CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela: Ahora es de todos! This slogan, appearing on a poster beneath a simple drawing of three children in the colors of the national flag, means “Venezuela: Now it’s for everyone.”
The slogan captures the ambitious and exciting social justice aims of the Bolivarian Revolution and the government of President Hugo Chavez, which is set to initiate a public discussion on the meaning of “21st-century socialism” next year.
And the problems and needs of the Venezuelan people are great: in the two decades prior to Chavez’s election, poverty had grown to include 80 percent of the population, the gap between rich and poor was one of the widest in the world, and the gross domestic product had steadily dropped. Not surprisingly, illiteracy was widespread and public health was a nonissue in this period of “neoliberal” budget austerity and cuts in social programs.
Women defend their gains
All that began to change when Chavez was sworn into office in 1999. And while millions of poor and working-class people have since benefited from the Chavez government’s public works projects, social programs, and efforts to involve ordinary people in building a new society, women have benefited the most.
In April of 2002, when right-wing forces from Venezuela’s wealthy ruling class attempted to overthrow President Chavez and derail his ambitious new government, their coup attempt failed because hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans rallied to support the president, occupying the streets around the government offices and media outlets in Caracas for days.
In a recent interview with Elena Linares, a member of the Communist Party of Venezuela (CPV) and the leader of its work among women, she said that the majority of the people in the streets at that critical moment were women.
A stake in deep changes
Why? “Simple,” Linares said. “Women had experienced a dramatic change in their status with the new Constitution.” Among the changes were laws that aid single mothers, that recognize and compensate domestic work, and that include all women in the social security system.
Women understood what it would mean if those who wanted to overthrow Chavez succeeded. “There was a feeling of rage at the opposition, that they would take away the rights that had been won,” she said. Linares herself was there in those April days and saw women lie down in front of tanks.
Carolus Wimmer, the international secretary of the CPV, agreed. “The motive factor in the big changes after the coup attempt was Venezuelan women. Women were the first into the streets, women organized their men to fight back.”
The interview with Linares took place in the offices of Inamujer, the national women’s organization reorganized in 2002 by President Chavez and headed by María León, a leading women’s rights activist and Communist. Inamujer is engaged in many projects aimed at educating women and drawing them into the political process.
The organization has a free telephone hotline for victims of domestic violence and now operates three shelters for abused women. One of the goals of Inamjuer and of the Chavez government is to establish shelters in every state of the country.
A breakthrough constitution
Thousands of women were involved in the drafting of the new Venezuelan Constitution, which has been referred to as the “non-sexist Magna Carta” because instead of using generic male language, it explicitly references male and female citizens (ciudadanos y ciudadanas). Most importantly, it contains groundbreaking guarantees for the social and economic rights of women in addition to political and legal equality of the sexes.
The constitution addresses sexual harassment and domestic violence, guarantees full equality between men and women in employment, and in Article 88, recognizes housework as an economically productive activity, thus entitling housewives to compensation and social security benefits.
In June of 2006, the poorest housewives began receiving payments of 80 percent of the minimum wage (which had just been raised 15 percent) for their work in the home, funds that come from oil revenues.
Chavez has said, “Women are the poorest, they work the hardest and they are the most committed to the revolution.”
A major feature of the new Venezuela is the involvement of working-class people in the revolutionary changes taking place. And women are major players at this grassroots level. For example, the majority of the members of the committees overseeing decisions on land distribution, water and health care are women.
Linares talked about the dramatic impact that the initiatives of the Chavez government and the Bolivarian Revolution have had on women’s daily lives.
Among these are the “Missions,” social programs funded by oil revenues. The dozen or so Missions were developed to circumvent inertia and opposition in the existing government bureaucracies. They address everything from hunger, homelessness, poverty, unemployment and illiteracy to creating a loyal reserve in the military, performing sight-restoring operations, turning fallow land over to small farmers and increasing political participation of the Venezuelan people.
The Missions have made special efforts to incorporate women, especially in the educational projects, including bringing them into the universities in larger numbers — 70 percent of new students at that level are now women.
Co-ops, land reform
Other projects that directly benefit women are the community kitchens (Casas de Alimentacion) and the network of small, cooperatively run, low-priced grocery stores. About 1.5 million children now receive three free meals a day, 1.5 million people have been provided with safe drinking water, and there are food subsidies and vouchers for pregnant women and new mothers.
Nearly five million acres of land have been distributed to small farmers, with priority given to women-headed households, 60 percent of the total.
An exciting new development in the economic and social landscape is community cooperatives — Nucleos de Desarrollo Endogenos. The N.D.E. Fabricio Ojeda, located in Caracas, is an example of the night-and-day changes that the Chavez government’s programs have made in people’s lives.
A mural-lined oasis in the midst of a neighborhood of extremely crowded, dilapidated housing, this N.D.E. includes a daycare center, children’s library, medical clinic complete with its own ambulance and (free) pharmacy, grocery store, vegetable garden, basketball courts and baseball field.
The center includes two small cooperatives, one that makes shoes and the other clothing, which provide jobs to many local people. Ground has just been broken for the construction of an elementary school, community dining hall and cultural center.
Women’s health, including reproductive health and education, is also a priority of the new government. With abortion still illegal in Venezuela, as in most of Latin America, the government recently initiated a discussion on the need to decriminalize the procedure. Incidentally, currently women are the ones prosecuted, not doctors.
Linares said that the women’s movement is working towards laws that would allow for abortions in cases of rape and when the woman’s health is threatened. She said that this limited step is very important and a matter of public health, with many women still being injured and dying from back-alley abortions.
Growing political savvy
Given all of this, it’s not surprising that the Venezuelan Communist Party puts special emphasis on work among women. Linares put it this way, “Women are the ones with the greatest political consciousness.”
In 2002, the CVP established its own mass women’s organization, the Organizacion Clara Zetkin, named after the German revolutionary. Interestingly, one of the party’s political priorities is to help organize women into the trade unions and bring them into union leadership. This is in keeping with the party’s work to build, “street by street,” popular participation in the political process.
In the past few years there has been a modest increase in the number of women in government, to about 30 percent of local, state and national posts, and Chavez recently declared the goal is to have women in 50 percent of all public posts.
Linares noted that there are still big challenges facing Venezuelan women — they “aren’t leading the process, they are the troops.”
“We still face a machista resistance, and even have to struggle with women themselves to take the lead,” she said.
The Communist Party of Venezuela has itself begun some internal educational campaigns around this issue too.
Elena Mora attended the 12th National Congress of the Communist Party of Venezuela in July 2006.