If you vote for the opposition, you don’t love your mother – at least according to one bold pro-government slogan in the leadup to Venezuela’s presidential election tomorrow.
What may sound like a schoolyard jab in fact touches on an important legacy of former President Hugo Chávez’s 14-year administration: Poor women were some of the main beneficiaries of the charismatic socialist leader’s welfare programs. Mr. Chávez created scores of social missions, which brought services like adult literacy education, subsidized food, and free healthcare into many low-income neighborhoods – and, in the process, gave many women more influence and even political power.
“There is a before and after Chávez when it comes to women in Venezuela,” says Mercedes Chacín, editor-in-chief of CCS, a Caracas-based pro-Chávez daily.
“The awakening of [poor] women started under chavismo,” she says.
Although the “mama” slogan implies that voting for someone other than Chávez’s handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, could put these programs at risk, both Mr. Maduro and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles say they don’t plan to dismantle Chávez’s social missions, which were created by presidential decree and funded by petrodollars. But high inflation, lagging oil production, and issues of cash flow could mean changes may be unavoidable.
Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution emphasized grassroots political change, and social programs like the missions were an attempt not only to lift up the poor, but also to engage them in the political process. The execution was often far from perfect – many programs were thrown together on the fly or left underfunded. At times Bolivarian missions were redundant and added a layer of bureaucracy or space for corruption.
Trusted government statistics and program impact evaluations are difficult to come by, but to communities that for generations had felt excluded or ignored, the acknowledgement of their existence and needs was a tide change.
Every Tuesday afternoon in El Valle, a poor barrio in the southern part of Venezuela’s capital Caracas, some 200 women gather to discuss everything from access to healthcare and clean water to dealing with sewage. They are beneficiaries of the Madres del Barrio mission, which provides financial support and a space to share concerns for mothers living in extreme poverty.
“My life changed socially, economically, politically [under Chávez],” says Nancy Contreras, a mother of two.
“Now I can talk in public, I can say what I feel. Before I couldn’t,” she says.
Ms. Contreras says she and her neighbors are ordinary women and housewives turned community leaders. Whatever issues come up in the barrio, they discuss them during the meeting and find solutions.
“We all share our thoughts. We talk of what we need and what we can improve in our neighborhoods,” says another mother, Nancy Hernández.
“Chávez made popular women central protagonists in his politics,” says Sujatha Fernandes, an associate professor of sociology at Queens College in New York and author of “Barrio Women and Popular Politics in Chávez’s Venezuela.” The government put up billboards representing mostly poor and mixed race women as social workers and doctors, for example. “It was really important in giving women a sense of what they could achieve in life.”
He tapped into established feminist movements in 1999 when rewriting the Constitution, including articles that guaranteed equal treatment for men and women and recognized domestic labor as an economic contribution. He even famously said there could be no socialism without feminism.
Targeting low-income women wasn’t an accident under chavismo. For starters, women tend to outvote men in Venezuela, says Rachel Elfenbein, a scholar at Canada’s Simon Fraser University. Ms. Elfenbein has spent the last year and a half studying an article in Venezuela’s Constitution that recognizes unpaid housework as economic activity, entitling citizens to social security.
And Chávez was wildly popular with the poor and working classes, who were long excluded by the two parties that dominated politics. Through this base, Chávez was able to clinch four presidential election victories in 14 years. Just under half of Venezuela’s poorest people are women, according to the World Bank, and this share of the population stood to gain the most from welfare changes.
“In the absence of the state it is often women who take on social responsibilities” like searching for water, caring for the health and education of family members, and putting food on the table, says Elfenbein.
“[Poor] women and men experienced chavismo differently because of the different gender roles in society,” she says.
Poor women not only benefited from missions, but served as their vital backbone. The government was able to engage neighborhood women in the distribution of services and rolling out missions, and in return, often received free labor.
“In a lot of communities it’s women holding these programs up,” says Elfenbein, while noting that their involvement has not necessarily created pathways into the formal labor force, or toward greater gender equality.
“I think the difficulty is that the political empowerment hasn’t necessarily been accompanied by providing other means of real economic empowerment,” says Claudia Piras, an economist at the Inter-American Development Bank who focuses on gender, labor markets, and entrepreneurship in Latin America. “Like increasing not only their rights but their means to really be able to participate in the labor force and have better jobs and a more decent living.”
For example, Venezuela has one of the largest gaps between men and women with bank accounts at formal financial institutions. There is a 16.9 percent difference in the number of female and male account holders, compared to the average of 9 percent in Latin American and Caribbean countries as a whole, according to the World Bank.
Though female participation in government programs was noticeably high under chavismo – take the 200-woman turnout a week for Madres del Barrio in El Valle – the inherent locus of decisionmaking power did not noticeably shift.
“I would sit in on a health committee meeting in the barrio San Agustin, and there would be 35 women and two men,” says Ms. Fernandes. But “the two men were the [ones] making the big decisions.”
“The structure of the patriarchy is still present,” she says.
And Elfenbein points out that despite the chorus of chavista women celebrating their increased voice during the Chávez era, there is a built-in hurdle to being critical of the government.
“When you’re reliant on the government for social benefits for the survival or your household, how free are you going to feel? … Would they feel free to discuss how the government isn’t meeting their needs in front of government authorities? I don’t know.”
On a national level, the image of a male-controlled society is visible in the national assembly, where less than 20 percent of the elected representatives are female. And only four of Venezuela’s 24 states have female governors. But three out of the five branches of government have female appointees heading the judicial, electoral, and so-called citizen branches. Several women also direct ministries, including Edmée Bentacourt, the minister of trade, and Nancy Pérez, who heads the ministry of women, created in 2009.
Maduro, Chávez's choice to succeed him, is believed to have a leg up in tomorrow's election with a strong sympathy vote and access to state media reflected in his average 16-point lead, calculated in early April. But neither he nor Capriles has Chávez’s charisma.
Maduro might create an initiative, says Fernandes, “but without Chávez there to inspire and motivate the masses, participation could drop.”
There’s another lens through which to view the future, however. Without Chávez dominating the conversation, a new political sphere may yield fresh opportunities at the community level, Fernandes says: “A new kind of decisionmaking could open up.”
The next administration could present “a real opportunity,” says Elfenbein. “Chavez was an amazing catalyst for the Bolivarian process, but he was also the Achilles heel.”
It’s unclear, she says, to what extent women were “participating in political decisionmaking versus showing up at marches, rolling out social programs, and filling a seat.”
“This is an opportunity not to rely on the president, but to rely on their own power and their own organizing to achieve political change.”
– Irene Caselli contributed reporting from Caracas.