Hugo Chávez knew that his revolution depended on women

And he wasn’t the only one. Presidents of Tanzania and Haiti have both benefited from making women central to progress

Selma James and Nina López

Fri 8 Mar 2013 19.15 GMTFirst published on Fri 8 Mar 2013 19.15 GMT

The funeral of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela took place on International Women’s Day – a fitting day of departure for “the president of the poor” who was loved by millions, especially by women, the poorest.

When Chávez was elected in 1998, the grassroots movement took a leap in power, and women in particular were empowered. Women were the first into the streets against the 2002 US-backed coup; their mobilisation saved the revolution. When asked why, woman after woman said: “Chávez is us, he is our son.” He was an extension of who they were as strugglers for survival.

Chávez soon learnt that the revolution he led depended on women, and said so: “Only women have the passion and the love to make the revolution.” He acknowledged that the “missions” – the new social services which were at the heart of his popularity and which the state funded but did not run – were mainly created and run by grassroots neighbourhood women.Advertisement

In 2006, when announcing the partial implementation of Article 88 of the new constitution recognising caring work as productive – a breakthrough worldwide – Chávez said: “[Women] work so hard raising their children, ironing, washing, preparing food … giving [their children] an orientation … This was never recognised as work yet it is such hard work! … Now the revolution puts you first, you too are workers, you housewives, workers in the home.”

Chávez was not the first movement leader who went on to head the government, to have understood women’s centrality to creating the new society they were striving to build.

Half a century ago, Julius Nyerere, leader of Tanzania’s independence struggle and its first president, aimed his programme for development at the elimination of two ills: women’s inequality and poverty. He said: “Women who live in villages work harder than anyone in Tanzania,” working “in the fields and in the homes”.

“The truth is that in the villages the women work very hard. At times they work for 12 or 14 hours a day. They even work on Sundays and public holidays.” Whereas the village men “are on leave half their lives”.

Nyerere’s ujaama or “African socialism” – self-reliance and co-operation – was to keep Tanzania independent, by enabling it to refuse foreign loans. He insisted men must do their share. Equity was a question not only of justice but of economic necessity and political independence.

Encouraged by Nyerere, in one region 17, ujamaa villages created a communal society based on equity among women and men, children and adults – all contributed what they could and all shared equally in the wealth produced. Their extraordinary society was destroyed by Nyerere’s power-hungry colleagues against his will, but it showed us what is possible.

Closer to Venezuela, women gained recognition under Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president (1990 and 2000). Determined to tackle extreme poverty and injustice, Aristide created a Ministry of Women’s Affairs, appointed women to ministerial posts, supported girl domestic workers, and survivors of military rape. As in Venezuela, women were the main organisers and beneficiaries of literacy and health programmes; the rise in the minimum wage benefited them especially – sweatshop workers are mainly women.

Young people’s love for Aristide is legendary, but women’s devotion has been as constant. Two months after the devastating 2010 earthquake, women collected 20,000 signatures in three days demanding President Aristide’s return from exile – they needed him for reconstruction. A year later he was back, not as president but as educator, reopening the medical school he had founded for poor students, which the coup had closed.

In Bolivia, indigenous women were recognised as central to the mass mobilisations which propelled Evo Morales into the presidency. These included the “water wars” which drove the multinational Bechtel out of Bolivia (they privatised the water and criminalised people who collected rain water). In 2008 the women were prominent in surrounding Congress for several days while the new constitution was debated; the white parliamentary elite intended to absent themselves to prevent a vote. The blockade forced them to sleep in the building till the vote was taken. That constitution heralded a new level of power for women – from pay equity to recognition for the economic value of caring work.

As the president of the poor is laid to rest, the historic Operation Condor trial opens in Argentina, tackling the co-ordinated campaign of state terror of former Latin American dictatorships. We must recall a little-known aspect of Chávez’s legacy. Venezuela’s oil revenue supported Argentina’s Presidents Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, enabling them to pass laws removing the military’s immunity from prosecution. The Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who led the 1983 overthrow of the dictatorship, and who had long campaigned for justice for the thousands the dictatorships raped, murdered and disappeared, have long paid tribute to Chávez – a most unusual military man.

They, like women all over South America and beyond, will be watching anxiously to see that the gains of the Bolivarian revolution are not undermined.


By Laura Sullivan, 9 January 20060 Comments3286 ReadsPrint

Featured in Mute Vol 1, No. 29 – The Precarious Issue

Venezuela’s ‘Bolivarian constitution’ contains a unique article (Article 88) recognising women’s unwaged work as economically productive. Wages For Housework (WFH) has been fighting for this recognition since 1972, and has participated in the annual Global Women’s Strike (GWS) since its inception in 2000. GWS members attended Venezuela’s international ‘Solidarity Women’s Encuentro’ in July 2002, and saw women at the heart of the revolution and its social changes. Laura Sullivan spoke to Selma James and Nina Lopez of WFH and GWS

Venezuela’s ‘Bolivarian constitution’ contains a unique article (Article 88) recognising women’s unwaged work as economically productive. Wages For Housework (WFH) has been fighting for this recognition since 1972, and has participated in the annual Global Women’s Strike (GWS) since its inception in 2000. GWS members attended Venezuela’s international ‘Solidarity Women’s Encuentro’ in July 2002, and saw women at the heart of the revolution and its social changes. Laura Sullivan spoke to Selma James and Nina Lopez of WFH and GWS

WFH believed ‘women had a right to money of their own’, says James, ‘because the power relations between women and men, and in fact all power relations under capitalism, were distinctions of wages and a hierarchy in production.’ She and her colleagues fought for that money to remunerate the unwaged work of women the world over, meeting some resistance, for example, accusations that WFH was founded because Jewish people like James ‘are only interested in money’. James scathingly lambasts the liberal women’s movement. She contends that feminist critics neglected to understand that women ­ already institutionalised in the home ­ only have ‘two ways to go: they can either get money from the state, or go out and get a second [i.e., waged] job.’ ‘Women [who went into the male workforce] were absolutely rolled over ­ the feminists orchestrated it, praised it ­ they didn’t see women were being rolled over, and they complained women weren’t getting equal pay. They also asked for “non-traditional jobs” for women. When the first woman was killed in the mines, I was very angry.’ The politics of women’s liberation endorsed by the WFH, then, starkly contrasts with a fight for women to enjoy the same capitalist exploitation and oppressive conditions as men.

James explains that when others were ‘disconnecting production, which was the production of value and surplus value, from reproduction, which was making human beings’, WFH declared that ‘housewives and other carers were part of the working class,’ that is, women’s unwaged labour was productive in the Marxist sense because it contributes to the reproduction of labour. [see inset box] Disgusted with the ‘many idiots’ who said that women in these unwaged positions were outside of capitalism, James emphasises that WFH ‘is an organising movement,’ while ‘all those who opposed it, organised nothing ­ they didn’t say, “We’ll do this instead”.’

A similar emphasis on practical effectiveness underpins the work of GWS in Venezuela. As James and Lopez tell it, when a CIA-backed coup took place in the country in April 2002 and president Chavez was kidnapped by the opposition, the women ‘saved the revolution’ when they came down from the shanty town neighbourhoods in the hills around Caracas ‘and demanded that Chavez be released. Everyone was in a state of shock. The women insisted that the military do something. The military, who were largely loyal to Chavez, went and got him back.’

Through its newspaper, talks, demonstrations, and videos, the GWS counters media misinformation and silence, documenting Venezuela’s revolutionary achievements, such as Bolivarian schools and circles, land redistribution, progress in health care and literacy, as well as women-centred efforts. The GWS sponsored a US tour by Nora Castañeda, president of the Women’s Development Bank, which helps ‘women living in poverty become independent protagonists in the revolutionary struggle’,1 particularly through financing thousands of co-operatives. Castañeda emphasises that the daily pressure of women and indigenous people on the Constituent Assembly was crucial to the passage of Article 88, which declares that women’s work in the home is ‘productive’, that is, ‘creates value’ and entitles women to social security (i.e. pensions, education, and health care), and Article 14 of the Land Act, which gives women heads of household priority in land distribution. A March 2004 GWS letter to the National Assembly urges the full and honest implementation of Article 88. Other priorities, such as the recent referendum recall vote, have delayed its implementation.

Until recently, Lopez explains, the left was largely uninvolved with and unsympathetic toward Venezuela. Traditional Marxists saw Chavez as problematic because his base was primarily in the unwaged sector, ‘rather than at the so-called point of production.’ James contends that Chavez is ‘married to the movement, to the grassroots, which he thinks is central ­ as Marx did ­ as the left does not.’

James contextualises the relationship between Chavez and his followers: ‘It’s not the first time in history that the movement has related to a leader as a saviour ­ people did to Lenin, who wasn’t totalitarian. In the same way, black people related to Malcolm ­ he could do no wrong.’ James views access to power as the pivotal issue: ‘When people find a leader who wants to lead them where they want to go, the intellectuals are shocked ­ they just have no grasp of how it feels not to have power and then somebody who has a bit of power and wants to go in the direction you want to go and take you with him ­ they don’t know how that feels, they haven’t been without power.’ James and Lopez emphasise people’s involvement in the Venezuelan government, whose ‘constitution speaks of the people as protagonists of the democracy, aiming for people to represent themselves.’ Chavez is ‘an organiser, totally practical, connected to the grassroots. His military background is useful ­ civilians don’t know how to run a government.’ Chavez applies his disciplinary skills to all levels of governing, including the recent election, in which volunteers telephoned ten people to discuss candidates and to encourage voting. In a month and a half, the whole country was organised in such a fashion, with a 73 percent turnout! Boldly and practically devising ‘a basically foolproof electoral system (knowing that the big problem was to avoid fraud),’ Chavez demonstrated his ‘big trust in people’s organising abilities, particularly women, who were the majority in the neighbourhoods and helped folks to vote.’ The election was peaceful because it was well organised and centrally involved women.

I wonder how to reconcile James’ emphasis on the role of women and the celebration of the revitalisation of grassroots politics with the focus on the president, a top-down form of power, as opposed to spelling out that the ultimate goal is the end of representational politics altogether. In other words, women are identified as political levers in the revolutionary process in Venezuela, but to what end? Is their horizon ultimately antithetical to the goals of Chavez, who, after all, must not only work to stay in power but who has also been increasingly complying with neoliberalisation (i.e. the concessions he’s made post-coup)? Chavez is undoubtedly a unique leader very much in touch with ‘the people’: for the progress of women and all Venezuela’s disenfranchised it is presently essential that he stay in office. Yet isn’t there still a contradiction between Chavez’s position as a charismatic leader in a hierarchical system, and the WFH goal of the destruction of hierarchies?

While the GWS women are clearly in sympathy with the goal of overthrowing capitalism globally ­ and to their credit, more involved on the ground with poor women, women of colour, and ‘third world’ women than most academic or other feminists ­ their anti-intellectualism manifests in static theorisations (starting and ending solely with the unwaged/waged distinction and the fight for women to receive wages for all their labour in the home) and their lack of a real plan for how this strategy fits in with the broader field of struggle against capitalism. When I asked, ‘what succeeds wages?’, the question was not at all well received. In the first instance it was misunderstood to mean ‘What do women do once they get these wages?’ (met with the hostile response of ‘You wouldn’t even think to ask this question of men’), and in the second, seen as an overly theoretical concern about whether a movement or strategy is ‘anti-capitalist’ versus seeing what it accomplishes on the ground, in people’s lives. Calling the question itself ‘inappropriate’, James challenged, ‘If you see workers on a strike demanding a 25 percent rise, is it for or against capitalism? Your problem is that you haven’t made up your mind about wages for anyone ­ capital has. Wages for anyone is bad for business. If you waver, you decide that you don’t care if capitalism is hurt, you care if [your strategy] is anti-capitalist.’

At the same time, frustration with perceived strategic or theoretical shortcomings should not lead left intellectuals and activists to dismiss totally the efforts of groups such as the GWS and the women they champion in Venezuela. We should continue to learn about and understand the context ­ the political and material urgency ­ that informs such efforts. Making an easy critique from outside, the ‘anti-hierarchy’ ‘pro-decentralisation’ left cannot account either for the popularity of leaders such as Chavez and Castro or for the dialectical relationship between such leaders and state structures and socialist policies, practices, and projects that make a real difference in people’s lives (e.g., Cuba’s continued 98 percent post-revolution literacy rate; the redistribution of land and wealth underway in Venezuela). Without doubt, the implementation of the remarkable Article 88 will make a great difference in the lives of many Venezuelan poor women of colour, and we should appreciate an organisation such as the GWS, which publicises and furthers such policies.

My investigation of the history of the WFH campaign became an unanticipated detective effort. The essay that undergirds the work of WFH, ‘Women and the Subversion of the Community,’ is often cited from a 1975 booklet as being co-authored by Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James; however, James’s introduction to this collection refers to the ‘Dalla Costa article’. And yet a note added by the 1975 publishers (the Power of Women Collective) insists the essay was jointly authored, claiming Dalla Costa publicly admitted this many times. However, not only has Dalla Costa told me James’s name was added to the essay without her permission, the first, 1972 English publication of the essay in this booklet lists only one name: Dalla Costa. Perhaps these conflicting attributions reflect not only the split between James and Dalla Costa ­ who did not sign on to the WFH campaign ­ but also the essay’s more pressing contradictions over whether seeking wages for housework is appropriate. On the one hand, having made the case that ‘domestic work’ is a ‘masked form of productive labour’ (36), the essay concludes that ‘the demand that would follow, namely ‘”pay us wages for housework” … could scarcely operate in practice as a mobilising goal’ (36). On the other hand, an endnote seems to make the opposite case, arguing that ‘the demand for a wage for housework is only a basis, a perspective, from which to start, whose merit is essentially to link immediately female oppression, subordination and isolation to their material foundation: female exploitation. At this moment this is perhaps the major function of the demand of wages for housework’ (54).

FOOTNOTE1 Interview with Nora Castañeda, Global Women’s Strike newspaper, No. 2, November 2003, page 3

Laura Sullivan <alchemical44 AT> is a writer, digital artist and counsellor, leading workshops providing emotional support for activists, amongst others0 Comments3286 ReadsPrint

An antidote for apathy

Venezuela’s president has achieved a level of grassroots participation our politicians can only dream of

Selma James

Fri 13 Aug 2004 09.28 BSTFirst published on Fri 13 Aug 2004 09.28 BST

Shares0Increasing numbers of people, especially the young, seem disconnected from an electoral process which, they feel, does not represent them. This is part of a general cynicism about every aspect of public life.

Venezuela has many problems, but this is not one of them. Its big trouble – but also its great possibility – is that it has oil; it is the fifth largest exporter. The US depends on it and thus wants control over it. But the Venezuelan government needs the oil revenue, which US multinationals (among others) siphoned off for decades, for its efforts to abolish poverty. Hugo Chávez was elected to do just that in 1998, despite almost all of the media campaigning against him.

Participation in politics especially at the grassroots has skyrocketed. A new constitution was passed with more than 70% of the vote, and there have been several elections to ratify various aspects of the government’s programme. Even government opponents who had organised a coup in 2002 (it failed) have now resorted to the ballot, collecting 2.4 million signatures – many of them suspect – to trigger a referendum against President Chávez, which will be held on Sunday.Advertisement

For Venezuela’s participatory democracy, which works from the bottom up, the ballot is only a first step. People represent themselves rather than wait to be represented by others, traditionally of a higher class and lighter skin. Working-class sectors, usually the least active, are now centrally involved.

Chávez has based himself on this pueblo protagónico – the grassroots as protagonists. He knows that the changes he was elected to make can only be achieved with, and protected by, popular participation.

Chávez has understood the potential power of women as primary carers. Four months of continuous lobbying got women the constitution they wanted. Among its anti-sexist, anti-racist provisions, it recognises women’s unwaged caring work as economically productive, entitling housewives to social security. No surprise then that in 2002 women of African and indigenous descent led the millions who descended from the hills to reverse the coup (by a mainly white elite and the CIA), thereby saving their constitution, their president, their democracy, their revolution.

In a country where 65% of households are headed by women, it is they who are the majority in government education and health campaigns: who are users as well as those who nurse, train and educate. Again, women are the majority in the land, water and health committees which sort out how the millions of people who built homes on squatted land can be given ownership, how water supplies are to be improved, and what health care is needed.

Despite oil, 80% of Venezuelan people are poor, and the Women’s Development Bank (Banmujer) is needed to move the bottom up. Unlike other micro-credit banks, such as the Grameen in Bangladesh, its interest rates are government-subsidised. Banmujer, “the different bank”, is based on developing cooperation among women. Credits can only be obtained if women get together to work out a project which is both viable and what the local community wants and needs.

As Banmujer president Nora Castañeda explains: “We are building an economy at the service of human beings, not human beings at the service of the economy. And since 70% of the world’s poor are women, women must be central to economic change to eliminate poverty.”

In this oil-producing country 65% of basic food is imported. President Chávez has placed much emphasis on regenerating agriculture and repopulating the countryside, so that Venezuelans can feed themselves and are no longer dependent on imports or vulnerable to blockades which could starve them out. After all, you can’t drink oil.

Most importantly, the oil revenue is increasingly used for social programmes as well as agriculture: to enable change in the lives of the most who have least. People feel that the oil industry, nationalised decades ago, is finally theirs. The oil workers have created committees to work out how the industry is to be run and for whose benefit, even what to do about the pollution their product causes. The government has turned the referendum, regarded by Venezuelans as an imperialist attempt to oust Chávez, into an even wider expression of the popular will. The small electoral squads, again mainly women who know the community and whom the community knows, are checking identity cards to weed out the names of those who have died or are under age, and register all who are entitled to vote, so that this time there will be little opportunity for electoral fraud. The turnout is expected to be 85%. Some, especially the well-off, see the political engagement of the whole population as a threat to the status quo. Exactly. But since, increasingly, people find representative government doesn’t represent them, it may be the wave of the present.

· Selma James coordinates the Global Women’s Strike; she will be one of the international observers at Sunday’s Venezuelan referendum