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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

Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Photo; Getty
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How Jean-Luc Mélenchon built a resistance

Like Jeremy Corbyn, France's leftist candidate for the presidency has been caricatured by the media. Nonetheless, he has succeeded in building a movement. 

After months of indifference, the rise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the French presidential race has finally caught the attention of the British media. Still, it is frequently misrepresented and reduced to familiar categories: populism, Euroscepticism and spendthriftedness, with commentators quick to draw parallels with Jeremy Corbyn. However, to boil down the Mélenchon phenomenon to such clichés is to fundamentally misunderstand it. 

The authors of this article propose taking a closer look at a highly innovative manifesto and campaign. Cambridge University lecturer Olivier Tonneau is involved with La France Insoumise (France Defiant) and co-authored the cartoon version of Mélenchon’s programme. He runs a blog dedicated to exposing its policies and addressing the many rumours and falsehoods floated about the candidate. Nick Jones is a student who was in Paris at the time of Nuit Debout, and experienced first-hand the energy and thirst for radical change in France.

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Given the deep wound that Brexit has inflicted upon British society, perhaps the most urgent clarification is that Mélenchon does not wish to leave the EU, although he does have a radical strategy to reform it. France and Britain have different relations to the EU. Whilst Britain’s austerity policies were self-inflicted, the same is not true of France. The French people voted “no” to the European constitution in 2005 only to see its vote overturned in Parliament by a coalition of the center-left and center-right parties. This event marked a tectonic shift in French politics, and incidentally determined Mélenchon’s break from the Socialist Party. In 2012, François Hollande was elected on the promise of renegotiating the Lisbon treaty, a promise he failed to hold, and proceeded to impose austerity measures in France (cutting down public spending and corporate taxes, flexibilising the labour market), constantly justifying these measures by the necessity to abide by European norms. He has thus fuelled a deep resentment against both the center-left and the EU. Meanwhile, Mélenchon has campaigned for a showdown with the EU: reform it or leave it (“plan A, plan B”).

His strategy, designed by his chief economist Jacques Généreux, consists of unilaterally disobeying European Treatises: disregarding budgetary norms to implement a Keynesian stimulus package, creating a public investment bank, and ending privatisation policies. His prognosis is that the EU will not dare exclude France because such an exclusion would signal the end of the European project altogether. The EU will thus have to inscribe French exceptions to the treatises (just as it had done for UK). Such exceptions could prove highly desirable to other austerity-stricken countries such as the infamous PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), with enormous pressure placed on the most intransigent promoters of austerity, the chief of which is Germany.

Far from being anti-European, this strategy is aimed to save the European project which, according to Généreux, is doomed to implode if unreformed. Généreux had reached this conclusion as early as 2012: Brexit and the European-wide rise of the far-right has confirmed his diagnosis. Unencumbered by a reluctant party, Mélenchon has been able to forcefully defend a position that Corbyn was unable to hold, thus shattering the “in/out, good/bad” dichotomy of the Remain and Leave campaigns in the UK.

Already, by 2012, Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche (co-founded with the Green MP Martine Billard) had published an eco-socialist manifesto which advanced on the Left’s historical bend towards productivism. This time round, Mélenchon’s program is an environmentally focused Keynesian plan. Its aim is to turn France into using 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050 – ending the country’s heavy dependence on nuclear power – by implementing the “negawatt scenario” elaborated by a collective of scientists and engineers.

Mélenchon is especially determined to make the most of France’s maritime territory – the second largest in the world. His program also addresses in detail matters of public health: for instance, schools should serve organically sourced products exclusively, securing a market for organic producers. The turn to organic production, for instance, is expected to create 300,000 jobs. Mélenchon’s environmental plans tie in neatly with forensic budgeting and a clear plan for job-growth, in line with the “One Million Climate Jobs Now” campaign in the UK.

Another aspect of Mélenchon’s Keynesian plan is its redistributive policies. Low and middle wages are spent within the economy on essential goods such as food and clothing, whereas high wages are lost in the speculative bubble: by raising the minimum wage, pensions, and social benefits, Mélenchon intends to boost demand and help small and medium businesses prosper. He also acknowledges the need to reduce working time, without necessarily cutting the length of the working week. Instead, he wishes to return the retirement age to 60 – a measure that is acutely urgent given the high unemployment rate among senior citizens – and impose a strict adherence to the current, 35-hour week.

Impossible to fund? Not at all. More than hundred economists from 17 countries – including Ha-Joon Chang – published a column supporting Mélenchon’s program. His policies were presented in details by economists and high-ranking public servants in a 5-hour budget program broadcasted on YouTube, whose last hour was a discussion with economic journalists from liberal news outlets. Ghilaine Ottenheimer from Challenge praised the broadcast as “modern” and “bold”; Hedwige Chevrillon (BFM Business) compared the approach to that of the ‘slow food movement’ and deemed it a rare opportunity to think things through; Marc Landré (Le Figaro) was impressed by the openness with which La France Insoumise was laying itself open to criticism.

The broadcast has already been viewed more than half a million times. On every aspect of its program, from the environment to counter-terrorism via culture and international relations, La France Insoumise has taken the same care to involve experts. Who, then, are the ‘Insoumis’? How did such an extraordinary campaign get off the ground? This question takes us back to 2012.

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After Mélenchon’s remarkable 2012 campaign, the Front de Gauche fell apart because of strategic disagreements: the Communist Party wanted to maintain alliances with the Socialist Party whereas Mélenchon was convinced that any association with the now hugely-unpopular party of Hollande could only drag them with its fall. When Mélenchon claimed in 2015 that he did not aim to ‘unite the left’ but to ‘federate the people’, it was widely perceived as the desperate gambit of an isolated figure. And yet the gambit paid off: there was indeed a people to answer his call. With the massive demonstrations against Macron’s labour laws and the grassroots movement Nuit Debout, the writing was on the wall. Mélenchon was careful not to lay claims to these movements which were profoundly suspicious of established politicians and parties, but he has nevertheless been able to tap into their energy by creating La France Insoumise, a loose structure within which everybody contributes freely.

The Insoumis have shown ebullient creativity: some created a board game, others a computer game (Fiscal Kombat), and one of the authors of the present article wrote a comic book adaptation of the manifesto. Alongside quirky stunts such as appearing at meetings via hologram, the Insoumis have brought a vitally seductive and energetic edge to Mélenchon’s campaign. Crucially, they have brought to fruition another aspect of Mélenchon’s strategy: his struggle against the press.

In 2012, Mélenchon often claimed that the media was the “second skin of the system”. The only way to break the neoliberal hegemony was to subvert its own logic: that of audience and profit. Thus was created the colourful figure who claimed to incarnate “the sound and the fury of his time”. Yet, having become a celebrity, Mélenchon had to avoid being pigeon-holed into a caricature. The media, he claims, are “not a mirror but an arena”, so he adopted a confrontational strategy aimed at exposing the biases of journalists and interviewers.

Yet there is only so much one can say in the constraining format of TV and radio interviews; all one could achieve was to fire “bullet words” that would open cracks in the listeners’ preconceptions. In response, listeners had to be provided with alternative sources of information. In 2012, Mélenchon’s blog was the most read of any French politician; in 2013, a galaxy of “6th Republic blogs” was created; in 2016 Mélenchon’s extremely successful YouTube channel was launched; it has so far has over 22 million views. The book detailing his manifesto, L’Avenir en commun (A Shared Future) has found its way into bestseller lists, shifting well over 250,000 copies. If such independently-made material is inaccessible to non-French speakers, international viewers should not be tricked into seeing it as Trump-style, anti-system fake news. For example, a host of global NGOs including Oxfam and ActionAid have backed key aspects of Mélenchon’s campaign, with Amnesty and Greenpeace ranking him highest overall in their breakdown of all the candidate’s policies. Leading economists have also signed a pledge backing his candidacy will be published this week.

The communication machine of Defiant France is firing on all cylinders. It is remarkable that the fear-mongering of the mainstream media has failed to halt Mélenchon’s surge in the polls – remarkable, but not surprising given that his latest meeting, in Toulouse, was attended by 70,000 people, and had attracted 320,000 views on YouTube in under 24 hours. 

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Do not be mistaken: something astonishing is happening. This is about much more than meeting attendance. To be sure, Mélenchon is not simply preaching to the choir: bucking all recent trends, recent polls have shown that he is denting Marine Le Pen’s share of the working-class vote, and has overtaken her as the most favoured candidate of the youth. People are flocking from all across the political spectrum: recently, an entrepreneur from the Silicon Valley published a piece titled If Mélenchon is elected, I return to France.

He is not an isolated case, and a petition of the entrepreneurs with Mélenchon has just been launched. Even the ‘Gaullists’, disillusioned with the Fillon scandals, are now seduced by Mélenchon’s cultural style, his integrity, and his vision of France’s place in the world which is in line with the tradition of the General himself. What seemed like a fanciful vision is thus coming true: the French people is being transformed. One of the most striking signs of the campaign’s success is the change in people’s priorities: whilst employment had always ranked first, it has now been displaced by institutional reform. This, of course, is intrinsically tied to the centrepiece of Mélenchon’s program, which aims to accomplish no less than a Révolution citoyenne: creating the 6th Republic by means of a Constituent Assembly.

Under the Nazi Occupation of France, resistance networks sought not only to liberate the country, but also to bring about a better world. At great peril, they formed the National Resistance Council and drafted a program which was circulated under the cover of a novel titled Les Jours Heureux. It is no coincidence that the crowds at Mélenchon’s meetings do not chant his name but the word “resistance”, and that Melenchon himself synthetizes his aim with the phrase “let us bring forth the happy days”. The perils are undoubtedly lesser but with a deeply dysfunctional economic system preventing us from addressing climate change and fuelling the rise of the far-right, the stakes may be even higher.

Olivier Tonneau is lecturer in Modern and Medieval Languages at Homerton College, Cambridge. He participates in La France Insoumise, the movement supporting Jean-Luc mélenchon's presidential campaign. He writes a blog on French politics. Nick Jones is in the final year of his undergraduate degree studying French at Homerton. During his year abroad in Paris, he was a participant in, and keen observer of, the grassroots movement Nuit Debout. 

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