6) Human Rights & Women's Issues

On Monday, April 12, our morning speaker was Antonio Gonzales, an investigator for the Programa Venezolano de Educacion y Proteccion de los Derechos Humanos (PROVEA) a Venezuelan human rights organization, and in the afternoon, we visited Inamujer, Venezuela's National Institute for Women.

Antonio Gonzales
The human rights situation in Venezuela

NOTES from the presentation:

In addition to the extreme polarization of the classes, there is currently a polarizing struggle within the government as well, making a conflict in Venezuela nothing short of a crisis. There are three major components of this crisis: 1) social; 2) institutional; and 3) economic.

Class polarization has existed since the Spanish colonized Venezuela and introduced African slaves. Ground rules for political conflict amongst parties has eroded. Unemployment has increased to 20%, up from 5% in the 70s.
Points of contention between the Opposition and Hugo Chávez Frias' government are 1) foreign policy and trade; 2) oil policy; and 3) military participation in social sectors. In the latter case, however, while objected to on paper by the Opposition, they actually use it to their advantage as well. Chávez' rhetoric lends to the fears that the Opposition have of an authoritarian government controlled by a military force. For example, "We are with the poor, and the poor count on their military," is perceived by the wealthy as a threat. And yet, since the coup of 2002, the Opposition has focused on trying to get the military to stage its own coup.

The perception on both sides is one of having all or nothing. The opposition sees the president's symbolic military rhetoric as a move toward dictatorship. In reality, the elites haven't really lost anything, but the fear of losing their wealth and status is there, stoked by Chávez' speech.

On the other hand, the populace really haven't achieved much in the way of participation, but the promise of gains remains, as does the fear of losing the promise.

PROVEA does have a political stance in that it is anti-neoliberalism and pro-popular participation. The major problem as the organization sees it is how to depolarize and depoliticize the armed forces and the media, which amounts to "the other armed force".

The Catholic church is politically aligned with the Opposition, and the extremely polarized police are instruments of local politics. (My note: Caracas is comprised of four districts, each of which has a mayor, and then there is a mayor of mayors over the entire city. In practice, each district's mayor controls its own police force, and therefore, as you cross district lines in the city, you are subject to a change in police behavior from very pro-Chávez forces to very anti-Chávez forces. In every city in Venezuela the police force is controlled by highly political mayors, making for an extremely polarized and tense situation throughout the country.)

The human rights situation in Venezuela is no better and no worse under Chávez than it was before he was elected. The problems stem from the country's colonial history. Unfortunately, there has been no attempt to reform the police force under president Chávez, and the justice system has serious structural problems as well, including a very high case load. These structural problems are as much of or even a greater problem than the politicization issue. Court funding has been increased under Chávez, but not enough. Initially, trials were made more speedy, but since last year, that trend has reversed.

(My note: A contentious issue at this time - May 2004 - in Venezuela is the National Assembly's recent appointment of extra judges to the courts - from the current 20 judges to 32. The Chavistas claim, with obvious justification, that they are needed due to case load pressure. And the Opposition claim, also with justification, that the act of a pro-Chávez majority in the National Assembly appointing pro-Chávez justices at this time is in effect a way to load the courts in favor of Chávez, and in particular, a decision against the referendum signature conflict.)

  Inamujer Panel of women, including officers Maria Léon 
and Elvira Ávila de Ávila
Women's rights in Venezuela

NOTES from the presentation:

The National Institute for Women is a government funded organization, established to support and legally defend women's rights. It is active in the creation of state policy and acts as a liaison between Venezuelan women and their government.

The newly created Venezuelan Constitution of 1999 is the first constitution in the world to eliminate sexist language in its provisions. All references include both genders, including references to the president - presidente or presidenta. Women's rights are specifically spelled out as constitutional rights. Article 88 recognizes housewife as a job that generates wealth, and under the 1999 Constitution entitles housewives to social security benefits. A woman's sexual reproductive rights, including family planning and contraception, including surgical procedures such as tubal ligation, are guaranteed in the Constitution. Abortion is not included, and there is much contention in society on the issue due to the position of the Catholic church. (My note: I have read that over 90% of Venezuelans are Catholic, and heard that the actual practice of Catholocism by the populace is very liberal - far from Orthodox.)

Under the Chávez government and the 1999 Constitution, Venezuela has seen its first female vice president, its first female government ministers and women in other high positions within the government.

Women's centers that surround the hub of the Inamujer offices in Caracas are staffed with volunteers.

Violence against women occurs across classes. Since the establishment of the organization in 1994 (although it only began functioning fully in 2000 due to the unqualified backing of the Chávez government), there have been more reports of violence against women, but not necessarily more people actually going to trial or being prosecuted. There is only one shelter for abused women in the entire country. Culturally, there isn't a demand for these types of centers, as most women are not motivated to leave home. Family is still a very strong institution in Venezuela, and if a woman needs to leave an abusive relationship, she will typically go to the home of a relative.

There is some ambiguity about whether prostitution is illegal as far as the woman is concerned, but it is clearly prohibited to exploit a woman for sex. There is an organization for women in the sex trade which is not a government organization that also is active in defending women's rights. Inamujer does not work directly with them, however, as its official stance is against prostitution.
Women in the public sector receive equal pay to men, but not women in the private sector.

As Venezuelan citizens, the women of the Opposition are covered under the Inamujer program, but they will no longer participate due to great animosity toward the lower classes and the government. Before Chávez was elected, they all worked together in the organization. Opposition women's groups are beginning to appear, but they seem to be women's clubs against the Chávez government, rather than women's rights organizations.

Kwami Abdul-Bey photo
Barrio girls