Yoly Fernandez lives in a barrio in the city of Valencia in Venezuela. She has been involved in community politics all her life and is a member of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), headed by Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez. Fernandez works in Mission MERCAL, the government agency that sells subsidised food to the population. I interviewed her in May 2010.
* * *
How has the life of women improved over the last 10 years of the Chavez government?
Our lives have improved enormously, mainly in the area of humane values; not so much at the level of work or even at the political level. I say humane because now the role of women is valued, not as an object but as a subject, as mother, wife, daughter and sister.
Before [the revolution led by Chavez] women were really badly treated. Of course this still happens, but not to the same degree as in the past. This is thanks to the fact that many women are now studying and working; they are more independent.
Before, a woman wasn’t allowed to have a dream or a vision of how her life should be. Today, women study and work. The social involvement gives them a clearer vision so they don’t allow themselves to be badly treated.
Are the conditions of work better for women now?
In the time of Democratic Action and COPEI [the two conservative parties that governed Venezuela for 40 years before Chavez was elected], women were subjected to domination. We were oppressed and, very often, men assaulted us. Now we have started to change all that. Historically we have passed a turning point.
In the past, a woman who wanted to get a job, had to be sterilised. She had to have a piece of paper that said she was sterilised or proof that she was not pregnant. It was a system designed to exclude women.
As well, the [right-wing] trade unions used sexual relations to allocate women work. They were the ones who had power inside the company and often decided who worked and who didn’t work. The women paid for their job with sexual relations, not money.
Also, many companies didn’t value the education, training and experience of women. A woman had to be a member of a political party, and usually well entrenched in the party, to be able to work. She had to know someone important in the political sphere to get a job.
Today, thanks to President Chavez, this is not the case. What you have studied is valued. What you know is important, as well as your work experience. All that is taken into account.
Women have always been used as sexual objects. The huge advertising programs of big companies were always using women to sell things, even a cup of coffee. One always felt bad because they were just using our bodies to sell junk.
This still happens, but now there is more respect. Now women display their bodies if they want to, but it’s not to sell themselves. The mass media did a lot of damage to women. Now we have more self-esteem because more women understand that this [sexual exploitation] was wrong.
We are now trained to carry out another type of role in life. Women are still badly manipulated, but the great majority of us understand that it is important to prepare ourselves to work and to value ourselves.
Is the pervasive culture of machismo changing?
Women still have to take care of the children and work also. That is changing, but very, very slowly. Unfortunately, our culture is still very machista. Lamentably, mothers are still teaching their sons to be macho.
A woman gives birth to a boy and the first thing she thinks is, I am going to look for a girlfriend for him. If he is a boy, then he has to be a man and he has to have a woman. They inculcate bad habits in their sons. He doesn’t wash up, clean, iron or cook; he does nothing in the house.
Why is this still happening given the other radical changes in Venezuela?
Because we still haven’t learnt to educate our sons. There is the same sort of “feminine” cultural problem for girls: we must also teach the young girls to work, to have the urge to study. And we have to teach men to value women. They are both going to work, they are both going to share responsibilities, they are both going to have to share the world, the two of them.
Men and women have to be equal in doing the work in the house: “I clean up, you wash up”. It has to be like that. We have to change the macho mentality of men.
What about women’s reproductive rights?
There has to be a plan for abortion access. It’s still not regarded as important if you are raped, or if you have an unwanted child, or if you know that with this child things are going to be bad. Nothing is important except that you give birth and bring him or her into the world.
A women can only get an abortion for reasons of illness or a genetic mutation. To interrupt a pregnancy because it isn’t convenient is illegal. And the majority of mothers right now are very young: they are still children, bringing up children. This situation doesn’t allow them to mature, to become mothers at a time when they deserve to be mothers.
The church here is very sectarian. The majority of Venezuelans believe in the Catholic religion and the Virgin Mary and the Saints, all the statues and all that stuff. The church is a dominant force in the population, especially for women. It controls and manipulates women.
Is the government trying to change this?
The government cannot solve every problem, and it could not deal with this one directly; there would be an explosion inside the Catholic hierarchy. Also, if the government did it they would make a lot of enemies, above all among women because so many of them are believers.
[Change in the church] has to be made through the revolutionary priests inside the church. These are the people who know the reality. It is the people who believe who can make these significant changes so that things can advance.
How do single mothers work and also care for children?
It’s very difficult. They are alone, without a partner, because the men left them, or died, or were killed.
The government created a mission called Mothers of the Barrio to strengthen these women who have been deserted. It is looking for a way for these women to have jobs, perhaps teaching them to cook cakes or cleaning, and above all to have self-esteem.
As well, the government created the Food House (Casa de Alimentacion) and there are also special houses for women who have three or four children but don’t have the amenities to feed them well.
Working and providing food are two complementary things. In these houses the mothers eat with the children and, as well, are learning a job. The government is actually paying them to learn. In other countries you have to pay to learn; here, this is fantastic. In all the barrios in Venezuela, the women are doing this type of education.
But to change machismo there also has to be education for the men. There is now a high disintegration of the family, greater than before, because now there is greater liberation of women. But liberty by itself does not always makes things better: we need gender education.
There are many women involved in the missions. The majority of the committees are women: fighters, workers, those who give everything for the nation. Thank God; if it were just the men, where would we be?
Do you think the revolutionary process is continuing?
Yes, I think so. But what is missing in this are people who understand how to make the [social] transformation. The people are convinced of socialism, but they don’t know how to apply it. There are many people involved with all their heart, who love the [revolutionary] process and love the president. They are good people, but they don’t know how to make the transformation. The president doesn’t yet have the personnel with the political and mental ability to generate this change that the people deserve.
The people are moving very slowly compared to the president. For example, there are thousands of community councils in Venezuela, but people still don’t understand what their function is, what the vision is. Now the government is reforming the law to improve it, but people are now even more confused. They are difficult concepts.
There are also bad people in the government, people who use the institutions of the state to benefit personally [rather than] fulfil their responsibilities to the people. People do confront the situation, but it’s very slow. People organise to get rid of a corrupt person, but then they put in someone else who does worse things because our people don’t have the ideological formation, the political and academic preparation, to take on these tasks.
That’s why the president keeps insisting so much on training and education. We must arm ourselves to take on this task with people committed to the process. We have to have a clear vision of what is socialism, and when and how are we going to construct it. Because at present many of those who are taking on these jobs are from the right wing and it doesn’t matter to them that they are damaging the president and the process. If things are badly done, it’s better for them.
Then there is the other problem of people who think, “I am the activist. I can do it” and exclude others who could help get things done. They organise, but they don’t teach someone else to carry on the work. They may give people the power of decision-making, but they don’t give them the key to do things and don’t let the control escape from their hands because they think only they can do it in the best way.
The people have to learn to speak up, but it’s tough because there is so much confrontation. We have to understand it is not confrontation, but transformation.
We Venezuelans are really good at criticism, from children upwards. The problem is to make constructive criticism, although we have to accept both constructive and destructive criticism to know where the failure is and how can we improve it.
I was put in charge of a food storage facility and people thought when I arrived at the job that I was going to solve everything, but it’s not like that. I am not able to solve anything; only all of us together can solve it, and it’s a slow process.
There are people who do make constructive criticism and they can solve many problems. They convince the others, they encourage others, so that things change. It has to be a team of workers, it cannot be just a boss.
What is the next step in the revolution?
We need real education. We have to look for a transformation of human beings, of ourselves, for our ideas to mature, to grow up as a person. To change, we have to change inside. It is a long, slow process. I understand that alone, I am not able to do it.
As women, we have to take a pro-active role in the social transformation. If we leave it to the men only, we will have a failure.