María Suarez Toro is a Puerto Rican and Costa Rican journalist, feminist scholar, university professor, peace and women’s human rights activist with decades of experience working with liberation movements in Central America. She is the author of numerous books, book chapters, and articles. María is currently the co-founder of Escribana, a social network initiative in media and communications by and about women in their communities.
María is also an activist in Petateras, a feminist activist initiative in the MesoAmerican region (Central America, Mexico and Panama). María was one of 25 participants on a human rights delegation in Honduras from March 16-25. The delegation met with community members and social movement activists fighting against issues including mining, monoculture agriculture, mega-tourism, “model cities”, land theft, displacement, and labor exploitation. At the end of the delegation Upside Down World spoke with María and asked her to reflect on what she saw and heard, while giving additional historical and political context based on her past experiences fighting for social justice.
Q: You’ve been involved in social movements and revolutionary politics in Central America since the 1980’s. Can you talk about some of your experiences in Nicaragua and El Salvador and offer some critical reflections of what you saw and participated in?
Thank you for asking that. I love to talk about the experience in Nicaragua because in Costa Rica, which was called the retaguardia of the Sandinista revolution against the dictatorship, we undertook a lot of tasks. I was a teacher at the University of Costa Rica, and we undertook a lot of tasks about supporting the Sandinista movement to oust the dictatorship and had a president that was quite supportive of ousting the dictatorship. And the day after the Sandinistas…ousted Somoza, they announced that the first task was going to be a literacy campaign for every campesino in Nicaragua to learn to read and write. And as a teacher, I said, “I’m going to be there.” So I resigned from the University of Costa Rica where I was teaching…and I drove the eight hours that it takes to go from the city of San Jose to Managua. And I went and knocked on the door of Padre Cardenal, who was assigned to be the director of the literacy campaign…So we started that and it was an amazing experience. If you think, for anybody who’s listening to this, to understand what it means to have a popular uprising where people participate in ending a dictatorship, to be able to have rights that they have never known in their lives, and one of them was learning to read and write. And that the revolutionary process was able, in six months…from July of ‘79 to 1980, to organize so that 20,000 youth from colleges and from high schools and communities to be trained by us and to mobilize country-wide to teach more than one thousand campesino people and people in workplaces and in communities to read and write. And it was unbelievable; the way we did it was a multiplier effect…But it was done because people were determined to make it a revolution where people could meet the needs that had been denied them forever. However, as we know now, two years later…there was no continuity about being able to provide schooling for the children and for everybody, and there are many factors…we knew immediately that the challenges were going to be huge…that it was going to put a lot of energy into the contra warfare instead of into the programs about health and education and so on…preventing for many of the social transformation projects to have effect.
Also, I have, looking back on what has happened… there is a fundamental flaw about our own political strategies that we have to revise. And they have to do with what I call the patriarchal concept of thinking that you’re going to have social transformation by occupying the same state. When you oust the dictatorship, occupying the same state institutions and making them from a different perspective, but occupying the same institutionality…it’s top down, you know? And we all have critiques about top down because it doesn’t mean a lot of democracy. It doesn’t mean a lot of political participation, diversity, and so on.
So why would we use a state that has been designed historically in Latin America for the past 500 years for the accumulation of capital, for the social control of people, and for a monolithic, monocultural state. Why are we going to occupy them and try to change it by occupying them? So I believe—I don’t have the answers—but I do believe that we really have to question.
Now, if that was true in the ‘80’s, imagine now with the globalization and the merging of politics, economics, culture in a way that is so entrenched that sometimes we have part of the political schizophrenia, what to do about what we face is that sometimes we don’t know where it’s coming from, because it’s coming [from] so many places. So then today it is even more important for us to understand that when we put our energies in the resistance from the grassroots—and please when I say grassroots I don’t mean only poor people, I mean citizenship, we are all grassroots, we don’t have any power unless we take and we construct it ourselves with each other—that the basic construction of social transformation has to do with ordinary citizens taking on the responsibility with each other about changing our own paradigms and structures and mentality and critical appraisal of our strategies, joining with each other, understanding and making the connections and pushing for a participation—some people would call it true democracy, it could be that—but it’s participation. What I have seen here in Honduras, for example, and one of the things that I am going to write about, one of the big fundamental, monumental revolutions that has taken place that is outside of the eye of most people is that women for the first time in history have decided at the local level, at all levels, that they are not going to be represented by the boys. That they are going to have their own representation. Now that is a fundamental change in participation and democratic participation, because the men also have to participate by challenging themselves and allowing for the women to have their own representation.
Q: What was your role as a feminist in these movements in the ‘80’s, and what was the role of feminism?
That’s a very good question. I wasn’t a feminist in the 80’s, I became a feminist in El Salvador during the war. And if you remember, at the time it was said that there were no feminists in Central America because women—us—in the revolutionary movements that were seeking to oust dictatorships, we knew that there were more pressing issues than women’s rights. False. The difference is that we were there and we wanted our rights also to be included, but we knew that they couldn’t be achieved without other structural transformations. But we expected them to be included. And we participated, pretty much like you see now, with a fundamental difference that at the time we didn’t include our rights. They were going to come about afterwards…
We became feminists after the Peace Accords because we realized that we weren’t even in the document of the Peace Accords. That’s what made us feminists. Now, the big difference is that women are participating, bringing their own agenda, and that’s why they want to be represented. Because they know that it stays out of the picture if we don’t do it for ourselves, with others. Men have also changed a lot. Some of them were telling me the story yesterday how the men have realized that women’s leadership and participation is so strong that they also vote for the women in the organizations. But they also realize that if they vote women in, they have to share rearing the kids, the kitchen, and all the dynamics that make women have triple burden. So cultural change, changing ourselves from the very conservative fiber of gender divide is a key element for a monumental revolution that is crucial to bringing in visions about a leadership that is about being prudent for women’s sake….
Q: So you’ve already mentioned the need for culture. Could you go into more detail about what the role of culture is in social movements and how you would describe a cultural foundation necessary for building a human, emancipatory, and plurinational society.
One of the things that has happened, especially in the last 15 or 10 years, is how neoliberalism has destroyed the very basic social fabric on which society upholds itself, even in the worst conditions. For example, it is said that poor people live with one dollar a day. Nobody lives with one dollar a day. Poor people haven’t seen one dollar. They live off the solidarity and the exchange network that happens between people that have the least that they share everything. That’s how they survive, not with one dollar. You can live, like in a place like that that we just saw in Aguán, because people share the little production that they can do and have access to because their land has been taken away, they have to protect the lands instead of grow the crops, the little crops they get, they share them. Everybody works. They share the work, they share the protection. Everything is shared, otherwise you don’t survive. So that very social fabric is being destroyed by neoliberalism because it put us in a very individualistic setup about survival, about communication, about community…
So, also, the feminist critique and the indigenous and afro critique is that that old social fabric that is being destroyed was still flawed because it was based on the double exploitation of women, on the non-recognition of cultural diversity—we know in biology that when you have diversity the crops can strengthen each other, when you have one monoculture, it dies. Well it’s the same with society! When you give value to one culture, it’s not going to survive. What is the Honduran culture without the history and culture of indigenous people and the history and culture of Afro and Garifuna people here, and also with the double exploitation of women. So that fabric was flawed, but it was a fabric, and it was destroyed. So how do we rebuild it? We rebuild it by reconnecting with a different relationship that recognizes the necessity for equality between men and women, that the Honduran society is multicultural; therefore we’re also going to learn from Garifuna peoples. They have ancestral knowledge of how to survive repression. They have always lived in the Americas, under invasions and repressions, where else are we going to learn it historically but from the Garifuna people, from the indigenous people…
So the cultural fabric established on the basis of overcoming those flawed cultural values that were installed with colonization as a monoculture state, as a monolithic way of exercising power. You know, people say that colonizers came with a cross and with a spade. But they also came with a very sexist approach. They raped the indigenous women…Money, sexual exploitation of women, institutionalized religion that repressed people because it’s…also about a monocultural state based on white men of privilege, of money, of having the power and using the state to control everybody else, and using the state to further make money.
Q: The relationship between social movements and the State can be a precarious one. When social movements engage in electoral politics and even party building, there are risks that include cooptation and demobilization at the grassroots level. What do you think is the appropriate path and place of social movements engaging in party politics?
We have a fundamental problem here in Honduras, and it’s that historically it’s the U.S. State Department that has decided elections. And that’s not over, otherwise we wouldn’t have had a coup. So elections are very limited…Government doesn’t rule anyway; elected governments don’t rule countries in today[’s] de facto power policies. But, participating in politics is very important because you cannot let them, the oligarchy, win without putting a good front and a good battle. But you cannot put your expectations into it. And one of the principal problems is—and I saw it in Nicaragua, I saw it in El Salvador, I’ve seen it here, and I’ve seen it in Costa Rica, everywhere—that when social movements organize a political party expression, the movement weakens and puts the energy into the elections. We have to learn to make that combination different because elections, political parties are already part of that system that we are challenging…So, what I think that has to be rethought is how do you develop a connection, because…Locally, people need that, more than nation[ally] people need that, because it is at the local level where the resistance is at now…But we have to rethink how to design strategies where you put some effort into the elections, but in a way that strengthens the social movements, not that puts all the efforts into the state elections and how to win them…So, what it means, is how do people include participation in electoral processes by bringing and giving visibility and showing the strength of the agendas that they have and of the leadership that they have in the community, not only the ones that are [qualified] to get elected, but the leadership of the communities that can then use that electoral progress to advance their struggles and not just to get into the state. We go back to the same strategy, occupying the state.
Q: Under neoliberalism, the role of the state is changing and the sources of oppression that movements struggle against are diffuse and adapting. Given these conditions, what are the meanings of sovereignty and autonomy and how are these concepts critical to building social movements?
The role of the State has not changed. In our analysis the State has always been for the past more than 500 years, a state for the accumulation of capital, for social control of the population by the wealthy, and of a monolithic way of expressing power and constructing culture. That has not changed, so the fundamental nature of the State remains the same. What has changed is that the way in which that is exercised and the way in which it connects to corporate globalization makes it take a different shape…We have to see what is the character of that interaction between the corporations – the de facto powers like the Church, like the narco traffickers, and today they have a direct involvement in that government. Therefore, it’s not a separate relationship like it was in the beginning, so that we have de facto powers, they are ingrained in the government of the state…we have a para state government, and you know the concept of paramilitary right? That it’s apparently apart, but very connected to fulfill the strategy and we have states that are para national and respond to transnational corporations. That’s what I’m developing now…So it’s very hard for us to know where it comes from in the violations of human rights and in the nature of the reactions to our thrusts for social transformation and therefore we have to sophisticate and communicate to be able to make further connections because the connections are hidden behind the relationships between the de facto powers, the corporations, governments that are para, states that are para national…So it takes a sophistication that can only happen if we work collectively, if we communicate with each other – internationally and locally…The nature of the State that we think is a national state for the exercise of rights – that’s what it should be. It’s never been that. We have had moments historically where we have neared that. When you oust a dictatorship there’s some political momentum where everything seems like it can change, but very quickly the powers establish themselves pretty much in the same way.
Q: So how do social movements address the issues of sovereignty and autonomy locally, and even nationally and regionally…
So sovereignty of countries doesn’t exist now. We have to claim it. And in order to claim it we have to build autonomy from the bottom up…And the way in which you build autonomy is what we saw in communities…What Teresa in the community of Triunfa de la Cruz…said to us is we are not against development. What we want is development by us, for us, and with our own cosmovision – and that’s autonomy. But there are different cosmovisions and bringing them together has to do with being able to share them and understand each other and come to some agreement. In some cases you have to give up but not always be the one to give up. And in some cases you can amalgamate, like the Garifuna and the Indigenous Lenca people are working marvelously together because they know what the commonalities are about the struggle and they know the things that are different so everybody can express them and they are not going to affect what they have in common, which is very critical and it’s also critical to have diversity than you don’t get lost in autonomy.
Q: The global nature of militarism and transnational capital under neoliberalism calls for greater North-South solidarity and international networking in order to confront and dismantle these forms of oppression. How do movements balance the priority of working within the space of building international solidarity while managing the priorities of the everyday struggle, life, and survival? How are these two components of movement building complementary or conflicting? If they are in conflict, what is the process of reconciling these tensions?
If you remember what the communities [in the Aguán] told us about our visit, [they are] in the middle of [a] production crisis because they even have to hide to produce their food and…their land is possessed. They have been impoverished forever. And if it’s not the landowners it’s the tourism projects and if it’s not the criminalization of their actions. So, if you remember what they told us, those two are not separate. It’s part of their survival. International solidarity and connection is part of their survival. Producing is part of their survival. Resisting locally is part of their survival. Everything is part of this same struggle that is about keeping and enhancing their capacity to live.
We have contradictions – they don’t about those two.
Q: So radio has been a traditional tool of communication for social movements. In 1991, you founded Feminist International Radio Endeavour (FIRE), the first worldwide women’s feminist internet radio program. This merged the traditional tool of radio with the then emerging phenomenon of the internet. Talk about why and how you came to start FIRE and what impact it had on movement building in the twenty years that you directed it.
Fire was began by a group of women that we didn’t even know when we started. In the Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya was the first time that the women’s movement came together as a civil society movement in the middle of the UN Conference and organized what is now known as an NGO forum but it wasn’t that it was women coming together parrallel to a conference to make sure that the conference would take them into account when that didn’t happen they organized a women’s tent that was fabulous from what people told me. At that time I was in the mountains of El Salvador doing literacy. I heard about it on the radio and then ten years later I heard about it on my own radio program. So women came there and it was a tent where women for the first time in history came together from countries and countries – now this was the “Cold War” – countries were in conflict, women from the Soviet Union and women from the US who sat together in that tent to share their common vision. They were not going to play into the conflicts of their governments. Autonomous women making the connection between their own struggles…It had such an immense power that tent amalgamated people there 8 hours a day and nobody would leave. It had such a political impact…in the official conference that the Soviet Union delegation began saying that the CIA had funded that tent and the US delegation said that the KGB had funded that tent. So the journalists went to ask the women how they had gotten to Nairobi and how they were able to create that tent and nobody had knew how where the tickets had come from. They had come from a philanthropist women by the name of Genevieve Vaughan who had inherited a fortune from oil in Texas and she was a feminist and she was progressive….She put up all the money….That tent had such an impact that it shifted the whole UN Conference and she decided with the women who organized it that they needed an international way of communicating that where women could have a voice and be heard beyond the 16,000 that had been in that tent…so they told her about short wave and about this radio station in Costa Rica in the campus of the Peace University that was autonomous, dedicated to peace, justice, human rights and women’s rights and she called them and negotiated a space for 2 hours of feminist programming and then she started looking for a feminist in Costa Rica that would start the radio and everybody told her that I had just come back from El Salvador and that she should look for me.
I never did radio before so I was broadcasting the following day on the short wave radio station and…the amazing thing is that we used a strategy like what we’ve been talking about politically. Instead of building a new network of radios or an institution we were a collective that took into account that there were many women doing local radio programs throughout the world. And instead of building a new network we would form part of them and invite them to send us their local radio programs for their local community and we would air them internationally. So our program became a forum for women who did local radio in any language…And so it maelstromed internationally because of that strategy of building a democratic participation in the radio production that would mean that women would internationalize their radio production, they didn’t have to do anything extra but send us a cassette. And also because the women in the early 1990s were an emerging international movement that was going to influence the international agenda by influencing the UN and its conference on human rights stating that women’s rights were human rights, the conference on population and development claiming reproductive and sexual rights…and so we became an international radio program not only because we were part of a movement that was thriving to create an international agenda and that’s why it became so big…and we became very strong. There was 5 of us. Nobody could believe it that it was 5 of us and we would broadcast live from anywhere. We learned the technology and became our own engineers so that we could take the radio anywhere, so we would broadcast the same from the UN Conference in Beijing with very small equipment, very little pieces of equipment that we would broadcast from Nairobi…It was a miracle and then emerged the internet…
Q: How and in what form have social movement networks and communications developed in Central America to facilitate regional solidarity and cross-border movement building in addition to something like the project we just talked about?
Communication and the sharing of information is the bloodstream that constructs, that reconstructs the social fabric in a different basis because it’s based on a people’s…power, voices, and diversity. The community radio movement in Central America was huge and has been huge. With the emergence of the internet we were the first ones to tap it to do radio and taught people how to do it–not only to do it ourselves. [There have been]All kinds of popular communication that provided not only a voice, but the analysis that helps makes the connections….So that constant sharing also allowed us to make the connections and understand the situations that we’re facing are not national but are very global, although they have different expressions in each country, that they stem from the same policies and that we also have to face them together everywhere we are. But it also gives us strength. You know, when we won a fight like we did in Costa Rica against the mining project of Las Crucitas, when people in the Siria Valley found out they celebrated because they are confronting the effects of that, then they know that it can be done. And when we learn like that, when we lose in one place but are winning in another you realize and then you share strategies on how to do it – you give each other strength and the analysis when it’s grounded because it brings together everything – we all need that. If you don’t have media how are you going to share that?
Q: Now we’ve already touched on this point a little earlier but I think it would be good to revisit it in a little more detail and end the interview on it. What have been women’s gains in the last thirty years within social movements in Central America in terms of their roles within movements, as well as dismantling patriarchal organizational structures and machismo behaviour and attitudes?
I just systematized that for myself…Common element – to all of these women, they have decided, we have decided that we can not have the men represent us we have to represent ourselves with them. Big monumental change. We have our own representation.
We have our own voice and we have an agenda that we share in common and an agenda that nobody will take into account unless we bring it ourselves. No more representation of the women by the men. Women are representing themselves….We have to represent ourselves because we have a strength and a stamina that the movement needs, not only our physical strength and our work and our energy, our stamina, our strength our integrated vision and we can not delegate that. A complicity amongst the women to be able to voice their needs for equality within the movement and not to be silenced by machismo…
And the men can get to listen, or get into a fight and they fight it out and then it works itself out…So a complicity amongst women that it has nothing to do against the men. But a complicity with not letting the visions affect them pass by and be able to work them out.
They said something to me that I also heard in Guatemala that is unbelievable about…cultural transformation and personal transformation. When we change, we are changing Honduras. Honduras is known to be a machisma country, women are very exploited. Women are subject to violence against them that is also part of a violence that affects, is effected by all of the general violence against everybody. So when we change, we change the face of Honduras. The Honduras of strong women who are there hand-in-hand with the resistance movement to change the country for everybody and also for themselves. That’s a dream that is wonderful. The capacity not to stop dreaming. They don’t just deal with the day-to-day reality. But they dream their dreams. They talk about special strength and perseverance in critical moments. They don’t lose their ground. And it’s not to say anything about the men, it’s just different. Because you know when women are struggling for the land they’re struggling for a life and a livelihood for they are principally responsible for a production and reproduction of life…women do not separate their lives and their struggle from their bodies and territories. The defense of their territories is part of the defense of their bodies and all of it is a part of overall defense of life of the planet. Sometimes men have tended to separate it because they have a mandate that they have to be in charge of production. So a land that is not produced they still think it takes away from their manhood because they have to be producers. Women don’t separate production from reproduction – that’s a false divide, you join them together. Everything is about protecting and promoting life and women bring this holistic picture into the struggle.
They talked about how there’s a prolonged femicide. Femicide is the killing of women only because they are women, and they talked to me about a…a slow assassination of taking their lives away, for women, by taking away their livelihoods, by taking away their dignity, by violence by domestic violence that slowly takes away their lives by dispossessing them of their very dignity and their very sources of life and their counteraction of this femicide is their prolonged resistance…