Women in Caracas march

CARACAS, Venezuela (WOMENSENEWS)–A few days after Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez won the mid-August referendum recall, Juana Faria applied for a second loan at the Women’s Bank in downtown Caracas.

Standing inside the Venezuela’s Women’s Development Bank here and clutching a manila folder full of documents, the 44-year-old singlemother of three expressed confidence about qualifying for this second loan–for $260–with which she plans to legally register her business and hire two new people to help with the distribution of the cakes and yogurt that she makes in her kitchen and sells in her neighborhood of Parroquia Recreo.

In 2002, when she first heard about the bank, however, Faria was far less certain of her ability to qualify for the first $260 credit, which helped her jump-start her business by allowing her to buy a second-hand oven, cooking wares and hire an
employee to sell her goods.

But, after a series of workshops that help women devise the business plans needed for the loan, Faria realized that even though she had no collateral and no credit history, she not only qualified, she was a prime borrower for the Women’s Development Bank.

Known in Spanish as BANMUJER, the Women’s Development Bank was created by Chavez’ government in 2001 and has assisted some 43,000 poor women without collateral, like Faria, attain micro-credits for their micro enterprises.

“The loan of $500,000 Bolivares made a world of difference,” Faria said, referring with elation to the first $260 credit. “Business is going fabulously and I have so much work. I say no one in Caracas has to die of hunger as long as we have Banmujer.”

Chavez Wins Easily

With the loyal support of members of Venezuela’s impoverished majority, such as Faria, Chavez won Latin America’s first referendum to recall an elected leader on Aug. 15 with a 16 percent margin of victory.

In an oil-rich country where 75 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 65 percent of the households are run by single women, Chavez has built huge popular support with Cuban-style social-welfare missions.

There is the literacy campaign known as “Mission Robinson,” through which thousands of poor people are receiving adult education. There is the free health and dental care campaign, with services provided by Cuban doctors known as “Rescuing Smiles.” There have been programs that use oil proceeds to subsidize supermarkets and women’s centers that attend to cases of domestic violence.

Most of the money for this populist so-called Bolivarian revolution–named after Simon Bolivar who liberated South America from Spain–comes from a $1.7 billion transfer from the state-run oil company Petroleos de Venezuela.

Street Vendor Lined Up for Chavez

Isel Ganado, a 51-year-old single mother of six, works as a street vendor of undergarments and lives in the Caracas slum of La Vega. As she stood in line on Aug. 15 to vote to keep Chavez, she said she supported him because she has benefited from all his programs.

“I had a second-grade education,” she told Women’s eNews, “and don’t have time for night school. But I go to the center, near my house, for a couple hours each day and I’m learning math.”

Women such as Ganado have provided a crucial base of support for Chavez. They have swarmed the streets at crucial times during his presidency, standing for hours in plazas and marching to protect him from numerous ouster threats by an opposition force composed mainly of the country’s elite.

After a failed coup attempt against Chavez in April of 2002, thousands of poor women, many of them elderly, swarmed the plaza in front of the Miraflores presidential palace to demand his return. Two days before the August referendum, as Chavez closed his campaign, thousands of women once again gathered in front of the presidential palace, wearing red T-shirts that said “No,” against removing Chavez, and chanting that “Chavez won’t go.”

Deep Divisions

But not all women in this country–deeply divided between the “Chavistas” who support the populist president and those who oppose him–agree that Chavez is their man.

In fact, during past three-years of anti-Chavez marches, strikes, street violence, a brief coup in 2002 and a combative signature drive to endorse the referendum, women have often been at the forefront, charging Chavez with a host of ills, from monopolizing television time with his long speeches, causing unemployment and increasing street crime.

Venezuela’s 1999 Bolivarian constitution provides some guarantees against sex discrimination. Under it, for instance, housewives are entitled to social security. Women in the opposition movement, however, say Chavez is a communist dictator, leading Venezuela down a Cuban path.

“Look around,” said 30-year-old Yennifer Salas, as she cheered before the vote among hundreds of thousands of anti-Chavez demonstrators in the wealthy uptown neighborhood of Alta Mira, amid a sea of red, yellow and blue Venezuelan flags. “Most of the people who come to marches are women. For the first time, women are on the frontlines of Venezuela’s political battle,” said the Caracas lawyer who belongs to the legal group called the “Defense of Women and Family Rights.”

Speaking loudly to be heard above the chants about ousting Chavez, Salas said that Venezuelan women have advanced tremendously over the past couple decades and have assumed more or less equality with men in the workplace.

But such progress was in no thanks to Chavez, according to Salas, who declined to comment on the positive effects his policies may have had for the country’s impoverished women.

Jessica Godoy, a 24-year-old University graduate, who is also anti-Chavez, said she couldn’t get a job and blames Chavez for the country’s recession and his neglect of the middle class.

Godoy, who has participated in at least 10 marches against Chavez, said even though the opposition has not mentioned women’s rights as an issue, she feels her rights would be more protected under their coalition of 27 political parties, unions and business associations, which lack any single leadership but are united in their anti-Chavez opposition.

“I have been beaten by Chavez’ police while marching,” Godoy said. “What kind of government resorts to beating women and tear gassing them?”

“The only thing I can thank Chavez for is eliminating the country’s apathy, especially ours as women,” said Godoy, who plans to continue struggling and marching to remove Chavez.

Nicole Karsin is a freelance journalist based in Bogota Colombia. She has reported for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice and Pacifica Radio’s “Free Speech Radio News, among others.

For more information:

Global Women Strike–
Nora Castaneda on tour in the U.S.:”Creating a Caring Economy in Venezuela”: http://www.globalwomenstrike.net/English/NoraCastaneda.htm

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