Rushing in from another meeting in downtown Cochabamba, Bolivia, Casimira Rodríguez settled into her chair in the garden of a restaurant near the public Universidad Mayor de San Simón. Her traditional indigenous dress, a wide, crinoline skirt and peasant blouse, frames her strong facial features and intense, intelligent eyes. After years of union organizing and a stint in government, she’s obviously used to back-to-back appointments and collects herself immediately.
Casimira Rodríguez was a founding organizer of the Bolivian domestic workers’ union, Trabajadoras del Hogar, in 1985. It was the height of the neoliberal, free market frenzy in Latin America—a difficult time to be starting a union of any kind. But after several years of traumatic experiences as a domestic worker in Cochabamba, she developed a plan to organize these most exploited and oppressed women workers.
Rodríguez was catapulted into the international spotlight in 2006, when recently elected president Evo Morales appointed her as his first Minister of Justice, a post she held for a year. She was asked to step down following complaints that she did not have sufficient legal training. Some critics have suggested that Casimira’s dismissal was a response by Morales to pressure against his extensive placement of indigenous leaders in powerful positions. She quickly became a public symbol of the power of indigenous women and workers. I interviewed Casimira Rodríguez at the end of June 2006.
We spoke as the nation was gearing up for a nationwide recall referendum on Morales’ tenure and that of the “prefectures” (or governors) of the departments on August 10. Morales easily kept the presidency with 67 percent of the vote in his favor. But several of the opposition prefectures were also strongly endorsed in the referendum. Struggle continues between the Morales/MAS forces and the right-wing leaders of the eastern provinces who want more autonomy from the central government, giving them the power to keep the profits from the region’s enormous gas reserves.
Please tell me about your work organizing domestic workers in Bolivia.
Starting in the 1980’s, we in Bolivia began to fight for our rights as domestic workers and as women and to eliminate discrimination. We brought these demands for domestic workers, the right to fair pay, to safety on the job, to basic labor rights, to the Bolivian Workers’ Central organization (COB) in 1991-92 and then began our struggle to win our rights.
What is your relationship to Evo Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party?
Evo raised the role of domestic workers and women. He asked me to serve as his first Minister of Justice in 2006. Many were afraid that I didn’t have the credentials as I am not a lawyer and just a domestic worker organizer. But Evo said that we are challenging the system and role of women and creating a new independent society and government. I accepted the position to bring back hope and dignity for women and indigenous people. It was a beautiful experience. Women were so happy about my role. We accomplished a Declaration of the Rights of Domestic Workers. The Ministry of Workers created a program to fight violence against domestic workers and others as well. Evo is interested in health, education and jobs for all which is historic for Bolivia.
What do you think you accomplished in your year of office as Minister of Justice?
In general, we were able to elevate “community justice” which is traditional indigenous justice to a higher level. We were also able to elevate the position of women. Human rights were codified and corruption was attacked and decreased. We worked toward increased transparency in all government functions to get rid of corruption and build public trust. While we were not completely successful in routing out all corruption, which is a legacy of colonialism, we were able to make some progress. It will be a long process to succeed completely. We have been successful in raising the position and dignity of indigenous peoples, but racism against us still exists and it will take a long time to rid our nation of this as well. Before, indigenous peoples had no access to power or justice; now we do.
For domestic workers, we were able to establish health care, certification for work, and evaluation processes of workers and employers. We were able to establish a Bill of Rights on March 30, 2006, that defines human rights, rights for indigenous peoples, the values of our communities, the right to justice without payment (so that money no longer equals access to justice), rapid access to justice for all, and elimination of corruption. We have codified an end to discrimination against women and indigenous peoples. Many men did not like having to share power with women but now it is being accepted more.
Do you have any regrets about being in the job of Minister of Justice for just one year?
My only regret is that I didn’t have enough time to finish my work. I wasn’t in complete agreement with Vice-President Linera who has a lot of influence in the running of the government although Evo had the last word on everything. It was a great experience for me.
Please tell me what issues are now involved in the anti-MAS movement for autonomy.
The wealthy people in the wealthier departments (states) want to hold onto all their resources and the money that comes from it. They don’t want to elevate the entire nation, just themselves. To them, “autonomy” means keeping their money and resources to themselves, hoarding from the rest of Bolivia.
Many of the forces on the left are discontented with Evo. Why?
I think they need to understand the process of change, the importance and magnitude of the process of change. It takes a long time to make the changes that we need. Others are not happy because they feel they don’t have enough power. We still need to implement many more changes and people are impatient. Hour by hour things change and we have to keep making adjustments in our work. There are a lot of factions on the left and each has their own criticisms.
Some people say that MAS has tried to take the place of the social movements and has decreased the power of the social movements.
I don’t agree with this criticism. Many of the leaders of the social movements are now in the government. There are constant meetings of the Ministers with the social movements. Many of the social movements want more—each wants its own demands. Evo can’t give everything to each of the movements. There are too many different demands. But Evo is doing the best that he can and needs the support of the nation and the social movements to make the changes necessary over time.
What have been the connections between the Bolivia and US domestic workers' movements?
I first started my contact with the US domestic workers movement in 2003 when I first went to Washington, DC and met with supportive women there. I met with a Bolivian woman who was working in a diplomat’s home and was being abused. The Ambassador of Bolivia was very helpful and made many contacts for me. Also Casa Maryland, a Methodist women’s organization, helped as well. This particular woman was able to reclaim her life.
Because of diplomatic immunity there are many young girls who are undocumented and abused in the homes of diplomats from all over the world. The alliance between me, Casa Maryland, and the Bolivian Embassy helped to initiate change for domestic workers in diplomats’ homes.
Do you have any advice for U.S. domestic workers?
The biggest problems for domestic workers in the United States are that they are not documented and have no rights as immigrants. They need laws and rights. It’s great that they are starting to organize in all the places in the United States. They must get support from all the women’s and workers’ organizations. But without papers it’s hard to demand their rights. They need papers for documentation.
There is a double discourse and double values around immigrant domestic workers. Many domestic workers live like slaves, often particularly oppressed by other women in the house. It is a question of justice.
Many middle class and professional women in the US depend on third-world women and women of color to perform the jobs defined as those of women. What do you think about this contradiction between women in different social positions? Can we overcome them?
There is a great division in civilization of the proper division of work and distribution of money and power. The psychological relationships between people can often be colonial, extending colonialism into the family and workplace… We need to create alliances among us. We especially need to teach boys so they will not be abusive or sexist; right now they are learning terrible things from the relationships between men and women, between domestic workers and their parents. They are learning that a person is not a person and that hierarchy is allowable. We must change this. All of us together.
Nancy Romer is professor of psychology at Brooklyn College and executive director of the Brooklyn College Community Partnership. She is University-Wide Officer of the Professional Staff Congress, representing the 20,000 faculty and professional staff of the City University of New York. She would like to thank Elizabeth Siles for arranging and supporting this interview throughout.