Latin America’s Left turn: What’s in it for Women?

Latin American Leftist leaders appeal to women as mothers of poor families…but do they address women’s rights?

    "Addressing women’s economic rights is not enough to change longstanding gender inequalities, nor can maternal politics," writes author [AFP]
    "Addressing women’s economic rights is not enough to change longstanding gender inequalities, nor can maternal politics," writes author [AFP]

    Hugo Chávez knew that women were fundamental to his revolution. As he once famously said, “Only women have the passion and the love to make the revolution.” His legacy leaves a leadership void in Latin America’s new Left, yet other revolutionary leaders have also recognised the protagonistic roles women play in their anti-neoliberal agendas. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa (2007-present) has stated that the “revolution has a woman’s face.” Bolivian President Evo Morales’ (2006-present) state development policy includes language about how “decolonising” the state necessarily involves “depatriarchalising” it – ideas now incorporated into Bolivia’s 2009 constitution and public policies. Yet these leaders are also socially conservative and have tended to clash with second wave feminist demands, particularly concerning women’s reproductive rights. What to make of women’s rights, then, in Latin America’s shift to the Left?

    Mothers of the Revolution

    Leftist leaders have long appealed to women to represent their nations in times of revolutionary change, particularly in their roles as mothers. But especially since the 1970s, feminists and other women activists in the region began to challenge colonialist notions of marianismo, the cult of femininity and motherhood, and worked toward gaining women rights as a social class, rather than simply as mothers of families, communities and nations.

    New Left leaders such as Chávez have taken advantage of women’s reproductive roles from the start, incorporating especially poor women in unprecedented ways into the Bolivarian Revolution’s Cuban-style missions, or state-sponsored community efforts to provide health care, education and other social services at the grassroots level – a process successfully fuelled by Venezuela’s booming oil economy. The results of redistribution have amazed many, and prove that inequality is not a “natural” result of capitalism: Chávez and other populist new Left leaders such as Rafael Correa and Evo Morales, two of Chávez’s closest allies, have redistributed wealth in a way that differs from the Washington Consensus neoliberal era of development: Rather than relying solely on “trickle down” economic policies, these leaders have nationalised oil and other industries and re-allocated much larger portions of their GDP to social spending than their neoliberal predecessors.

    The Chávez administration has channelled more resources than any other country to its missions, which rely on women’s labour and which can be viewed as the maternal foundation of the Bolivarian revolution. Although Ecuador and Bolivia have smaller oil reserves and poorer economies, both have significantly increased social spending as well. Between 2008 and 2012, the Correa administration spent $15.8bn on social spending: that’s triple the amount that the previous three Ecuadorian governments spent on social welfare combined. Poverty levels have decreased from 38.3 percent in 2009 to 31.1 percent in 2011. Morales’ cash transfer programs have reached one-quarter of Bolivia’s 10 million people. The number of people living in extreme poverty in Bolivia has halved between 2005 and 2011, from 48.5 percent to 24.3 percent. These redistributive agendas have particularly benefitted the most marginalised sectors of society, including indigenous, Afro-descendent, peasant and urban poor sectors.

    Redefining the Family, Depatriarchalising the State

    A key aspect of populist new Left governance has been redrafting constitutions to redirect national development and create more inclusive social agendas. In many ways, both Correa and Morales have taken this project one step further than Chávez, at least on paper: Both countries’ new constitutions define their nation-states as plurinational and secular – an important rejection of their nations’ colonial, religious origins. Ecuador’s constitution grants rights to nature, the first constitution in the world to do so. Both constitutions draw from Andean cosmologies and epistemologies and are based on a notion of buen vivir, or in Ecuadorian Quichua, sumac kawsay (“well-being” or “living well”), a notion that emphasises solidarity over competition and sustainability over growth. Their constitutions also call for respect for sovereignty and self-determination in terms of political life, economy, culture and environment - all longstanding principles of the region’s indigenous movements. Both Presidents consider their constitutions and respective revolutions to be a “refounding” of their nations, a term used regularly by Morales as the basis for the MAS party’s radical agenda of “Andean capitalism” and for the country’s proposed decolonial turn. 

    Socially, both constitutions grant innovative new sets of rights to marginalised groups previously unrecognised by law: Ecuador’s constitution redefines the family to include households not solely based on kinship, potentially extending state resources and citizen rights to transnational migrant families and same-sex households, and includes new anti-discrimination measures on the basis of gender identity (an anti-discrimination measure based on sexual orientation was included in the 1998 Constitution).

    Bolivia’s decolonisation and de-patriarchalisation development strategy is catalysing a series of policy and legal reforms aimed at tackling sexism, racism and neocolonial dependency. Not surprisingly, impoverished and marginalised sectors tired of the region’s “long neoliberal night” have supported and held great hope for these leaders. In many ways, the legal and policy advances made by women’s movements in the 1990s, often characterised as heavy on legal recognition and light on redistribution, have now been cast aside as secondary to the “primary” goal of class-based redistribution. 

    Although feminists and other women activists now play roles in these governments, some of them admit that a women’s rights agenda has been sidelined for maternal class-based politics by the new Left. For example, in Ecuador new equal opportunity laws have been passed for legally defined groups including the elderly, youth, indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian sectors – but politicians and activists still have not been able to pass the most basic equal opportunity law for women in the National Assembly, leaving the decades-old state women’s agency as a “transition commission” since 2007.

    Likewise, some critics point out that Bolivia’s de-patriarchalisation discourse has a long way to go to be integrated into public policies that actually reach social sectors and change cultural values. And since their entry into formal politics, indigenous women politicians have complained about their working conditions and treatment by their colleagues. Indeed, women’s rights have remained outside these revolutions in many ways: Considering two of the most visible hot button social issues in the region, homosexuality and abortion, even laws concerning homosexuality and same-sex partner recognition have been introduced in Ecuador and many other countries, whereas reproductive rights agendas, which have been around since the inception of second wave women’s movements in the 1970s, have deteriorated, rather than improved, since the inception of these governments – most notably in Nicaragua and El Salvador, where abortion is not only banned but has been increasingly criminalised, forcing poor women in particular into jail for suspicious miscarriages or illegal abortions.

    What’s Next for Women?

    So what’s to make of women’s rights in anti-neoliberal Latin America? On one hand, poor and middle class women have benefitted from the anti-neoliberal redistributive agendas. And women’s increased access to education, especially in oil rich Venezuela, may indeed improve their conditions of life. Their public level participation has brought with it new forms of political visibility, another potential advance. And certainly the buen vivir agendas of Ecuador and Bolivia point toward a decolonial feminism constructed in the South versus western, urban, middle-class feminism that the “jet-setting” group of second wave feminist leaders in the region has been criticised for (interestingly, the Bolivian government contracted US-based decolonial feminist philosopher María Lugones to help construct its public policies (see Despatriarcalizar para descolonizar la gestión pública, Patricia Chávez et al.).

    Yet as observers have noted, addressing women’s economic rights is not enough to change longstanding gender inequalities, nor can maternal politics. Perhaps ironically, many of Latin America’s policies and laws concerning gender equity were passed at the height of neoliberalism, during the “NGOisation” and professionalisation of women’s movements in the 1980s and 1990s – a result in part of the 1985-1995 UN Decade for Women and the increase in funding for gender and development projects in the global South. 

    At the time, women’s rights activists may have looked “west” or “north” for ideological and financial support, but they did so originally out of necessity, to fight military dictatorships, political violence, food shortages, the foreign debt crisis, and massive poverty. Many of these activists were critical of their dependence on foreign humanitarian aid from the start, which sparked the regional feminist movement’s push for autonomy from male-based states as well as global institutions. Yet operating in a neoliberal period, these activists were unable to link their newly-recognised rights to redistributive agendas. 

    New Left leaders have the ability to do this, and to a certain degree they have succeeded. Yet ironically, in downplaying women’s rights agendas as “western” or “bourgeois,” they are ignoring the hard work of generations of women who came before them and who made these new worlds possible. The time is now to include women’s rights in the struggle for decolonial justice. 


    Amy Lind is Mary Ellen Heintz Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Cincinnati.



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