Chavez’s Inconsistent Feminism

For a revolutionary who, on various occasions, has happily called himself a feminist, it was a sad and strange moment last week when President Hugo Chavez met with Ivian Sarcos, a Venezuelan model and Miss World 2011.


Chavez met with Sarcos, discussed her foundation “Beauty with Purpose”, and accepted her calendar, where she poses in quite scanty and expensive clothing, as a gift. He wished her success in her “work as the most beautiful woman in the world” and said “we feel represented in your beauty”. He also told the press that he had instructed the minister for youth, Maripili Hernandez, to meet with similar non profit foundations aimed at young sports people or beauty queens which hope to benefit people with needs.

A few days later, on 8 January, Chavez said on Alo Presidente that he had called Irene Esser, Miss Venezuela 2011, to congratulate her for winning last October. He commented that he had been strongly criticised by his “adversaries” for meeting with Sarcos, but said she was part of “national pride” so “deserves all the necessary support”.

In a country with a large body glamour industry, from body lotions to clothing, to a love for beauty contests on all scales, Chavez’s meeting with Sarcos, then his phone call to Esser, are clearly meant as popularity boosters in the lead up to the presidential elections in October this year. In this case, Chavez has dangerously put votes, pragmatism, and strategy before ideology, despite the fact that he himself has said that there is “no socialism without feminism”.

He has cheered on a status quo which devalues women, which uses their digitally edited bodies all the time and everywhere to publicise beer, entertainment gigs and movies, and sell newspapers, and which is feeding a giant cosmetics and plastic surgery industry. It’s a status quo which, in Venezuela, accepts beauty contests for girls under the age of ten, so popular that even some communal councils organise them, as well as primary schools and other institutions.

And, it’s a status quo which, at the expense of the self esteem of half the population, boosts the profits of Venezuela’s richest man, Gustavo Cisneros. Cisneros, with a fortune of over US$ 4billion, owns a range of food and media companies, and he also owns Miss Venezuela. An annual competition which selects who will be sent on to Miss Universe, Miss World, and Miss Earth, candidates for Miss Venezuela must meet three requirements: be taller than 1,70cm, be between 17 and 25 years old, and weigh between 50 and 65 kilos. Such figures are far from the average height, weight, or age of Venezuelan women, so it is difficult, as Chavez claimed, for Sarcos to “represent” the country based purely on her physique.

It’s worth pointing out that Cisneros has also been a close ally of previous Venezuelan presidents such as Rafael Caldera and Carlos Andres Perez, and also of former US president George Bush. During the failed coup of 2002, his television station, Venevision, chose not to broadcast the protests in favour of Chavez.

Yet it’s even questionable if such moral compromising in order to guarantee that Chavez is re-elected and the revolution goes on is worth it. Rafael Correa, of Ecuador, has spoken out against beauty competitions, yet, according to many polls of voter intentions, remains by a long stretch the most popular Latin American president.

Correa pointed out in May 2007 that beauty contests “encourage bad values” and suggested women protest such a “use of bodies”.

Speaking about the Miss Universe contest, he said, “It’s a brand name of that millionaire [sic- billionaire] Donald Trump, … the women parade in bathing suits and the one who wins talks about poverty, justice, [and] peace, so it’s like the ugly ones [sic] can’t work for the poor…as if beauty, that’s god’s gift, is something decisive”.

Note, Donald Trump, perhaps a kind of U.S version of Cisneros, is a horrid man with an orange net for a comb over who owns an economic empire of restaurants, casinos, TV shows, a travel website, menswear, magazines, simulations games, and bottled water- most of which are stylishly named after him: Trump ice bottled water, yum. Trump also has gone down for a list of sexist incidents, including making Miss Universe candidates parade before him in private so that he could decide who he found more sexually attractive.

In 2010, Correa also made a more concrete move on the issue, banning beauty competitions in public schools because they didn’t have “educative value” and were “sexist” and suggest that “what is important is beauty, not a good heart, intelligence, sacrifice, effort”.

A declared feminist

At the World Social Forum in Brazil in 2009, Chavez asked Correa if he was feminist, to which Correa smiled and nodded quietly. Chavez’s own declaration of his feminist identity, on a few different occasions, has been bold, admirable, and historic, as few other presidents worldwide have done anything similar. But also, it is a brave move in a continent where the term is not well understood, and many people, even those who work in the institutions and organisations of the Bolivarian revolution, understand it to mean “anti-men” or “lesbian”.

In 2008, celebrating the fifth anniversary of the higher education mission, Sucre, Chavez said in his speech, “All socialists have to be feminist… capitalism is macho…… I learnt to make coffee in prison… from childhood there is unfair treatment of boys compared to girls”. His comment about coffee comes off as a little immature, but it’s true here that once married, along with all the other unfair divisions of labour rules, it’s usually the woman who makes the coffee.

Also in 2008, during an event to commemorate the 9th anniversary of the National Institute of Women (which is now a government ministry) Chavez criticised machismo and declared himself a “convinced socialist-feminist”.

“Socialists must be feminists or they won’t be complete human beings. With the support of our women we must strengthen unity in Venezuela… We have to take firm steps towards…the total emancipation of gender and be more just with our women,” he said.  He added that women were condemned by history, but the “Bolivarian administration developed community plans against family violence and in favour of single mothers, which has meant huge positive advances”.

Again, in September 2010 Chavez said, “There can’t be a revolution without the participation of women”. This was at an event to swear in the Women Guardians of the Revolution – groups of women formed to “defend the vote” in the parliamentary elections that month.

These declarations by Chavez are welcome and exciting, but they show that his conception of feminism and his own identity as a feminist are limited to increased women’s participation in communal councils, missions, society, and electoral campaigns, rather than as a specific movement to defend and further their own particular issues.

Only treating the symptoms

His comments reveal an incomplete understanding of women’s problems, and together with the remarks about Sarcos, little willingness to go beyond the symptoms of the illness, to its causes. Such ideological weakness is reflected in the revolution’s institutions and policies and in the general consciousness of its militants.

“Feminism” in the Bolivarian revolution is a few more female ministers and legislators, much greater female participation (to the point of being the vast majority) in the bases – in the movements, communal councils, and missions, with only very slight changes visible in the “upper echelons” of leadership and intellectual life. It is the right of mothers to receive a small subsidy to continue with the burden of being the only ones expected to raise children. It is opposing violence against women without understanding that gendered divisions of labour and the objectification of women through things like beauty contests and sexist advertising are major contributors to the unstated second class status of women that makes that violence possible in the first place. It is a “feminism” which completely ignores the role of the church in sexism, and therefore which refuses to even talk about the right to choose an abortion and to get one safely and for free, and which lacks any historical or economic analysis of the role of capitalism in generating sexism.

By refusing to address the causes, the default cause becomes women themselves. For example, in the press conference after the meeting with Sarcos, when asked about breast implants after French authorities recommended women using PIP brand implants remove them, Chavez said, “We [the government] have to be more rigorous [regarding the importation of implants] and act for the protection of our people, and further, call on the population, especially the young female population, to be careful… they get it in their head that this is essential for beauty”.

While later in the conference Chavez did mention “capitalist publicity”, and called out doctors for pressuring women into giving birth by caesarean (which is more profitable in private clinics), the onus of the blame was on women themselves. He also said, “There are parents who give their daughters an operation [to enlarge their breasts] for their fifteenth birthday [a landmark birthday in Venezuela], one has to respect that, but well it’s a call to think a little more.”

“Look at how far capitalism goes and at the degeneration of what is meant to be healthy and what is beauty,” he said, spot on, but contradictory given that the purpose of the press conference was his meeting with a Miss World.

In March last year Chavez also criticised poor women who opt for breast enlargements, saying, “Many doctors convince some women that if they don’t have a large chest they should feel bad… it is painful to see women who sometimes don’t have enough money for housing or to improve their housing, or for the children, for clothes, and they go around looking to see how they can get a breast operation”.

Chavez said that among the many letters he receives from Venezuelans with various requests, once he received one requesting financing for silicone implants, “I think it’s 20,000 to 30,000 bolivares (US$4,600 – $7,000) for a breast operation, I had to reject her of course”.

Almost all models used for any kind of publicity in Venezuela, as well as most soapie stars and television anchors, have quite large breasts, and El Tiempo reports that the highly profitable plastic surgery industry sees 30,000 breast enlargement operations per year here.

In 2010 a National Assembly opposition candidate even went so far as to offer breast enlargement as a raffle prize in his fundraising campaign. He said the prize was “unusual but it’s like having a phone or a television as a raffle prize… we know [breast enlargement surgery] has a lot of market demand…we know there are a lot of …women who are seeking a way to fix themselves up, to look better”. Chavez should blame that market, not the women who succumb to the daily pressure of what that market considers a valuable woman.

Blaming women for sexism is the norm here; if they are objectified, it’s because they themselves dress provocatively. If men in the street yell vulgar remarks at them about their body features (as they are prone to do constantly), it’s also women’s fault for dressing how they do or just for walking in the street in the first place, and if they live with domestic violence, it’s often their fault for not leaving.

Such a lack of consciousness explains, for example, why the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) governor of Merida state had no issues with organising a “Socialist Christmas Sale” in which the toys on offer were, on the first floor, a range of dolls and barbies for the girls, and on the second level of the shop, a range of cars and trucks for the boys.

Ultimately, Chavez’s meeting with Sarcos is a small matter within the numerous achievements of this magical and wondering revolution, yet it is problematic because he is a sort of role model for all revolutionaries here, and he is right in saying that without feminism – real feminism- there is no socialism.

Venezuela needs live and kicking women’s (and LGBT) movements that specifically exist to deepen the revolution’s militants and the general population’s understanding of sexism, and to promote issues specific to women’s struggle, not just as “Women Guardians of the Revolution”.