For many years I maintained a certain distance from feminists. This was likely due to the fact that my telescope for surveying the women’s struggle was “macho-Leninist” (supposing the accomplishments of Cuban woman to be quasi universal) or owing to the impact of my arguments with certain “gender academics” that were unbearably racist and authoritarian.
Nevertheless, the situation in Nicaragua led me to understand the vitality of that country’s feminist movement: the heir of traditions of struggle of this revolutionary people. While seeking out a more unified and more homogeneous subject, my understanding and admiration grew enormously when I became aware of the wealth of the reality beyond the showcase of the capital city.
In the midst of the female comrades of the FSLN, I became familiar with the process of growth that began with an early (self) consciousness of the lack of female leadership within organizational structures and political agendas of the new political force in power since the mid-1980s.
What caught my attention was the way that members of the Erotic Left Party, the National Feminist Committee and the emblematic Autonomous Women’s Movement (red and black to the core), starting in those early years had advanced a notion of autonomy, questioned the model for popular organizations as simple conveyor belts of political parties, and rejected the vanguard character of the traditional left.
After speaking with some of them, I appreciated the diversity of their theoretical and political positions and I shared the concern about the sharp conflicts between community women and female ideologues. Likewise, I was troubled by the challenges of the perpetuation of personal and charismatic leadership in a logic that brings the feminist movement — like others — close to designing the very model of power that they criticize daily.
After interviewing distinguished feminists involved in political education work and activism in emblematic and often remote settings, their advice took the form of a consensus: “You should visit the Grupo Venancia.” This was when I — backpack in hand — headed off to cool Matagalpa, skirted by green and picturesque hills. In Matagalpa we held a workshop on the challenges of participation, took part in an evening of dancing at the Guanuca Cultural Center (Home of the Venancias), and I met the most fantastic and down-to-earth feminists in my life.
In their accounts the Venancia women explained to me their insistence on working with the least formality possible. I also learned about their more than basic understanding of the legislation and the pitfalls of managing resources: valuable tools for improving the organization, defining responsibilities and increasing the output of work. I praised their dogged determination to place power in an assembly of the members and to maintain equality of pay.
One sign of the “winds of change” that today shake Nicaragua at this electoral conjuncture is the evolution of the positions of the Matagalpa authorities in the face of the work of the Venancias. Though the municipal government is FSLN controlled, and there is no relationship of cooperation, the women don’t feel harassed. What they do complain about is that this same mayor (who when previously mayor was an innovator of participation politics, working with the Councils of Municipal Development and the civil associations, despite criticism from the party apparatus), today — with the FSLN now in the central government — has lost that accumulated experience, therefore revealing his true interests in power.
Not everything is directly confrontational or remonstrative in the work of these women. As part of a broad concept of culture and its links with politics — exhibited on a mural at their facilities in the Guanuca Cultural Center — they systematically provide recreational activities for entire families. Likewise, they organize “days of reflection,” such as Revolution Week, where in analyzing the role of women in the revolutionary process of the 1980s they tried to empower people to look beyond official speeches and the party interpretation of past events.
The Venancias are self-critical of the processes and crisis that occurred within the women’s movement. They recognize the debate within the movement, where some advocated a national movement capable of centralizing forces and politicizing them under a single leadership, while others defended organization through networks, articulated by issues and diverse rhythms, rejecting the inherited centralized organization of the FSLN and proposing the emergence of a new vanguard – this time feminist.
In a position that I found particularly difficult — but honest — some of the Matagalpa women questioned their participation in purges that took place within the Autonomous Women’s Movement in 2006. This had occurred as a result of the conflict triggered by the [electoral] alliance of it with the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS). They indicated that this came about because of the non-fulfillment of the means and methods of handling disagreements that they themselves had agreed to (with the consequences being a fragmentation that was visible in moments of conflict around the social movement).
One activist criticized, with a heavy heart, the sort of schizophrenia experienced by women in the FSLN when during the municipal elections of 2008 the FSLN supported the criminalization of abortion. While opposing that policy they were later officials of the electoral disciplinary board, supporting all the machinations of the party-state.”
With great sensitivity, two activists recalled how “the FSLN government harassment that we suffered that year hurt us deeply because we had dedicated a part from our lives to the Revolution, but we cannot harbor bitterness. That search warrant against the Grupo Venancia went directly to our hearts. That year the FSLN accused several NGOs of being the thieves of cooperation and asserted that it was illegal to be organized without government permission. They wanted to strike the issue of political involvement from the work of the NGOs in Nicaragua. Not even Aleman treated us like that.”
On the nation’s political horizon, these women verify the bankruptcy in the political-party class and the need to build a long-term alternative based on social movements and a critical left. “Here, a campaign is only about winning a position as a deputy or a job in the government. On the other side, anti-Ortega fervor has clouded the view of the opposition.”
In summary, I carried away in my knapsack the impression of having encountered a movement that has won respect as a setting for consensus building and mediation, one that attempts to distance itself from the disastrous disputes that have shaken the women’s movement and that is participating in the periodically resurging effort to reconstruct it, but without forgetting what occurred and having learned from the lessons of the crisis.