Please speak about the balance between the autonomy of the union and support for the government.
That is very important, what you are saying. Yes, we are autonomous. We do not permit any person, any part of the government to come and direct us. The only leader for us is our President Chavez. If somebody says to us that we must go over there to support the candidate Pedro Perez, we say no! It is not Pedro Perez's candidacy that we are going to support, it is the policy line that President Chavez prescribes.
Therefore, many of us, the women we have here, are militants in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Those who are not militants are also there, they are very collaborative, very supportive, everyone is invited.
I'd like President Chávez to hear that we have more than 500 cases pending in our unions, and we also have disabled people that have not gotten treatment, and I would like to put more emphasis on this. We continue the struggle, and today we still do not have a regular headquarters. We have meetings in a variety of places. We had petitioned the former mayor for a piece of municipal land to construct some Petrocasas and use them as a headquarters and also as women's shelters, meeting rooms, a Barrio Adentro clinic, and an Endogenous Development Nucleus (NUDES) of the homemakers union. This project is still pending for our women. We are lacking a lot of government support with this.
But we are not going to faint over this. We will continue moving forward, and wherever the president needs us, we'll be there offering our support.
But, in the union, there is autonomy to make our own decisions. The union works in an autonomous and organized manner.
What is the difference between offering services to women and empowering women? Which of these does this government do most?
I have always told the women that now we have the community councils, and each of us should participate in these community councils. There are many community councils that are disorganized, and we must help them. Why? Because it is the only way to empower ourselves as women in the form of participation, our participation.
I cannot complain that there is a hole in the street if I do not participate. I am very clear-headed that I am from the homemakers union and that I fight for women. It is very important to point out that our women are in the community councils, in the communes that are being formed today. In [the neighborhood of] Los Curos, for example, we have a commune, and we also have one in Campo de Oro. In these, the women fight to help the community councils with housing projects, for example, because there are many buildings with carcinogenic asbestos roofs. We have to work in a coordinated form through the community councils.
How do you recruit to the union?
I almost always recruit the women through personal invitation or through the newspaper. We have just carried out a census, and found that we have 200 members, and that's without using the media. We also use community media to increase our membership. There are many more who want to enter, who want to participate in the Homemakers Union, and we are going to focus on that. Sometimes, I'd like to have more than 24 hours in the day, in order to dedicate more time to this social struggle.
How does the union make decisions?
For decisions, we have an assembly, and I suggest to them, for example, what we should do for Mother's Day, and I ask where they would like to do it. And they would like to do it there in the building where we meet. But since they are so many women, they don't fit there. How are we going to attend to them? Well, I say, let's do it in the Tulio Febres [Cultural Center in Merida], which is a little bit bigger. And they don't want to, because they like their space, they see it as their space that they can go to ... and nobody can move them.
Another time, do you know what they asked for? That we all go to Caracas in a bus to stand in front of [the presidential building] Miraflores and ask the president to please heed all the requests we have made, because we really need pensions for these elderly women. So, I told them, ok, true, we'll go there. But they sometimes think that the president is like, someone can just go up to the president one time and he's going to... they see it as very easy. And I tell them, look, things are not so easy. And they say to me, no, but what we want to do is to touch him [Chavez]. And I say, look let's do it this way. I am going to go first, next week, I'll make some contacts, and after I make the contacts, we'll see if we can speak with the president, but I don't know, because I do not have the strength or the power.
So, in this way, decisions are made in the union. I say, look, what does the assembly say? Yes or no? And they respond. There is a board of directors, but everyone helps and listens and comments and sees the proposals and says if they are ok or not. I am out in front for a reason, because if there weren't a reason, I would not be out in front. There will always be a head, someone who motivates, who has to take the reins.
How have men reacted to this initiative, the homemakers union?
Many tell jokes and many say when we invite women to the union they say, "No, because now I am going to have to pay you for the work you do." The men when they are sexist say no, in the union no, because you are going to charge me to iron my shirt. These are the jokes they tell.
It is not like that. The idea is to help our women and help the family; to offer help as far as principles go; to offer support in terms of education, training, and information; to sow revolutionary ideology in them.
How have women reacted to the union? Are there women who are opposed to the union?
All the women who come to the union are very open. They go for different reasons. Now the president has been in office for nine years, and there is a long way to go, we must go much further to consolidate our goals. But truly, all the women have been very open.
Have there been obstacles to convincing some women that they have rights? How do you compel people, including the women in the union, to overcome preconceptions about what type of work is valuable?
I always emphasize to our members that life is not free, no. Each one of us has a mission. And I tell them of my personal experience.
I suffered from an illness when I was eleven years old. I was left immobile for a year, unable to speak or move, with nerve and bone problems, in a wheelchair they took me out of the hospital. Later, I overcame it. I got married, I had my kids, and I was in a place, in the city of Caracas, and I did not know Caracas. I was in Caracas for eight years and I did not get to know Caracas. Why? Perhaps because I had that way of thinking... I was very submissive, subjugated. But afterward, I opened my eyes and saw, and I realized that there is another world around me that I must help.
And I talk to the women about all of this, about how one cannot just lock oneself away, because homemakers have value that can't be expressed in numbers, because homemakers are everything in one person. In this sense, we must inculcate them with these principles.
We also have a radio program called "Homemaker of the Day," where each of the women goes and speaks, to share a recipe for hallacas for example, or another traditional Venezuelan food. Not just anybody knows how to make a good hallaca, not everybody knows how to make a stuffed chicken.
These are things that help our women, our homemakers, to have great value, to raise their self-esteem, which at times many of them have very low. And that's logical, right? When they have been so mistreated and criticized. Sometimes they arrive in a very rough condition, but that's not their fault. It is the fault of a society that we drag along with us.
What is your opinion of the symbols of women in Venezuelan society? How are women represented in government publicity and also in private or commercial publicity?
At least, in the way of politics, we are very happy that women are occupying a very important role. We have [National Assembly President] Cilia Flores in the National Assembly, we have the director of the Women's Bank who is also a woman, we have Minister Maria Leon in the Ministry for Women and Gender Equality. This is representative; it is a representation of women. We also have many women who are occupying regional and local government posts. For example, look, as a municipal councilmember here, I never would have thought it. The legislators were always purely men. Now, we have a homemaker legislator; I am a professional, I have my degree, which I did not earn easily. I had to study with kids, without having, at times, a bed to sleep on, or even bread.
Regarding publicity, it depends on the publicity. There is good publicity, and there is pornographic publicity, like in advertisements for beer, liquor, and cigarettes, which is where only women's bodies appear without their heads. We view the government publicity with much respect. Always, when the president makes his speeches on Sundays, he always addresses women with utmost respect. The government publicity informs everybody about the importance of maternity, what is going on, about the social programs, housing, the hospitals, and all of that, everything that is happening in the country, with utmost respect for women.
What is your opinion about the initiative of some women's groups who support the legalization of abortion?
Particularly, I speak as Lizardi Prada, and each person is free to have an opinion. I cannot speak for the other women, because I do not know what is going on with them. We have cases in the union, some of them were raped, and they became pregnant. These are at times criteria that make you have to put yourself in the other's shoes. But I, personally, am not in agreement with abortion, as Lizardi Prada, I do not agree. Why? Because it is a life that exists and we must help it from the first moment. I am a mother, I have three children, and I have three grandchildren. From the first moment in which there is a relation between a man and a women, there is already life. So then, for me, and apart from this I am Christian, so for me it is very difficult, it is true, to approve of that, of abortion. I think there are different situations for each person, like when someone is in great risk, and we must study them, but really as a mother, as a wife, as a women, as a daughter, I do not agree.
How does the Catholic Church influence the women's struggle?
It depends. The Church respects women's rights, always and only when he who is leading the church as a servant respects them. The Catholic Church has some servants to whom we do give our support. But there are others who truly should be outside of the Catholic Church. For example, Baltazar Porras [the archbishop of the city of Merida], a coup monger like him should be outside of the Catholic Church. He doesn't fulfill his duties. And he is involved in coups, bringing instability to the people. This can't be. But there are others who do deserve to be there.
Almost all our members are Catholic, and there are some who are Protestant. In the union, the freedom of religion is respected. We have not involved ourselves in the Catholic Church itself. What we have done is we always talk with church leaders about our rights. Many times we ask them to address them in the sermons, and we make sure if one of our members must bury a family member, that there is a church leader present. But to insert ourselves, like to fight against the church, no, none of that. Rather, we support the church, overall.