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In an outburst last week against gender parity in elections, Venezuelan opposition leader and MUD secretary general Jesus Torrealba[i] crudely set out a worldview of Venezuelan men concerned with the sphere of politics while women ‘find out about politics not through the programs on [TV] Channel 8 or national broadcasts, but when they go shopping’ —for food, medicine or baby formula.
However, PSUV, the ruling party, itself fell short on parity requirements in primaries held at the end of June, and given its reticence to address gender and sexuality issues, the government similarly finds itself on uncomfortable policy ground. So much for Hugo Chavez’ assertion that: ‘a real revolutionary, a socialist, must be truly feminist, because the liberation of the people is achieved through the liberation of women’.[ii]
Behind the curve
While Venezuela’s progress on poverty reduction, participation and the building of Twenty First Century Socialism is contested, on social issues there is no debate. The country is behind the regional and international curve on gender and LGBT rights. Politicians have kept the question of civil equality off the political agenda and defined separate narratives of freedom – the left emphasising anti-imperialism and social rights, the right affording primacy to the political and economic liberty of the individual.
In the fifteen years since the Bolivarian Revolution was launched, the international rights debate has moved on. Popular attitudes may lag and homophobic violence is a serious problem,[iii] but political debate, the media and national legislation in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay, Cuba[iv] and Ecuador have variously embraced civil partnerships, gay marriage, same sex adoption, and anti-discrimination measures against LGBT people.
LGBT legal rights
In Venezuela by contrast the opposition MUD and ruling PSUV have locked domestic and international attention on (respectively) the parlous / healthy state of the economy and the erosion / transformation of liberal democracy. There has been only tentative change on LGBT issues, mainly in relation to anti-discrimination laws – and then largely related to employment.
The annual pride march has grown and some grass roots initiatives are supported by the state,[v] but neither same-sex civil unions or marriage, nor same-sex adoption, including of step children is legal and there is no recognition of gender change. Where Uruguay’s former president Felipe Mujica set out on gay marriage that ‘not legalizing it would be to torture people needlessly’[vi] and in Argentina, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner accepted to be godmother to the child of lesbian parents[vii] there has been no leadership on LGBT issues in Venezuela. Nicolas Maduro has gone as far as waving the rainbow flag, but only then to deflect criticism of his party’s homophobic slurs against opposition leader Henrique Capriles.[viii]
For a revolutionary government, the PSUV has been remarkably reluctant to challenge conservative values, the Catholic Church or an embedded machisto culture. The MUD has proved equally incapable of advancing civil rights issues, a trend reinforced by external democracy ‘assistance’ – mainly from the US National Endowment for Democracy, which has focused on NGOs and organisations advocating regime change, rather than grassroots movements pursuing civil empowerment agendas. Despite a language of anti-authoritarianism and democratic reclaiming, the MUD (and preceding opposition alliances) has struggled to select its candidates democratically in line with Article 67 of the Constitution, let alone introduce radical steps such as quotas for LGBT candidates – as used by the People’s Democratic Party in Turkey[ix], or for women,[x] as in Nepal, Pakistan, Uganda and – more close to home – in 16 Latin American countries.[xi]
One in every four legislators in Latin America are women and a third of female heads of state elected internationally since 1970 have been from the region.[xii] Venezuela is a laggard in this dynamic hemispheric picture. Women represented only 17% of candidates elected to the National Assembly in 2010 and despite a number of high profile female officials, they remain a marginal political and economic force notwithstanding former President Hugo Chavez’s declaration that the liberation of the people is achieved through the liberation of women.[xiii]
The Bolivarian revolution has brought advances for women, for example through employment programs, access to credit and child care. However gender audits and impact evaluations are hard to come by, and recession and economic mismanagement are eroding the gains made. More fundamentally, these initiatives relate only to the role of women as economic actors. The Bolivarian revolution has not empowered Venezuelan women and girls to make choices about their sexuality, maternity or sexual health.
Abortion remains illegal
Abortion in Venezuela remains illegal – even in cases of rape, incest, foetal impairment or damage to the mental health of the woman[xiv]. The punishment for abortion is a maximum 2 years imprisonment, exposing women and girls who undertake illegal abortions to risks of infection, illness and death – clandestine abortion is the second highest cause of mortality in the 12-49 age bracket.[xv] These impacts are differentially felt across socio economic groups, with student protestors in 2014 highlighting that “Rich women abort, poor women die.”[xvi] The mortality rate among 15-17 year-old teenage mothers is one of the highest in Latin America, which led the UN to appeal to the Venezuelan government to change the law to permit abortion for this age-group[xvii].
A march in November 2009 for the decriminalisation of abortion. ‘Faced with an unwanted pregnancy, rich women go abroad, poor women bleed to death.’
Neither has the Bolivarian revolution addressed the grotesque commercialisation[xviii] of women’s bodies in Venezuela.[xix] Beauty pageants remain an avenue of social mobility and a cash cow for media companies and plastic surgeons,[xx] the industry in turn reinforcing racial, socio economic and gendered divides. And as the government flounders to devise a security response to one of the world’s highest rates of homicide and violent crime, negligible progress has been made in addressing domestic and sexual violence.
The opposition MUD has conspired in the revolution’s silence on LGBT and women’s rights. It has not promoted a progressive platform, and, just at a point when it should be mobilising voter interest in its professed alternative to Twenty First Century Socialism, its leadership has aired some misogynistic views, where women’s sphere is doomed to remain within the home. Only 16 of the 162 candidates selected by the MUD for the December 6th election are women and females are a novelty within the leadership of the alliance, on its campaign platforms and at its strategy events.
What prompted Torrealba’s outburst and a stream of sexist comment that followed in the opposition print and social media, was the requirement by the National Electoral Council that a minimum of 40% of candidates for the December 6th national assembly elections be women. The ruling is in line with dusty pronouncements on gender equity including the 1997 Organic Suffrage law, Article 21 of the Bolivarian Constitution, a 2004 CNE resolution recommending parity in party nominations (and providing the right of the CNE to report on non-compliance)[xxi] and a notification to parties in May of this year that the CNE ‘Would take positive measures on gender quotas’.[xxii]
The introduction of gender quotas would ordinarily be welcomed by NGOs, and donor’s, which while aware of the vulnerability of quota systems to abuse, advocate them as a means of empowering women in development and decision making.[xxiii] But in Venezuela the move has caused a furore. The MUD has condemned the quota ruling as chicanery, coming as it does weeks after their (male dominated) primaries and in violation of Article 298 of the Constitution that prohibits changes to election rules within six months of an election process.
Optimism that the December election will see a big swing to the opposition in the context of ongoing economic shortage and mismanagement has quickly eroded. The MUD’s campaign schedule and strategy has been thrown into chaos, and the alliance wrong footed in being forced to address its ‘sexism problem’.[xxiv] While critics maintain the CNE confected the initiative to boost the PSUV, the ruling party has itself so far failed to meet parity requirements and is clearly uncomfortable with gender and sexuality issues.
The introduction of quotas has the potential to redefine the terms of the political campaign, moving it beyond the frozen polarised narrative that has alienated legions of voters – only 30% of which claim they intend to vote in the December election. It can refocus the rights debate in the country, and force organisations that profess to be revolutionary and democratic to move beyond slogans and engage meaningfully with questions of rights, equality and social justice. As such, the CNE’s announcement is a welcome, if mistimed move and it can only be hoped that this pro-active attitude extends to LGBT recognition.