“I’ve told her, she won’t be the first lady, but first combatant, first patriot, first socialist, the first woman of the people of the barrios,” said Nicolas Maduro of his wife Cilia Flores. He is the revolution’s candidate for the 14 April presidential elections, following the passing of Hugo Chavez, and polls and the revolution’s electoral record suggest he is likely to win.
Under the Bolivarian revolution Flores, a lawyer and revolutionary, has been a legislator in the national assembly, head of the national assembly, part of the national leadership of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and more recently, the country’s attorney general. After growing up in Catia, one of the biggest barrios of Caracas, in the 1990s she dedicated herself to defending soldiers who had been involved in Chavez’s 1992 failed coup attempt.
In 1993 she founded the Bolivarian Human Rights Circle, joined the MBR-200, was part of the legal group which fought to get Chavez out of prison, and in 1997 participated in the founding of the MVR party, which brought Chavez to victory in 1998. Most people in Venezuela weren’t aware until recently that she was married to Maduro, and see her as a political leader in her own right.
When Maduro went to register as a candidate earlier in the month, he told the supporting crowd that Flores “won’t be a first lady, because that is a concept of high nobility ... she’s not a posh woman, she was born in slum housing with a dirt floor ... she won’t be a segundona [person in second place], she’ll be in the first line of combat, as the dignified and revolutionary woman that she is”.
Women are everywhere to be seen in this messy, problematic, beautiful and very joyful revolution. We lead and fill out the marches, we’re the vast majority of those elected as communal council representatives, we are the bulk of new teachers, doctors, and social media workers coming out of the Bolivarian University (Mission Sucre), and we’re much more visible (though far from equally represented) in the army, state governorships, mayoralties, and upper levels of the state institutions.
Perhaps that’s why Chavez publically declared himself a feminist so many times. It was a courageous thing to do, given how taboo and misunderstood the word is across Latin America. Although Chavez wasn’t totally clear on the origins of women’s oppression — more often loudly denouncing its symptoms over and over (domestic violence, the plastic surgery industry, income inequality) than its causes (social division of labour, publicity industry, the role of the Catholic Church etc) — he was clear that women were the energy, the hard work, the determination, and the numbers behind the revolution.
“The pains of the world are larger for women... and larger for women of the popular classes, of the poorer classes,” Chavez said in a speech last September. “If Christ carried a cross, how many crosses do the poor women of this earth carry every single day, every night... but at the same time they have so much to contribute”.
“That’s why I say that a real revolutionary, a socialist, must be truly feminist, because the liberation of the people is achieved through the liberation of women, the grasping of machismo, and that’s a cultural thing,” Chavez said that day.
The list of gains for women since he was first elected in 1998 is a long one. With general poverty halved and extreme poverty quartered, women have been the main beneficiaries of most social programs, from education, to health, housing, and pensions for the elderly. There has been a huge increase in women’s participation in the work force — from 43.3 per cent of women employed in 1996 to 81.2 per cent in 2002, and increasingly steadily since then. A women’s ministry was created, as was a women’s bank for low interest loans to women’s cooperatives, tribunals dealing specifically with violent crimes against women have been set up, and 18 types of violence against women recognised legally, maternity leave has increased and paternity leave created.
There’s a small payment for poor women and support for them for creating socio-productive projects. Pap smears and the pill are free (though the choice is limited). Breastfeeding has been widely promoted and has increased from 7 per cent in 2000 to 40 per cent in 2010. Bolivarian public schools provide free breakfast, lunch and snacks to kids – a big help to all mothers, especially single ones, and there are free childcare centres, though more are needed. Household work is legally recognised.
There’s also a lot of work to do yet for women and for sexual diversity; we need to fight to win the legalisation and free and quality provision of abortion, we need to get rid of the beauty contests and the commercialisation of women’s bodies, counter homophobia, provide more women’s refuges, and improve the courts and police response to gender crimes.
To argue however, that “Venezuela’s politics has been militarised” and that the “blurred” lines between civilians and military has “masculinised” politics, is to judge Venezuela according to Australian (first world, colonising) standards, as Emma Cannen did in her article "Chavez was the essence of a military man". Cannen brushed aside Venezuela and Latin America’s culture and context — the history of US intervention to get rid of socialist presidents, the genocide, the disappearances and torture that this continent has suffered when it tried to stop being the US’s obedient back yard, and the undeclared war on the poor.
The military here under previous governments was repressive, and the Communist Party was forced to go underground. However under the current government, the role of the military has changed (though there are still problems), and can’t be viewed as the same thing as the Australian police or army. The military and militia respond to the people’s needs, facilitate transport logistics, help during emergencies, and guarantee fair and free elections.
When my community council has needed a street to be closed off, tables and tents, or a band, the military has helped us out. They came to our meeting, noted down what we needed, and provided it. Without the military and the women of the barrios behind him in 2002, Chavez wouldn’t have survived the US backed coup against him.
Previously, the military was an exclusive male club, and women weren’t accepted in the operational units. However since 2000, women have been allowed to join, and last year 26 per cent of graduates from the military academies were women. Women also make up a large proportion of the civilian militias.
After Chavez died last week and millions of people queued up to say goodbye to him, one striking, beautiful photo did the rounds of media agencies the world over. It was the photo of a young militia woman touching her heart and raising her fist next to Chavez’s coffin. The woman in the photo was Lisseth Pavon, a 23-year old mother from a poor barrio in Tachira, and law student. When she heard the news of Chavez’s passing, she made the 25-hour journey to Caracas, then in the same clothes she’d been travelling in, with some water and an empanada, she waited 10 hours to visit Chavez’s remains.
“I got there and I wanted to touch him, to tell him that he took away our blindfolds ... Chavez hasn’t given me anything material, it’s about the power that he gave to us,” she told Aporrea.org.
Now that Chavez has gone, everyone involved in the revolution is clear that “we are Chavez”, meaning we have to take on his example, tireless work, initiative, commitment, and passion. The face of this revolution is the people now; it is young women like Lisseth.