Dangerous Liaisons: Latin American Feminists and the Left

April 10, 2008

Leftist politics has always had a complex relationship with women’s struggles, one that many times translates into political exploitation and neutralization. The strategies are many: reducing women’s battles to a “theme” among many others; organizing them into sectors and hierarchies (the famous feminine “branch,” or women’s section of political parties), with a ranking system that assures that women’s objectives are not the top priority of any political program; simplifying what is demanded or championed to a question of quotas (candidacies on party lists and distribution of other political positions as the only concept of equal opportunity); and marginalizing the spaces where the personal is political (sexuality, the sovereignty of the body, pleasure) or making invisible the domestic and informal economy, in which women predominate.

More complex still is the condition of women “within” the left itself, where, because of the absence of organizational autonomy, the figure of the (obedient) “partner of the male political leader” and women’s role as the logistical and organizational—but silenced—mainstay of political movements abound.

It is still assumed, however, that the arrival to power of governments with a leftist profile (more or less cleaned up, as appropriate) represents an advance, or at least the possibility of an advance, for certain emblematic women’s struggles. The recent case of the election campaign in Nicaragua and the triumph of the ex-revolutionary Sandinista Daniel Ortega reveals a situation dramatically to the contrary: The penalization of therapeutic abortion (provided for under that country’s penal code since the Liberal Revolution of 1893) became a flag upheld across the entire political spectrum, and the law that legalized the interruption of pregnancy was ultimately repealed by a majority of the Assembly, thanks to an agreement between the prominent right-wing Liberal Constitutionalist Party and the election winner, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, along with the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance.

Since this reform of the penal code, the Catholic Church has won the dispute in Nicaragua, as all the political parties have aligned to make political plunder of women’s bodies. From now on, whoever performs therapeutic abortions (according to statistics, more than 2,000 occur every year) will face between four and eight years in prison.

At a moment when in Latin America talk continues unabated of a wave of progressive governments or, as well, a “turn to the left” in the region, it’s worth wondering again about the relationship between the left and feminists.

The Ghost of a Revolution

“It’s dramatic,” says the ex-Sandinista commander Mónica Baltodano, “that part of what was the leadership of the 1979 popular revolution, today comes to power, and in many places of the world it is believed that they carry on with that era’s values. In Nicaragua it’s clear that those who are supposed to be the most progressive, in terms of what they did in the 1970s, end up being the authors of the most reactionary policies.”

Boltadano is the only woman who joined the high command of the front that overthrew the dictator Somoza. She also led the taking of Jinotepe, San Marcos and Granada—where a colonel in charge of defeated troops asked the insurrectional leadership to send a man to accept his surrender so he wouldn’t have to bear the “shame” of doing it in front of a woman. Now, she is emphatic.

“Ortega got about 37% of the votes through shady maneuvers, which is why he is insecure,” she says about the decline of the Sandinista leadership. “This makes him even more conservative and excessively diligent in impressing bankers, the church and the United States. The abolition of abortion signals a situation of brutal retrogression...of a political force [the Sandinistas] that has to give more signs of compromise to the reactionary sectors than would any right-wing force that might come to power.”

She insists that Nicaragua is different from the rest of the Latin American nations said to have progressive governments because it bears the weight of its revolutionary experience on its back.

Baltodano and many other former Sandinista leaders have now regrouped as the Movement to Rescue Sandinismo (MRS): “The movement of women who joined the MRS gave the organization a different profile, and it was our grassroots work with compañeras that permitted us to react to the banning of therapeutic abortion.”

Sofía Montenegro, also an ex–Sandinista combatant and one of the current leaders of the Autonomous Women’s Movement (MAM) in Nicaragua, says that her organization has decided not to recognize the Ortega government and has declared itself in a state of “civil disobedience.”

“We don’t consider the current FSLN to be of the left, despite its revolutionary past,” Montenegro says, “because back then its program included women’s emancipation, which is why we came to sandinismo. Today the FSLN is a reactionary party privatized by Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, who have become born-again Christians: They got married in a church and they baptized all their children.”

The MAM coordinated a powerful counter-campaign against the ban on therapeutic abortion with the slogan “Don’t vote for killing women,” denouncing all the politicians, Ortega in particular, who before the elections had already agreed upon the classic covenant with the church, a continuation of the right-wing policies of the previous decades. “That means negotiating [who will take] positions in the health and education ministries, and the Women’s Secretariat. Ortega even spoke of creating a ministry of religious matters, which is absurd in a secular country,” Montenegro says.

One fundamental piece of information that the two ex-combatants remember is that in 1998, Ortega’s stepdaughter, Zoilamérica Narváez, accused him of sexual abuse. In a recent article, the ex–Sandinista militant and feminist writer Gioconda Belli talks about the impact this episode had in the last campaign: “[Ortega] went out of his way to refute the strongest arguments against him, specifically regarding the case of threats made to TV channel 10 if it dared to air an interview with Narvaéz in which she brought up the sexual abuse that, according to her, she suffered at the hands of Ortega from her childhood to her adulthood. Ortega probably would not need to have used either the actions that the FSLN has taken against channel 10, or the fear that his organization inspires in more than a few, to prevent Zoilamérica’s broadcast.… What’s certain is that Zoilamérica’s accusations are very serious, and only in a machista country accustomed to the sickness of forgetting is it even conceivable that someone, reformed or not, who behaves like this can aspire to be president.”

Uruguay: With the Veto Pending

Uruguay presents another example of the problematic relationship between women’s movements and the left. President Tabaré Vázquez, of the center-left Broad Front Party, made clear in March 2006 that if the legislative houses approved a bill on sexual and reproductive health that included decriminalizing abortion, he would veto it. And at the time he told the legislators in his coalition that he was ready to make use of “all constitutional means” to keep this bill from becoming law.

María Delia Cuneo, of the feminist group Las Decidoras—mainly composed of left-affiliated women, several of them former political prisoners—says, “We didn’t have many hopes for the government, which people say is progressive, because from the time the bill to decriminalize abortion was presented during the previous government of the Colorado Party, the left of the Broad Front had decided it was opposed. It’s assumed that these progressive processes should mean a major opening toward social demands. However, now the position has hardened because it is the president himself who says not only that he’s against decriminalization, but also that if the houses approve the bill, he will veto it. What’s certain is that pressure from the most reactionary sectors carries a lot of weight, and this is a clear example of that.”

Recently, the mayor of Montevideo led a march to protest domestic violence. Does this signal some advancement? “A law against domestic violence was voted in 12 years ago,” says Cuneo, “and they formed special courts, but they weren’t provided resources and were clearly insufficient as a way of attacking the phenomenon...without looking into the causes of sexist violence. For example, no one has wanted to challenge the education law to really question patriarchal values [in school materials], which subjectively create the possibility of a man abusing a woman. To say it clearly: Domestic violence rates have not diminished, and death by domestic violence has remained the same.”

Making Women's Issues Invisible and Banal

It is also necessary to pay attention to what the rhetoric of progressivism either sweeps under the rug or simply trivializes—not in an accidental but in a strategic way.

“In Uruguay,” says Cuneo, “the leftist parties have ignored certain matters, marginalizing all that could not be understood through the capital-labor contradiction.”

“Today,” she continues, “this way of thinking, that there are more important things, remains intact. But then another problem arises: With the discursive varnish of progressivism as the order of the day, in any circle you’ll find the words diversity, equality, minorities, but all of them encapsulated in an offer within the system, leaving it clear that you cannot question the system on such a phenomenon as sexism, discrimination and oppression.”

“I would prefer to think in terms of three cores of struggle that are made invisible and banal or dressed up as discourses of ‘rights,’ ” says María Galindo, founder of the Bolivian feminist collective Mujeres Creando [see “Bolivian Women’s Organizations in the MAS Era" in this issue].

“First: organizational and ideological autonomy, which means being neither an appendage nor the eternal political tenants of the universal male subject. Second: the disobeying of patriarchal mandates, be they religious, cultural, political, etc. This is another struggle made invisible and left to the pacts of convenience and masculine interests. It is a struggle that allows us to see what, surprisingly, indigenous people, priests and neoliberals can all agree on. No government wants to put its relationship with the church at risk, for example,” and progressive governments want no conflict with the movement called “indigenism, which tries to submerge women within the concept of community interests without recognizing forms of oppression toward women that exist within it. Finally, the struggles linked to the economy are the most invisible because it is assumed from the beginning that every economic demand that benefits workers and farmers has a universal value; that is, the idea behind it is the complete omission of women’s struggles within the economy.”

Verónica Gago is a professor of international economy at the University of Buenos Aires. She co-authored, with Colectivo Situaciones, Apuntes sobre el nuevo protagonismo social (Buenos Aires: Editorial de Mano en Mano, 2002). This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared in the December 2006 edition of Las 12, the women’s supplement to Página 12, a Buenos Aires newspaper.
Tags: feminists, leftist politics, women, Sandinistas, Uruguay

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