The Feminization of Chavismo: Poor Women as Instruments of Social Policy

Author: Anais D. López Caldera | Original text: Nueva Sociedad, March 2018

Since its beginnings, the Bolivarian project has incorporated into its speeches a direct appeal to the poorest women, acknowledged their situation of exclusion, and made clear its commitment to take them out of poverty. However, its ways of promoting women’s participation are associated with a view that limits them to the role of mothers and caregivers. Since then, the Chavista State has been consolidating a kind of maternalist ideology that exalts this role, without taking into account the conditions in which motherhood develops or the existence of other women, neither mothers nor caregivers, who also deserve the attention of the Venezuelan State’s gender policy.

The constitutional process in Venezuela in 1999 generated great expectations in terms of the incorporation and development of a wide range of rights and guarantees for women in the new constitutional text. Issues on which there was already some agreement throughout the region, such as the recognition of sexual and reproductive rights, equal rights to work and education, recognition of domestic work as productive work[1], among others, were included the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela that was popularly approved in December of that year.

The Constitution did exceptionally expand the reach of rights to promote and guarantee women’s autonomy in all areas of their lives[2]; however, realizing those rights has been difficult over the years due to resistance, within the Chavista project, against the incorporation into its political agenda of issues that are fundamental but not “popular” in Venezuelan society, as is the case of many of the so-called “gender issues”. On the contrary, the last 20 years have seen the growth and consolidation of a radicalized maternalist ideology that exalts the role of women, especially the poorest, as mothers and caregivers. Although it appears reasonable that early Chavista policies aimed at women were focused on poor mothers, it is less reasonable that nearly 20 years later gender policies for all women, in all the areas outlined in the Constitution, have not been developed. The hypothesis of this article is that the mobilization and incorporation of women, especially the poorest, into the social programs promoted by Chavismo is and has been grounded upon a paternalistic and clientelist logic that operates as a control mechanism ––one that serves the permanence and legitimization of Chavismo in power.

The guarantee of equal access and exercise of the right to work, as well as the recognition of women’s domestic work as productive work, were seen as great achievements for feminist and women’s organizations. On the one hand, this implicitly acknowledged the existing inequalities between men and women in the world of remunerated work; on the other hand, the fact that housewives perform work that also generates wealth and social wellbeing was explicitly recognized. As a result of this recognition, the conditions were created for housewives, especially the poorest housewives, to have access to a guaranteed income and to all the legal benefits resulting from the recognition of their work. This exercise could result in a liberating practice, as it gave some financial autonomy to women in their homes.

From its beginnings, the Chavista project gathered great popular support, concentrated territorially in the most excluded factions of Venezuelan society, that is, in popular neighborhoods and rural populations throughout the country. These sectors have been the main bastions of the political discourse and social policies implemented by Chavismo since 2003. Since then, it has been concentrating on a series of programs known as misiones[3], aimed at food, health, and education, and which over the years have been extended to address specific subjects: women, young people, the elderly, mineworkers[4].

However, it was the poorest women who since the beginning were most involved in the implementation of these programs among the popular classes. It has been difficult for the influence of women in Chavista politics to go unnoticed ever since. This is what some authors have identified as the “feminization” of Chavismo[5], based on the inclusion of thousands of poor women as subjects of social politics but also as their main actors in the popular areas where they live.

Early on, the Chavista project included in its speeches a direct appeal to the poorest women, acknowledged their exclusion and committed to delivering them from poverty so as to incorporate them fully into the reconstruction of the nation. However, its ways of promoting women’s participation are closer to an essentialist vision that postulates women’s natural tendency towards communitarianism because they are less motivated by “selfish individualism,” given that their family role and their responsibility as providers predisposes them to popular activism and community work. In Venezuela, this understanding of women’s participation has featured regularly in over 20 years of discourse: as “natural communitarians,” volunteer work is deposited on women as an active part of grassroots politics.

From a feminist perspective, this way of promoting women’s participation is problematic, since, on the one hand, it doesn’t meet historical demands of rights and guarantees of equality, and, on the other hand, it is not defined collectively by the women themselves. In this case, the State defines the interests of women and the spectrum of freedom in which they can pursue them. Although the empowerment of female grassroots activists is encouraged, they are simultaneously classified as affective workers, defined by their functions in the private sphere: grandmothers, mothers, aunts, daughters ­­––in other words, they are always classified according to filial bonds. Thus, in the sphere of “the popular,” meaning grassroots activism, a logic of participation prevails that does not necessarily transform relations of domination, but rather takes advantage of them in the name of self-management and communitarianism.

In the Venezuelan case, the role of poor women in the Chavista project is key in that they are called upon to support the care of children, but also of the community at large. Hardly anything is articulated in terms of public policy to guarantee women’s rights for themselves or the agenda of rights and guarantees inscribed in the Constitution. In this regard, we believe it is important to point out the contrast between women’s autonomy and real freedom and the discursive recognition they have received during the Bolivarian process. In other words, although women are discursively recognized and their role in the Bolivarian Revolution is exalted, although Hugo Chávez and now Nicolás Maduro have declared themselves feminists, this has not contributed substantially to a subjective, much less substantive, change in women’s living conditions, for example, regarding problems such as high teenage pregnancy rates, the criminalization of abortion, and the alarming and sustained growth of maternal mortality, as well as gender-based violence.

In Venezuela, so-called “gender policies” have essentially been a set of social programs to contain poverty aimed at women-mothers. This does not seem questionable in and of itself. The problem lies in the fact that all such policies have been limited to containment while, in the context of economic crisis, women are tasked with management and care in precarious conditions. For example, the Misión Madres del Barrio[6], which was based on the recognition of domestic work as labor as established in the Constitution, and which was designed as a program for training and promotion of women’s independence, has been replaced by the Misión Hogares de la Patria, which is limited to a monthly money transfer.[7]

This type of social program, when presented as a form of “gender policy,” raises questions about the social extension of the maternal role while freeing the State from its responsibility of ensuring the care and well-being of women; the poorest women are thus confined to the sphere of the domestic, now exalted by the State, in the communities they live in.

As Cisneros points out:

“Until now, the moral uprising of the bases has been exploited in versions of a sexist cult whose principles move away from emancipatory languages. Discourses aimed at strengthening the profile of a supposed warrior woman, mother and tireless worker who is required to provide love and dedication in the public and private spheres, offer her incorporation into the body of the nation as child-bearers.[8]

The maternalization of women by the State and by other women who operate public policies is the most effective way to maintain their conditions of submission unaltered, insofar as it manifests itself not so much as external coercion but as an innate impulse in each woman. This gives the State the opportunity to operate on that feeling, on the motherly affect, and to exploit it in favor of its project. This has been pushed to the limit in Maduro’s government. In March 2015, the National Women’s Union (Unión Nacional de Mujeres), an organization created by the government to bring together and protect all the mechanisms created by the government itself, such as misiones, political organizations and women’s organizations linked to Chavismo, called for a Venezuelan Women’s Congress[9] and established the “challenges” for Venezuelan women, in the following terms:

“We are committed to the Bolivarian Revolution and to our leader, to place ourselves at the vanguard of the organized popular movement in this unitary space that invites us, so that with the amorous force of revolutionary women we put ourselves at the forefront of the defense of national sovereignty.” Rebeca Madriz, Vice Minister of Gender Equality and Non-Discrimination.

“The women’s agenda on this unitary platform must be to guarantee the peace of all the Venezuelan people and to guarantee this year’s victory in the next National Congress elections.” Héctor Rodríguez, former Vice-President of the Social Area.

“The patriotic and revolutionary women are committed to defending, preserving, and expanding the legacy of the Eternal Commander, Hugo Chávez Frías. In this sense, we unreservedly support our comrade, the Labor President Nicolás Maduro Moros in any scenario and under any circumstances.” Program for the Struggle of Patriotic and Revolutionary Women. Base Document for the Debate[10].

The participants in this congress were women linked to and/or attached to various structures controlled by the government: workers from the Ministry of Women and its institutions, members of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and beneficiaries of social missions such as Madres del Barrio. The document above was in fact formulated before the council took place, and was only distributed for validation and unconditional support. Such an appeal to patriotism functions as a means of coercion for poor women to ratify their commitment to defending the “legacy of the President Chavez”; this, in turn, is clearly intended to legitimize Maduro’s leadership in a country where 51% of women have no income of their own, with the exception of those who can obtain some allowance offered by the State[11]. Therefore, this type of structure and grouping of the most vulnerable women works in practice as a control and manipulation device based on their most basic needs. An extraordinary example of the way women are conceived by official policies is evident in the words of the Coordinator of the Soy Mujer program of 2016: “The Soy Mujer program was put in my hands by the President [Maduro] . . . rather than just for women, [it is] for families, for the child-raising women who work from home . . . When one says I am a woman, it means that I am a home, I am a family, so that the woman, from her home and with her family, can develop[12].”

In its design, this program is aimed at the empowerment of poor women through the financing of productive initiatives. But its limitation, like that of other experiments of the Bolivarian government, is that it has ended up being a direct monetary transfer that allows women from popular sectors to associate for small initiatives linked to the production of food and candies, or to handicrafts or beauty services for other women. What emancipatory logic can be claimed in this context?

In the context of the deep political, economic, and social crisis that Venezuela has been facing since 2013, this emphasis on the role of women as mothers contrasts strongly with indicators pertaining that very area, such as maternal mortality[13]. According to statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), the worldwide maternal mortality ratio has fallen by around 44% between 1990 and 2015. And according to numbers from the Ministry of People’s Power for Health, in Venezuela, during the same period, the maternal mortality rate increased 52.61%. If you take the same account, but with data from 2016, this rate increased 90.52%.

According to the “Maternal Mortality Eradication Situation Room” report (2017), the numbers have not only not grown in the last decade but show a dramatic increase in the last four years, aggravated by the economic crisis that undoubtedly impacts the public health system in which most women manage their pregnancies. Until 2013, the maternal mortality ratio remained more or less stable: throughout that year, the indicator was 68.66. In other words, for every 100,000 live births, 68.66 maternal deaths occurred. In the following three years, the number has not stopped rising. By July 2016, the maternal mortality ratio was 112.29. This means that it increased 63.5% in just 36 months. The lowest is still the rate corresponding to 1998; the indicator had several peaks that were always high and remained around 60%.

In July 2017, many months after various women’s organizations, doctors, and hospital personnel set off alarms about the situation, President Maduro himself announced the implementation of the National Plan for Humanized Childbirth, whose priorities would be as follows:

“The National Plan for Humanized Childbirth was activated last July 11th, and its objectives include attending to 900 women in the first phase of gestation through the training of a total of 10,000 community promoters, with the aim of guiding the 500,000 pregnant women who register annually in the country[14].”

This means that, for the Venezuelan government, the maternal mortality problem involves “humanizing childbirth,” training “community facilitators” to accompany women in their places of residence, and not guaranteeing the minimum material conditions that might allow them to develop their pregnancies without major setbacks, such as access to healthy food and nutritional supplements, regular controls, exams, medications, and supplies throughout the pregnancy.

In January 2018, in a context that was already hyperinflationary, the government announced a protection “bonus” for pregnant women: a monetary allowance of slightly less than the legal minimum wage during pregnancy, and another allowance of just over two legal minimum incomes at the time of childbirth. This policy has been seriously questioned by independent women’s organizations and specialized scholars, who have openly pointed out that without attention, prevention, and care policies for all women, direct payments will not solve the structural problem of high maternal mortality numbers, which is caused not only by the absence of strategies and the government’s refusal to recognize the problems, but also by the severe economic and humanitarian crisis in the area of food and health that a great part of the population–– more than half of whom are women–– is facing.

These numbers are very alarming and show the Venezuelan State’s shortcomings in facing a problem that implies an early limitation to the development of girls and young women who, by becoming mothers at an early age, are practically unable to pursue life projects beyond motherhood. This results from the absolute lack of a policy on sexual education, despite the fact that it is a constitutional right and obligation.

In the analysis of public policy, what is not being done can also be interpreted as action, and in that sense we could well propose that the Venezuelan government’s neglect of the problems mentioned thus far is intentional. Although it is a difficult hypothesis to prove, what seems evident is that the State’s inaction in matters of sexual and reproductive rights for the poorest women is at least functional. The orientation of public policy aimed at women has been addressed only from the welfare approach by means of subsidies, donations and employment programs for a particular time, which after a decade have not only reinforced the levels of vulnerability and dependence of women, especially the poorest, but have at the same time formed a clientelist network that uses and exploits these needs in favor of the power that the government has concentrated over almost two decades.

Combining “woman” and “family” is extraordinarily convenient and cost-effective in terms of benefits and reduced costs of dealing with problems together, given the critical role women play in caring, especially for children and the elderly. Thus, the State traditionally uses programs for women that have a calculated impact on direct benefits for families and allows it to improve its indicators without having to worry about the situation of women themselves.

In Venezuela, there were enough resources, time, and conditions to have built a solid gender institutional structure, capable of meeting needs but also of promoting initiatives that would allow women to move towards autonomy in various areas, but mainly in the economic, physical and decision-making contexts. If this had been accomplished, today Venezuela would perhaps have a generation of young women with a wider horizon than motherhood as their only destination. Now, the country and its institutions are in such a precarious situation that the aim is to prevent more female deaths due to sex-related reasons, on the one hand, or limited to survival on the other. To the extent that this situation is not resolved, and that the State cannot guarantee a minimum standard of living conditions, it will be difficult to recover the possibilities established in the Bolivarian Constitution.


[1] Article 88 of the Venezuelan Constitution establishes: “The State shall guarantee the equality and equity of men and women in the exercise of the right to work. The State shall recognize domestic work as an economic activity that creates added value and produces wealth and social wellbeing. Housewives have the right to social security in accordance with the law.” On the basis of this article, the Misión Madres del Barrio was created in 2006; however, in practice, this misión was limited only to the deposit of a payment corresponding to 80% of a legal minimum wage, with no labor benefits of any kind. On the other hand, the Venezuelan State, for the purposes of its labor indicators, continues to record household chores as economic inactivity.

[2] Autonomy means having the capacity and the specific conditions to freely make the decisions that affect their lives. The achievement of greater autonomy requires many and diverse conditions, including the liberation of women from exclusive responsibility for reproduction and childcare, the exercise of reproductive rights, an end to gender-based violence, and the adoption of all necessary measures for women to participate in the decision-making process under equal conditions. Observatorio de Igualdad de Género de América Latina y el Caribe: “Autonomías”, available at https://oig.cepal.org/es/autonomías.

[3] The Bolivarian missions of the Venezuelan government include programmes to combat poverty and extreme poverty, education programmes, alphabetization, free medical consults and access to credits for the purchase of housing, as well as cultural, scientific, political, indigenous rights and environmental programmes. For details, see http://www.minci.gob.ve/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/misiones-sociales1.pdf.

[4] It is worth mentioning that all these programs were created at the same time as the institutions of the Venezuelan State, such as the ministries and agencies that already existed to deal with problems related to health and education. At that time, President Chávez argued that this parallel institutionality would be progressively integrated into the structure of the State and that the missions were a strategy to deal with the social debt without having to deal with bureaucratic obstacles. However, this was not what happened, or at least not in its totality. To this day, after 17 years, social missions, although they have been incorporated into the structure of the State, are still managed as focused programs of subsidies and direct cash transfers.

[5] In the words of Anyely Marín Cisneros, “the feminization of Chavismo is the effect of identifying women massively as a product of the modulation of affection, of the direct call to their role as mothers and of the requirement to project in the polis their (supposed) talent of tenderness and love”. A. Marín Cisneros: “En el útero de la política” in La cl@se.info, 10/3/2014.

[6] The Misión Madres del Barrio aims to support housewives in need through technical preparation and training for work, with the ultimate goal of progressively overcoming poverty within the framework of community development. Similarly, this program includes the incorporation of other social programs and missions, community accompaniment, and the granting of an economic allocation. The beneficiaries are women who work in the home, who have people under their care (children, parents or other relatives), whose family has no income of any kind, or whose income is less than the cost of the food basket.

[7] The Misión Hogares de la Patria combines the Gran Misión Hijos de Venezuela, the Misión Niño Simón, the Misión Niños de la Patria and all the plans for the protection of children and mothers, and is coordinated by the Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Mujer y la Igualdad de Género.

[8] A. Marín Cisneros: ob. cit.

[9] “Congreso Venezolano de Mujeres: Comienzo de la unión de las mujeres venezolanas” in Prensa Min Mujer, 6/3/2015.

[10] “Congreso Venezolano de las Mujeres. Documento Base para el Debate”, available at http://www.prensaindigena.org/web/pdf/Congreso%20Venezolano.pdf.

[11] Esther Pineda: «Venezuela y la maternidad obligatoria» en ContraPunto.com, 11/10/2017.

[12] Interview with Zulay Aguirre on Unión Radio, available at http://unionradio.net/madre-de-robert-serra-lo-recuerda-a-tres-anos-de-su-fallecimiento/.

[13] Maternal mortality is considered to be the death of a woman as a result of her pregnancy or within 42 days after the termination of pregnancy, regardless of the duration and place of the pregnancy, due to any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy itself or its care, but not by accidental or incidental causes.

[14] A. López Caldera: “La mortalidad materna en Venezuela: un crimen de Estado contra las mujeres” in Aporrea, 6/12/2017.

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