The Gender Agenda of the Pink Tide in Latin America

With the election of leftist leaders in many parts of Latin America, the subject of women seems to be coming up more frequently in public discourse. Hugo Chávez speaks about Venezuelan women as “revolutionary mothers,” Evo Morales presents Bolivian women as combatants and fighters, and Michelle Bachelet committed herself to addressing gender equality in Chile. Women are in the public spotlight and active as never before with the ascent of moderate to leftist leaders across the region. Yet what is the impact of this increased visibility on the lives and opportunities of women from diverse class and racial backgrounds? How do the more left wing and radical leaders differ from moderate leaders of the pink tide in their approach to issues of women’s rights?


The relationship of women to revolutionary movements is quite different today to what it was in the post-revolutionary contexts of Cuba in the 1960s and Nicaragua in the 1980s. In those earlier contexts, political leaders created state women’s agencies in order to promote women’s interests and rights within a broader project of state-building. Women of all classes participated in organizations such as the Federation of Cuban Women and the Luisa Amanda Espinoza Association of Nicaraguan Women. These organizations provided important scope for addressing gender inequalities, but women’s interests were often secondary to greater political goals of national unity and development.


By contrast, we find that under left wing governments in Latin America today, women are not organized en masse within state women’s organizations. Since in office, Lula Inacio da Silva in Brazil has created the Special Secretariat on Policy for Women, but this is a consulting body and not a mass-based organization. Evo Morales argued against segregating women’s interests by forming separate organizations for women in Bolivia and instead created the Vice-Ministry on Gender and Generations within the Justice Ministry. The Chávez administration created a new National Institute for Women, known as INAMujer, which was established by presidential decree in 2000. INAMujer works together with barrio women, but this organization does not have a mass membership like its counterparts in post-revolutionary Cuba and Nicaragua. INAMujer presides over such women’s groupings as the Bolivarian Forces (Fuerzas Bolivarianas) and the Meeting Points (Puntos de Encuentro), but to date neither of these organizations have succeeded in incorporating women to a significant degree. Nor have women formed autonomous women’s movements like Women for Dignity and Life (Mujeres por la Dignidad y la Vida) in the revolutionary context of El Salvador or the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. Some groups like the radical Women Creating (Mujeres Creando) in Bolivia do exist but their message has not succeeded in appealing to broader women.


Perhaps some of these differences between earlier revolutionary movements and the pink tide can be traced to the rise of the feminist movement in Latin America, that grew substantially during the 1980s and 1990s due to transnational organizing, conferences, and networking. It has been less easy to incorporate women into mass organizations, because many feminists want to maintain their own identity and protect the achievements of their movement from the tutelage of male populist leaders. In some cases, organized feminists have acted as lobby groups to make their voices heard by new left leaders. In Venezuela, women organized to elect women-friendly candidates to the new Constituent Assembly that Chávez convened in 1999 and they lobbied to include articles pertaining to sexual and reproductive rights in the drafting of the new Constitution, approved by referendum in 1999. But at the same time, organized feminists working within the state are predominantly middle class, professional women with few connections to popular women. The shift in Latin American feminism from a mass-based, often socialist-oriented movement to small, professional cores of women can be partly traced to the involvement of international foundations and NGOs, particularly around the time of the Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) in Beijing in 1995. International bodies and events, while providing the catalyst for new perspectives on gender and feminism, introduced an advocacy logic that began to dominate emerging feminisms and distracted women from doing broader activist work. International development agencies promoted the turn to “gender sensitivity” and “training in gender perspectives,” which saw gender awareness as a skill that needed to be taught by professionals, rather than in movements of consciousness raising.


Rather than allying themselves with middle class feminists, or joining state women’s organizations, poor, indigenous, and urban barrio women work alongside men in the context of local community organizations, many of which have long histories. In Bolivia, mining women historically played an important role in movements against the military state in the 1970s. Popular and indigenous women are organized within the Bartolina Sisa Federation of Peasant Women, and local committees and councils that were formed during the movements against water and gas privatization. Cocaleras (women coca growers) have organized in unions to defend their right to produce. In Brazil, women organized in black women’s coalitions and they have been important protagonists in the landless laborer’s movement (MST). One of the slogans of the MST is, “Constructing new relations of gender, Defying relations of power.” In Venezuela, during the guerrilla movements of the 1960s, the struggles against urban remodeling in the 1970s, and hunger strikes in the 1980s, urban barrio women engaged in organic forms of community activism jointly with the men in the barrio. Barrio women draw on these long established community networks as they participate in Chávez’s social programs like soup kitchens and literacy missions. Indigenous women in Venezuela in areas such as Zulia have also been involved in long-term struggles for the defense of their livelihood and natural resources, that have continued under Chávez.


Yet while poor and indigenous women tend to work in local spaces and engage in struggles outside of the state, many still strongly identify with government-directed programs and leaders such as Chávez and Morales. Poor women activists feel a sense of importance as a result of these leaders’ emphasis on the protagonism of the popular classes as a motor force for change in society. The presence of black and mestiza women on billboards describing the missions in Venezuela is a radical departure from standard commercial advertisements, such as the ads for Polar beer dotting the city landscape, that present highly sexualized portraits of women in skimpy bikinis, with European features and long flowing blond hair. Chávez and Morales speak endearingly to women, referring to them in affectionate and familial terms. In interviews in Venezuela, I frequently heard barrio women credit Chávez for their involvement in politics. But at the same time, they would often criticize or disagree with him, arguing with him on the television or even in some cases trying to approach him at public events to convey their complaints.


The experiences have been different on the more moderate end of the pink tide spectrum. Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Michelle Bachelet in Chile both came to power as part of coalition governments that included conservative factions, and more importantly, close relationships with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. While during earlier periods, Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and Bachelet’s Socialist Party were strong antagonists of the Catholic church, in the 1990s, under conditions of “reconciliation,” these parties began to repair their ties with the Church establishment. The effect on women’s rights, particularly reproductive rights, has been negative. Just before the November 2006 elections in Nicaragua, Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo came out in support of banning therapeutic abortion, thereby removing the last option for women who want to terminate pregnancies that put their health at risk.


Likewise, more than a decade of rule by the center-left Concertación government in Chile has also led to a conservative approach to issues of sexual and reproductive rights. Bachelet has been beholden to some of these same policies, but at the same time, she has spoken openly about gender equality. She may be more constrained in her possibilities for action than other leaders such as Chávez and Morales, but she has also been forceful about opening up a debate about women’s rights.


The presence of Bachelet as one of the sole women leaders in the pink tide, and in the  Americas more generally, raises the thorny question of women’s leadership. On a wall in the Bolivian city of La Paz, there is graffiti that reads, “There will be no Eva out of Evo’s rib.” However, it is not only an issue of women in high ranking positions, but their role in the everyday community-based organizations, indigenous movements, and union movements. While women are often central participants in these movements, they have not always taken up leadership roles. During my work in Venezuela, I observed that while women were the majority of those active in the health committee or soup kitchens, leadership was often still in the hands of one or two male members of the community. This is changing, and as issues of gender equality and leadership are being raised in assembly meetings, committee collectives and communal councils, women are assuming greater levels of leadership. But along with this leadership there needs to be a change in the gender division of labor, so that women do not end up bearing the triple burden of housework, wage work, and activism.


Sujatha Fernandes:

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