Revolutionary Venezuela is challenging the centuries-old prejudices of machismo and homophobia, the legacy of Spanish colonialism in Latin America. Yet as Heisler Vaamonde of the Revolutionary Gay Movement (MGR) told Green Left Weekly’s Kiraz Janicke and Federico Fuentes, they still have a way to go. Vaamonde is standing as a candidate outside of the official “Chavista” pro-revolutionary alliance for the December 4 National Assembly elections in Venezuela. He works in the office for the promotion of social rights in Alcaldia in Caracas and is also the coordinator of the Bolivarian Network of Homosexuals, Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transexuals and Transgenders, and a strong campaigner against what he describes as the “Catholic neo-inquisition”.
On December 15, 2002, three years after the new constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela was adopted, President Hugo Chavez said on his weekly television program Alo Presidente that a big mistake had been made in 1999 during the National Constituent Assembly, when the rights of gays and lesbians were left out of the new constitution.
According to Vaamonde, “something awoke in the minds of many gays and lesbians that support Chavez, an interest to form a space that would allow us to defend the revolution”.
“The Movimiento Ambiente Venezuela (MAV), the first gay rights organisation in Venezuela, formed in 1980, was focused on social work, removing itself from what it deemed to be political”, Vaamonde said. However, “there is no contradiction between activism and politics. Through politics you can achieve a clear objective and you can improve the conditions of a sector of the population like ours … It is for that reason that the Movimiento Gay Revolucionario was born, to bring into equilibrium social and political work.”
Vaamonde explained how at the National Constituent Assembly in 1999, Osvaldo Reyes, from the MAV and pioneer of the gay-rights movement in Venezuela, presented a proposal “that had in it the concept of no discrimination against gays and lesbians. This was to elaborate against discrimination at a constitutional level.”
Vaamonde explained that the interference of the Catholic Church in the Constituent Assembly blocked the passage of this resolution. “This constitution rejected the interests of the church, but the church still had a direct impact on the discussions over abortion, euthanasia and the rights of gays and lesbians, and this led to these issues being excluded from the constitution.”
According to Vaamonde, had that article been approved, “under no circumstances could we be discriminated against, such as [over] the issue of gay marriage”. However, he added, “the participation of a gay activist, who did not win, but participated in the vote … ensured that the issue of homosexuality was discussed openly in the revolutionary process”.
After this, the MGR presented proposals for an anti-discrimination law in the National Assembly. But according to Vaamonde, “The politicians did not want to listen to us gays. We had believed that because they were revolutionaries they would have a vision, a broader mind, but it was all to the contrary … we had too many obstacles from them for us to obtain results. There was not the political will on the part of the National Assembly, from the Chavistas, because the right-wing never even opened the door for us, they would not give us a yes or no answer, they were always ‘considering it’… well in the waiting we never got there.”
From this experience the MGR decided on “the necessity of taking our own candidates to the elections”. While Vaamonde isn’t sure how many people in the gay and lesbian community support the revolutionary process, “what we do know is that there isn’t a gay opposition. The discussion has generally been very positive in favour of the government, so much so that we have been one of the most important movements in the revolution.”
However, Vaamonde added: “Unfortunately we have personalities in the government behind Chavez that are not exactly revolutionary. Chavez is a revolutionary, but there are reformists around him.” For Vaamonde, getting gay and lesbian deputies elected would signify that there is a real “revolution within the revolution”. They would aim “for the creation of a national law which seeks no discrimination against lesbians and gays”. This would include the creation of a special commission of the National Assembly to study the levels of discrimination faced by gays and lesbians and present a plan for the implementation of anti-discrimination laws.
Vaamonde explained that the state is not responsible for discrimination, “rather it is a cultural issue”. Yet the state doesn’t have “public policies that are against this culture and this is bad because it is avoiding reality … gays and lesbians of this country continue to be assaulted, mistreated and in some cases assassinated and there is no system that guarantees our defence”.
Vaamonde believes that through education, a change of consciousness and through a revolution, “we can achieve the eradication of discrimination. We hope that the law serves as a way of generating that cultural revolution, and achieves a level of equality for us and for others that are discriminated against. We want real equality for all.”
Despite the problems, Vaamonde argued that there have been some concrete gains for gay and lesbian rights under the Chavez government. “We’ve celebrated the international day of gay rights every year since the beginning of the Chavez government”. Gay pride marches were previously impeded by the right. “This year, the Alcalde mayor participated, the Ministry of Culture and the National Council of Culture. For the first time in Venezuelan history the government has been directly represented at Gay Pride Day.”