Think of revolution in Latin America and you may well picture men with berets riding tanks, addressing large crowds and oozing machismo. Scan photos from Cuba in the 1960s, or Nicaragua in the 1980s, and most of the leaders have beards or mustaches. Women may have helped to seize power and smash the old order — especially in Nicaragua — but precious few got senior positions in the new.
For women, however, Venezuela’s revolution is more complicated. From a distance, President Hugo Chavez’s outsized personality dominates coverage of the “21st-century socialist” experiment unfolding on this Caribbean tip of South America. Always with something to say, the tank-commander-turned president is a magnetic, ubiquitous presence.
However, beyond the Miraflores Palace, where Chavez is protected by soldiers and bodyguards, there are a striking number of women in key positions.
The head of the Supreme Court, the head of the National Electoral Commission, the attorney general, the ombudsman and the deputy head of the National Assembly, as well as numerous ministers and legislators, are women. Now, with Chavez battling cancer and a question mark over his re-election next year, women are poised to play key roles in Venezuela’s political future. If Chavez recovers his health, women-led institutions could tilt the election his way, backed by female grassroots activists who mobilize voters. If Chavez dies or is sidelined, expect to see women prominent in the jockeying for power.
Feminist supporters say Venezuela has come a long way under Chavez, with laws enshrining women’s rights, the establishment of a women’s and gender equality ministry and a bank, Banmujer, which gives credit to poor women. About 70 percent of beneficiaries of government social programs, knows as misiones, are women.
“This is a feminist revolution. It has opened a path for us,” says Jacqueline Farias, head of the district capital government and a top Chavez lieutenant.
However, critics say progressive legislation is of scant comfort to women raising families amid rampant inflation, high murder rates and domestic violence. Men still dominate key positions, notably in the Cabinet, and Chavez is prone to sexist remarks: blowing a kiss to former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice saying, “Take your kiss. Don’t mess with me girl.” And calling Maria Corina Machado, a veteran opponent and his possible rival next year, “that little bourgeois woman with a nice figure.”
Merely having women in senior posts does not prove feminist progress, dissident Supreme Court judge Blanca Rosa Marmol de Leon says. Such women are collaborating in an authoritarian regime’s human rights violations — including the prosecution of another female judge, Maria Afiuni, who made a ruling that angered the president.
“This is a society where people are blind and deaf to abuses,” de Leon says.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among others, have also expressed concern about the president’s grip on state institutions and intimidation of opponents.
So are Venezuela’s revolucionarias a refreshing, progressive force or a bully’s accomplices? Farias, jefa of the district capitalz government, is one of the most powerful women in government. The hydro engineer is Chavez’s troubleshooter and since 2009, administrator of Caracas.