In November 1999, feminists from throughout the region convened in Juan Dolio, Dominican Republic, for the Eighth Latin American and Feminist Encuentro. Since 1981, feminists have attended these meetings to share experiences and debate the most pressing issues facing the regional movement. Participants agreed that "old" forms of domination such as patriarchy, capitalism and racism remained in place, while neoliberalism was identified almost unanimously as the "newest" form of domination faced by people—especially women—in the Americas today.
Despite the select appropriation of feminist demands by states and international funding agencies, feminists at the Encuentro recognized that neoliberal economic and political arrangements have exacerbated the feminization of poverty across the region. Some also criticized the ways in which feminist movements had been coopted by gender equity agendas. Arguing that a more radical feminist political agenda has been replaced by policies "with a gender perspective," some voiced the concern that feminists are acting as "advisors" in the neoliberal micromanagement of social problems. Others identified funding agencies as a new form of domination and recognized that the rules of financing dictated that one no longer speak of feminism, but a rather depoliticized variant of "gender," which inevitably stands in for "women." In reference to the microenterprise projects popular with lending agencies, another group argued that feminists should not accept "the lie of 'local power,' which only spreads poverty around," and proposed that feminists work to design economic alternatives to neoliberalism. Using terms like "fragmentation," "decaffeination" and "depoliticization" feminists repeatedly expressed unease regarding the state of their movements.
Feminists at the Eighth Encuentro echoed—in a somewhat muted manner—the critiques heard at the previous Encuentro, held in the seaside resort of Cartagena, Chile in 1996. Marked by acrimonious discussion between so-called "autonomous" and "institutionalized" feminist sectors, the Cartagena meeting was perhaps the most politically charged—and certainly most divisive—in Encuentro history. At this meeting, self-named "autonomous" feminists argued that the mushrooming of policy-oriented, project-driven feminist "institutions" had rendered feminist practice complicit with neoliberalism. The "autonomous" sector was responding to the trend away from grassroots feminist organizing, and toward participation in more professionalized, institutional arenas such as NGOs and state-run women's agencies throughout the 1990s. Uncompromising in their critique of feminists they identified as "gender technocrats," who churn out state-funded reports "with a gender perspective," act as consultants for the World Bank, and represent "Latin American women" at international conferences, the "autonomous" feminists argued that an elite corps of women had sold out feminism to a reformist agenda.
Insisting that a more radical, grassroots feminist politics has lost its critical edge under the insidious rubric of "gender," "democracy" and "civil society," these women advocated a strategy of political and financial autonomy, disobedience and noncooperation with respect to neoliberal, anti-democratic institutions. At times, however, it seemed as though this sector's goal was to publicly humiliate certain members of the "institutionalized" sector, as evidenced when the Bolivian group Mujeres Creando raised a banner reading "Patriarchy is dressed as a power-hungry woman" while a prominent Peruvian feminist delivered her position paper. Thus, the autonomous sector pushed for a critical—although sometimes overly personalized—assessment of the "NGO-ization" of feminist politics.
These scathing critiques were, not surprisingly, heard with anger and disbelief by most feminists at the Cartagena Encuentro. While recognizing some of their points as valid, most feminists were not willing to accept the Manichean division between "autonomy" and "institutionalization." They correctly pointed out that not all NGOs were engaged in the same activities or wield equal power, and that there were different degrees of "institutionalization." In the end, the autónomas' combative style and personal attacks prevented more productive discussion of issues that seemed to be of concern to most feminists. To their credit, however, "autonomous" feminists voiced critiques no one else had been willing to make.
Debate has raged on within feminist circles since the now infamous Cartagena Encuentro. The Dominican organizers of the Eighth Encuentro sought to avoid such lines of political division. This was achieved, in part, through a spirit of reconciliation and a strong focus on "feminine" values and bodily expression. While everyone was to discuss the same major themes, ten working groups were organized around different "methodologies," including theater, massage therapy, poetry, "desbloqueo energético," collage and dance.
Whether a strategic attempt at "reconciliation" after the painful debates waged in Cartagena or a reflection of the Dominican organizers' particular brand of cultural feminism, the organization of the Eighth Encuentro served to push political debate around "institutionalization" and "autonomy" into the background. The organizers seemed to create a space in which to share life experiences and build feminist camaraderie rather than a forum in which to further the political debate begun in Cartagena. Of course, the recognition that women's bodies, life experiences and personal relationships are intrinsically political is a basic feminist observation; however, the Dominican organizers' almost exclusive focus on the body, along with an essentialist celebration of "feminine" values ostensibly shared by all women, worked to suppress difference and dissent within the movement.
The few autónomas present at the Eighth Encuentro criticized the "amnesia" suffered by feminists regarding the events at the previous Encuentro, and reiterated their critiques. However, many feminists were making similar arguments, although in a different language from the "autonomous" sector.
The celebration of the "diversity" of the feminist movement at the Eighth Encuentro might have also pushed debate regarding the very real differences among various groups of Latin American women. This Encuentro was marked by the strong presence of Afro-Caribbean women (a group historically absent from the Encuentros), women from the non-Hispanic Caribbean and Latinas living in the United States. For the first time, the name Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentro became an accurate description, and not merely an inclusive gesture. The relationship between Dominican and Haitian women became one of the most politicized issues at the Encuentro. In response to the intense racism and persecution faced by Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, Dominican feminists issued statements and collected signatures to protest the massive deportation of Haitian immigrants.
At the same time, however, a group of Haitian women felt marginalized from the Encuentro proceedings because of a lack of adequate translation services. At one of the plenary sessions, a Haitian woman remarked that "solidarity is not built with good intentions. Solidarity also requires communication." After accusing the organizers of racism for their oversight, a group of Haitian feminists were ready to walk out of the Encuentro until roaring applause from the rest of the participants convinced them to stay. Likewise, women from English-speaking countries reminded participants that "the Caribbean is not all Hispanic," identifying a commonly held, but rarely discussed, assumption. These incidents highlighted the ongoing attempt to make the Encuentros more inclusive spaces, and made visible the obstacles to this process.
After a decade of increasingly difficult and painful debates over feminist strategizing in a neoliberal world, feminists convened in the Dominican Republic to come up with a "minimum common denominator" that might unite them in a common political struggle. But perhaps the only minimum point of agreement arrived at was the need to examine more closely the relationships between feminist organizing and institutions. Everyone seemed to agree that policy-focused NGOs cannot replace grassroots social movements; just what the relationship between the two should be, however, is still a highly contentious issue. At the same time, ongoing debates regarding the internal power relations within the movement, especially along the lines of class and race, remain strikingly unresolved.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ericka Beckman is a PhD student in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at Stanford University. She has done research on the Chilean women's movement as a Fulbright Scholar.
1. See Sonia Alvarez, "Latin American Feminisms 'Go Global': Trends of the 1990s and Challenges for the New Millenium," in Sonia Alvarez, Evelina Dagnino and Arturo Escobar (eds.), Cultures of Politics/Politics of Cultures: Re-visioning Latin American Social Movements (Boulder: Westview Press, 1998), pp. 393-324.