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Chávez is failing women

Venezuela’s leader may be a self-proclaimed feminist, but his country still has a shocking record on

On 21 May 2004 Alexandra Hidalgo was kidnapped after leaving work at the Central Bank of Venezuela in Caracas. As she drove out of the car park, two men emerged from a van blocking the street and approached her car, banging on the windows with guns. They forced Hidalgo into the van, where a group of six men raped her for several hours. Among them was her ex-husband, Ivan Sosa Rivero. Afterwards, the men left her on a deserted street. "In the beginning I was struggling, but by the end I had no strength left," she says.

Five years later, Hidalgo is still fighting to bring her ex-husband to justice. In 2004 he was charged with assault, but was released after four months and has since gone into hiding. In 2005 an arrest warrant was issued, but the police have never tried to recapture him. In cases of rape or domestic violence, justice is not easily won in Venezuela, a country where violence against women is widespread: last year the Venezuelan daily newspaper Diario Vea reported that five women are killed each week in gender-related violent incidents, and it is estimated that every 15 minutes at least one Venezuelan woman is attacked.

In March 2007, the government's Organic Law on the Right of Women to a Life Free of Violence came into effect; it defines 19 forms of violence against women, including psychological abuse. The law has won praise from women's rights campaigners, but they say that the government has not provided enough resources for implementing it. According to data taken from the Venezuelan Observatory for the Human Rights of Women, only 4 per cent of cases of violence against women have been prosecuted since the law was passed.

Even in the event of prosecution, women rarely receive justice. The man who tortured and raped Linda Loaiza over a period of four months in 2001 is already walking free. Loaiza was kidnapped by Luis Carrera Almoina - son of the president of the Central University of Venezuela. The violence she suffered left her in need of surgery, and she can no longer have children. Loaiza was rescued from Almoina's apartment and he was brought into custody.

But 59 judges declined to take the case. When Almoina was finally convicted in 2004, he was charged with deprivation of liberty and severe assault, rather than the original charges of rape, torture and attempted homicide. Sentenced to six years, Almoina served only two because
he was in custody for four years beforehand. Venezuela's poor record on violence against women is not exceptional in the region: up to 40 per cent of women in Latin America and the Caribbean are physically or sexually abused at some point during their lifetime. But what sets Venezuela apart is that its leader is a self-proclaimed feminist.

Hugo Chávez calls for the empowerment of women through his socialist political project the Bolivarian Revolution. At the World Social Forum in January he announced that "true socialism is feminist". But women's rights groups say that the government is dragging its feet on the issue of violence against women. “If the president is really feminist, he should be investing in improving the system for women to access justice," says Sonia Obregón from the UN Development Fund in Venezuela.

A huge problem is the lack of training for police; domestic violence is not taken seriously because it is viewed as a private matter between husband and wife. "When we tell women to go to the police they often say, 'For what? If I go to the police my husband will know that and he will hit me again in a worse way,'" explains María Sierra from Unifem, the United Nations Development Fund for Women.

Only 10 per cent of women report cases of domestic violence, according to local NGOs. Women often live with their abusers; even if the police follow up their complaint, there is nowhere for them to go. The law calls for a women's shelter in each of Venezuela's 23 states and the capital district, but there are only two in the entire country. Florangel Parodi, the director of women's shelters for the government-funded National Institute of Women, Inamujer, says that they are in the process of creating two more shelters, but the dates for completion have not been finalised. "If they want to build new shelters it is not only getting the building, you need to train people to work in them. There are not enough human resources," says Sierra. "PDVSA [the state oil company] offered to build them ten new shelters, but they can't afford to find the staff for them."

Overall, violence in Venezuela has reached unprecedented levels. The country has the highest homicide rate in Latin America, with more than 14,700 murders committed last year, and an estimated 19,000 expected by the end of 2009, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, an academic think tank. “Violence against women has increased, and the reason is simple," says Roberto Briceño León, the group's head. "There is an increase in violent behaviour in general, and a lack of respect for laws and norms fostered by the government itself. Violence has become a legitimate way of solving conflicts."

“All kinds of violence are getting worse," agrees Tamara Adrián, a prominent law professor at the Central University of Venezuela. "Something wrong is happening in Venezuela, in our society." The good news is that the government is working to make it easier for women to bring cases against violent men. Up to 29 new courts specialising in gender-based violence have been created since January, and Inamujer is focusing its efforts on training police and prosecutors.

In June 2009, Belén Vallenilla's ex-husband, Carlos Rodríguez, was convicted of domestic violence and sentenced to seven months in prison. It was the first domestic violence case in Venezuela to result in imprisonment, according to the trial judge; Rodríguez is, however, appealing and the case is not yet public. Slowly, changes are happening. But how many will be failed by the system before the government gets serious about tackling violence against women?

“A lot of my friends said, 'You must be happy,'" says Vallenilla. "I don't feel happy . . . I just feel that justice has finally been served."

Amy Stillman is a freelance journalist based in Caracas

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times