Feminisms, North and South

A Conversation with Sofía Montenegro

by Adam Jones

Sofía Montenegro was born in 1954 in Matagalpa Province, Nicaragua. She studied journalism at the Nicaraguan National University in Managua, and joined the Sandinista Front in 1978. After the Revolution in 1979, she became international editor of the official Sandinista newspaper, Barricada, a position she held until 1984. During this time, she became one of the most prominent feminist activists and commentators in Latin America, and travelled widely in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. She was in charge of Barricada's editorial page from 1985 to 1989, and from 1986 onward was a principal organizer of the Party of the Erotic Left (PIE). In 1989 she founded the publication Gente as a weekly supplement to Barricada. She has published one book, Memorias del Atlántico (Managua: Editorial Nuevo Amanecer, 1986), a collection of feature reports on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast which won Cuba's top prize from Latin American journalism. She lives in Managua.

Visiting with Sofía in Managua, 1996.

Sofia Montenegro (Photo) (124k)

In early 1991 I arrived in Managua to research a Master's thesis on the Sandinista newspaper Barricada. I quickly set about arranging an interview with Sofía Montenegro, who had worked at the paper since its earliest days and now edited the popular weekly supplement, Gente. I'd looked forward to meeting Sofía for years. She was one of the Sandinistas best known to North Americans, having visited this part of the Americas often for speaking engagements and solidarity conferences. But our paths had never crossed.

About fifteen minutes into our first conversation at Sofía's cramped office in the Barricada building, I found my questions straying well beyond Sofía's involvement in the project of revolutionary journalism. Over the next three months Sofía sat for some 25 hours of conversations. (The interviews were conducted in English, which Sofía speaks fluently and with a fine flair for the colloquial.) It was, of course, tough work convincing that her life and opinions would be of interest to anyone else. Everyone in Nicaragua seems to know someone who they feel is much better qualified to offer observations and insights. But Sofía willingly put up with my protracted inquisition, answering every question frankly, often eloquently.

From my conversations with Sofía and others in Nicaragua, I sensed this was a good time to try to get a sense of the legacy of the Sandinista Revolution, and the direction(s) the popular struggle may now be heading in. In the wake of the surprising election defeat of 1990, the forces that constitute the Nicaraguan Revolution have entered a period of deep crisis. Attitudes are being re-examined, criticisms and self-criticisms aired, strategies evaluated anew. Prior to the defeat, with the party still in power, many Sandinistas were restrained and circumspect in their views. They shied away from the risk of further undermining a revolution that was already under immense pressure from without and within. Now the burden of responsibility for the nation's destiny is removed from their shoulders. One result is a striking candidness.

I think, though, that the post-election context doesn't by itself explain the openness that Sofía and other interview subjects displayed. That openness is also a tribute to Nicaraguan revolutionaries more generally, whose project - even in the face of enormous coercive violence from the United States and its proxies - never became mired in the kind of rigid dogma and heavy state repression which characterized Eastern European and Asian revolutionary régimes. Free-thinking always had much more of a place in Nicaragua. It was bolstered by the Sandinista ideal of a mixed economy and political pluralism: an ideal that remained substantially intact through years of war and economic embargo, and that eventually permitted a democratic change of government to take place relatively smoothly and peacefully. Partly because they were constantly confronted by a vocal internal opposition, Nicaraguan revolutionaries never abandoned the critical spirit - though not surprisingly, the "party line" became less flexible over the years, in the face of war and economic embargo. That clear-mindedness serves the Sandinistas well today, as they evaluate the post-1979 era and chart a new course for the future.

I do not, though, want to present an overly rosy view of the way Sandinistas treated "heretics" within their own ranks. Sandinista nonconformists were not burned at the stake, or jailed, or exiled; but life could occasionally be uncomfortable for them. In one of our conversations Sofía told me that if she had been born and raised in Eastern Europe, she would have been a dissident - "unflinchingly, without any doubt." But even in Nicaragua, she came in for more than her share of anathema and abuse, owing to her penchant for poking into sensitive and unexamined areas of Nicaraguan life and revolutionary ideology.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Sofía's campaign to move women's issues to the forefront of the revolutionary agenda. Often this effort encountered stiff opposition from Sandinistas whose petty and patriarchal mindset sought to disguise itself as "revolutionary" opposition to "bourgeois radical feminism." Sofía stood her ground. Today - with her publication Gente and the Party of the Erotic Left, which she helped found - she stands poised, alongside many others, to bring about far-reaching changes in Nicaraguans' attitudes toward gender relations, sexuality, and individual freedom.

It isn't surprising that Sofía has gained a reputation over the years as "a difficult woman." But it is also true that many of her "difficult" traits would be viewed as positive attributes if she were a man. I am thinking of her aggressive outspokenness; her ambition that borders on the visionary; and her tenacious adherence to her beliefs.

Sofía: When I was sixteen I read a book called Born Female, by Caroline Bird. I cried when I read it. She talked about a lot of things that sounded strange to me, because it was the life of American women she was dealing with: problems and ways of organization which are absolutely alien to Nicaraguan women. But there were some basic truths which struck home very strongly.

I'd always thought I was weird, in this society and in my own family. I thought there was something wrong with me. My mother called me a little tomboy, said I was rebellious about accepting my condition as a señorita. I was always asking strange questions: Why me? Why do I have to do the household chores? Why don't my brothers do it? For years, my mother's answer was: "Because you are a woman." Sometimes she said it in an angry way. Sometimes she sounded sad. But it was always like an enigma to me. What the fuck does this mean, being a woman? In my youngster's mind, the equation was: Woman equals Shit. So of course, I was refusing to be a woman, because it meant knuckling under to all the shitty things in life.

Caroline Bird's book made me realize I wasn't alone, that the problem wasn't with my own personality but with society, that I wasn't crazy at all. The book attracted me because of its title, which had all the resonance of my mother's words: Because you're a woman. I didn't understand it too well, because I was just beginning to speak English. I remember I had to read it with a dictionary, struggling (laughs), trying to understand.

I found out from Bird that woman was a social construction, and in her own way that's what my mother was telling me too. Bird said: This is the way they've made women; this is the reason you're eating shit. And you are entitled to fight against it. That was the switch. I began to have a little self-respect for my own fury, my rage.

At the end of Bird's book there was a bibliography, and I dedicated myself to hunting down the rest of the answers by consulting every book in that list I could find. I was like a fucking detective. That brought me to Marx, to Engels, and eventually to revolution. All those books were forbidden in Nicaragua at the time, you can imagine what it cost me to track them down. But I got hold of The Family, Private Property and the State; I almost learned Engels by heart. A lot of books followed: Kate Millet [Sexual Politics], Simone de Beauvoir. The Second Sex was a more comprehensive vision of culture and the situation of women. Then I got anthologies and more anthologies: women in history, women in religion, women in anthropology. It's a long list.

This is one of the reasons I'm absolutely convinced that a feminist consciousness alone can bring you to radicalism and revolution. Because I didn't enter for reasons of class: I became a revolutionary because I had a precocious consciousness of gender.

Among the people you've known personally, who were the major influences, positive or negative?

There are two Sandinista women here who are leaders, and they're the sort of personalities which struck me very much. The first was Nora Astorga.(1) Nora was the most multi-faceted woman ... You must remember that I saw myself as a weakling. When I saw this amazingly strong figure, who went out and executed this son-of-a-bitch Guard - no man would have dared to do that shit, you know, and here she comes, this lawyer, someone who'd worked in a bank, who never killed a fly. I was so impressed by the manhunt - in this case the woman-hunt - that followed the killing. The regime threw everything into trying to catch her. And finally she came out with a picture in [the opposition newspaper] La Prensa, taken in the mountains, dressed in combat fatigues and smiling. That hit the whole country like a ton of bricks. I said, shit, she did it. I couldn't believe it.

In the days before the insurrection, when I was making runs in my car to the Sandinista forces on the Southern Front, I arrived at a particular camp, and that's where I got my most lasting image of Nora. She was heavily pregnant, with a huge belly - she'd go out on patrol in that condition without a complaint - this 6-foot-tall woman, dressed like a guerrilla, sitting blindfolded on the floor and teaching all these young boys how to assemble and take apart a rifle. Wow. Saliva was falling from my mouth. She was the real picture of a great woman, a full woman, and at the same time someone very feminine, very soft and tender. This mixture of womanly strength, combat capacity, and tenderness always touched me deeply.

I saw her as a judge, judging the Somocistas after the insurrection. That affected me directly, because if my brother had lived, he would have been judged by her. I saw her as a diplomat - brilliant. As a lawyer, a combatant, a politician. And I saw her die, with such dignity - she radiated a softness and a courage which was out of this world.

Then there's Dora María Tellez.(2) Nora was almost regal, you know: her elegance, her bearing. She was like an empress, but never made you feel small or inferior. Dora's more of a tomboy. More streetwise. Masses adore her. She's joking, foul-mouthed - and again, absolutely brilliant. A courageous woman who has proven herself militarily and politically capable, as well as hardworking. She has a tremendous sense of humour, too.

The third person I would mention is Gioconda Belli, of all the women I've met through the Party of the Erotic Left. She's a refreshing personality, with a really joyful, playful attitude toward life. And of course very intelligent, a superior poet and novelist.

The other parameter, of course, has been my own mother: the object example of what I don't want to be. She's "Mama Grande," you know; a pretty strong character. It's been a difficult, painful relationship with a lot of hostility, but I've also felt empathy for her luck and her lot in life. She's partly responsible for the fact that I don't have any children, and don't want to have any. So if that's what you mean by "a major influence," I guess you could call her influential.

The Party of the Erotic Left started as a game. In reality it could be called the Group of Taxco. Taxco is a small town in Mexico, about four hours from Mexico City, where the Fourth Latin American Feminist Congress was held in 1987. About 3000 women attended. It was the first time that a large delegation attended from Nicaragua - about 40 people, Sandinista feminists who were working outside the official parameters of AMNLAE.

The Congress influenced us so much that we decided then and there to put together a strictly feminist group. On the plane back, maybe 25 of the 40 delegates began organizing and planning. We were asking ourselves why feminists had for the most part failed to incarnate themselves in the broad population, in the masses of Latin American women. The Congress had recognized the need to incorporate feminism in the body of the popular mass movements. So when we came back, this group began to have meetings every Monday, in private houses. We always joked about becoming a vanguard, though we never took it very seriously. But the fact was that somehow a strategy was developed in these discussions - never written down, but constructed nonetheless.

One part of the task was to start building small women's institutions - outside the party, outside the formal political structure. We wanted to create some think-tanks for women, and have some media of our own. That's the way, for example, that the Constitutional Studies Institute headed by Milú Vargas was born.(3) It's now a chain of popular health clinics which also try to do some ideological work with their patients. Gente, the publication I now direct, was born out of the same process.

The name for the Party of the Erotic Left [PIE] came about as a reflection of our thinking in certain areas. We felt that the revolution should not only be addressing itself to issues of economics and production, but all parts of society and people's subjectivity. That meant transforming the reproductive side of society, where women are stuck. It also meant an emotional transformation of the population: raising the banner of love. In a way we were doing what the Church has been doing for the last two thousand years, but their model was exactly the one we criticized. Obviously this moved us into the area of sexuality, along with all the other subjective aspects of human beings. It was obvious, then, that we were an erotic left - not a sensual left, but an erotic one.

Can you describe the difference?

To begin with, being from the Left means believing in revolution. And the "erotic" part means that Man does not live by bread alone. We saw developing the erotic as part of the process of realizing the complete individual: not only do you have to change your surroundings by means of revolution, but yourself as well. That meant eliminating all the mechanisms which repressed your capabilities and your possibilities for happiness. In that moral, that ethic, pleasure has a place. We come from a Christian ethic in which everything is suspended between punishment and sacrifice. That dialectic makes people miserable. It's founded on self-denial; we felt that revolutions couldn't continue on this basis, that it was dehumanizing.

The Christian civilization erected on this foundation has constructed a whole system of dichotomies. Not only separate spheres for men and women, for manual and intellectual work - but a dichotomy in our very soul, because our civilization has separated Mind from Body. Our proposition was an integral one: the revolution would work to reunite all the pieces which our culture and civilization had broken off over the centuries. This fragmentation makes happiness impossible, as such. Because some part of yourself is lost, somewhere. You never know who you are or why; you act under obscure forces which you never come to understand.

Obviously, the prevailing model was built on the repression of sexuality, and on a mode of sexuality which kept women on the bottom of the pile. Raising the banner of love, in that sense, was an argument for a discourse of personal liberation - that national liberation should include personal liberation. Liberation from oppression meant constructing a society in which women were not subjugated, but it also required a revolution underlying that. We sought to reintegrate pleasure and self-nourishment for the individual, promoting the individuality of each citizen in a society which, because of tradition and political culture, had always placed the community and collective welfare above the individual. We feel there's no contradiction between individual and collective well-being. If you make such a contradiction, you alienate people from the revolution; the idea that in order to build the revolution you have to kill your own individuality is insane.

How are we to understand what's going on among Latin American feminists today? Should we see the movement merely as an early stage of the process western feminism went through, or is it something fundamentally different?

I don't think it's an earlier stage of anyone else's movement. How to put it ... They are correlated phenomena, yeah? In terms of the gains that the respective movements have won, yes, we're behind. But that has more to do with the social situation in Latin America. We live under imperialism; they don't. Or they are part of imperialism, and we aren't! And different challenges and priorities arise as a result. For us, it's in many cases a matter of simple survival. For western feminists it's a matter of gaining more benefits, more equal opportunity, and so on. First they wanted access to education, and they got it. Then they wanted the vote, and they got it. They wanted health care systems, and they're getting them. They've gotten things that we're still struggling for, but not only for women - for the whole population!

There's another sense in which we in Latin America may actually be more advanced. Recently feminists in the highly industrialized societies came to the point of realizing that these incremental, reformist gains weren't enough: their subordination wasn't ending, the system of discrimination kept reproducing itself in any number of ways. There's a sense among many that the whole structure of patriarchal capitalism has to be changed. The problem is that these are such well-cemented societies, you know. The institutions are very strong. The state is very well-established. And beyond that, people in general, including women, are materially very well off. How can you persuade a German woman to go out and topple the regime and the entire social structure, if she's sitting in her fine, well-tended little house? It's very difficult to feel the pressing necessity to fight, because it doesn't come down to a question of survival. That's the reason many western feminists feel this emptiness, this solitude, this sense of futility, perhaps.

That's not the case here. In our societies, the crisis is total. At the same time, we already have the knowledge that our subjugation is part of a broader system, and it's much easier to radicalize the mass struggle accordingly. The possibility then exists to turn the feminist struggle into one not only of women, but of the whole society, and against much weaker systems. Because our societies are the expression of dependent capitalist states, with systems that are not firmly established or particularly resilient. You could say in Nicaragua, for example, that the possibility of revolution is dead for the time being. But the witch's cauldron is still bubbling. That cauldron is misery, the economic crisis, the lack of democracy. There are reasons to subvert society, to attack it, because the pressing necessity is there.

Let's put it this way: western feminism has the brains, but it lacks the muscles. We have the muscles, and we've been trying to come up with the brains, the ideas, to guide the struggle. Our need is to create a grassroots, broad-based, mass movement that includes the rest of society, including the other gender. To incorporate the potential subversive strength of all these forces and move it in the direction of revolution. That will make for a more integral revolution when the time and possibility for it finally comes.

What we have asked the Europeans to do, for example, is to recognize themselves in us. Not to say that our way of doing things is better than theirs, or vice-versa - but to recognize that we are part of the same problem, with similar roots. Different "shoots" of feminism have arisen in different parts of the world, but it's the same matrix the world over, a shared patrimony for all women everywhere. Women from developed countries have the knowledge, the rich wealth of experience, and the time to study these things. But perhaps we're the ones with the capacity to bring it most powerfully to fruition, and then to return that corpus of knowledge and praxis to the movements of the west.

We don't want to be patronized, to have people come here to teach us the proper way of organizing and mobilizing. We have our own experience which is worth learning from and worthy of respect. Some of the things we're fighting for, North American and European women might laugh at; they could say, "Well, we got this fifty, eighty years ago." But that doesn't mean we're backward. And if we adopt a reformist agenda for the time being, you have to recognize that it's very difficult to bring people through normal and logical stages toward sweeping social change. Every so often, opportunities open up for you and you can make real historical leaps: if the conditions exist for that, fine. But sometimes you have to proceed incrementally, to pave the way for the revolutionary changes. It's like a tango, you know. It would be a disaster if we got stuck at the level of simple reform, but our proposal goes way beyond that. Reforms are sometimes necessary to pave the way for structural change.

I wonder if what you're saying is representative of women's movements in Latin America as a whole. I've spoken on occasion with North American women who've been on feminist delegations down here, and usually the complaint is that Latin American women aren't radical enough. They're too willing to compromise their platforms in order to placate men and conservative women. You're arguing that in fact, the potential for really radical change is more prevalent in Latin America than in the developed West?

I've heard these speeches, too. But the fact is we don't want to alienate ourselves from the rest of the population and the other popular movements. We have to think in terms of a popular bloc of political alliances. For that, you have to think like a politician, because politicians are what we're obliged to be. That's the reason I find this kind of criticism quite subjective and unfair. You have to measure the worth of a movement by how radical its long-term goals are, not by its short-term tactics. And I guess this criticism from western feminists tends to be based on their confusion concerning our strategy versus our tactics. Yes, there are tactical approaches which can threaten and compromise your overall strategy. But realistically, how can you construct tactics within the limited space that's available to you? You can't demand that this space be adjusted to your strategy. That's impossible.

The women's movement here has not got stuck in a reformist mentality. Nor has it shrunk. On the contrary, the more radical ideas have spread from a tiny group of intellectuals to a much broader and weightier body of opinion. You can see this in the kind of intellectual productions women are coming up with now. The gender perspective is being incorporated into economics, law, sociology, art. It means we've advanced. We were once just a tiny, crazy group, and not that long ago!

I'm trying to prove this to you with facts. If what I said wasn't true, Gente wouldn't exist.

Here in Nicaragua, we have the advantage of the schooling provided by the Sandinista Front - both before and after taking power. And now, after losing it. This has been a collective experience which has empowered women, but it's also taught us the arts of politics and diplomacy. We've learned how you fight a guerrilla war, on the one hand, and a positional war, on the other. The military culture has seeped into our bodies, and it's being digested and regurgitated by the feminist movement today. Once you've been in the army, you learn the necessity of discipline, the importance of leadership, the capacity to conspire. This is no insignificant heritage, my friend. In this sense we are privileged. Because even we are not aware of all the tricks and devices we have in our backpack!

How do you fight a guerrilla war? You hit and run. You don't stick around defending positions. How do you fight a conventional war? You die in the trenches. Or how do you make a foco of subversion, the way Ché [Guevara] did in Bolivia? You create centres of shared identity, you try to enter into the bloodstream of society. That means getting into the popular movements. The student's movement, academics, the Christians, the communal movement. You don't swim in another pool, divorced from the population. You immerse yourself in the popular current.

Feminism in Europe and elsewhere in the west has also spread more or less from a foco, but from one outside the mainstream of society, and its influence has expanded from that. We're working from within, and that's the reason we maintain we have to get inside the Sandinista Front, and feminize its spaces. A space to yourself, "a room of one's own," is necessary. But to stay there is to leave one ghetto and settle down immediately in another. We want to destroy the ghettoes. There have to be mixed spaces as well, and spaces predominantly to others - whether it's the students, the Greens, the peasants.

Do you think there's been an excessive tendency toward ghettoization in western feminism?

Undoubtedly women have had a major influence in these societies. You find governments finally recognizing the problems. You find a Women's Institute in Spain, a Ministry of Women in France, and so on. But it's the state which is recognizing what's inevitable, directing the energies, conducting them, co-opting them as part of its own vision. At the roots, feminists tend to be ghettoized. If they stay only in their feminist circles, that's inevitable. You have to move into other organizations - unions and so on.

That's another major difficulty in the west, because the organizations themselves are firmly established and, as a result, quite conservative. I mean, the working class in the United States is already an aristocracy in the proletarian world. It's becoming more and more middle-class. So even within these institutions, it's hard for women to advance their agenda. Do you know the name of any woman union leader in the States? It's the same old fart from the AFL-CIO, which over the last hundred years has come to have a pretty intimate relationship with the state. Same thing in Mexico, for that matter.

Our position is that women should fight from the smallest units of power at the base. And they should be elected there by males also, not just by women's votes. From there, fine, use it to move your agenda up the ladder - but with the consensus of the males also behind you. And they should choose you because you're the best person, not the best woman or the best man. You should be the best leader, really earn your leadership role. Union leaders in Nicaragua who are women have their difficulties, but they've been elected with the common vote. When they get to the top, it's because the men, too, have chosen them. And if you already have a feminist platform when you're chosen - well, that's a real advance. Because what's the point of having a woman leader who's not a feminist, who doesn't know a damn thing about women's rights, or isn't interested? Look at Violeta Chamorro, for God's sake! It's not just a matter of biological identification. ...

It's so weird ... There were some feminist groups that actually sent us congratulations after Violeta's election [as President of Nicaragua in 1990]. My mouth dropped open. They were rejoicing because there was a woman in power in Nicaragua. Never mind that she was a right-wing representative of a backward class, and totally committed to patriarchal capitalism. She was a woman. Jesus, so what? You might as well elect a cow. The point is to get a woman who will lead both men and women, but at the same time work to advance women's issues.

We've even thought about creating a training school for leaders, a kind of centre for cadres. This is one of the tricks we picked up from the Sandinista Front. You might question the more general political education the Front gave us, but they knew how to multiply the individual experience. At the moment we're concentrating on seminars, but we've said to ourselves: look, there are eight hundred women in the city of Managua who are natural leaders. Some of them are so poor they don't even have shoes, but they're naturals. I told the compañeras, what would happen if we took all these eight hundred people and united them, taught them, forged them - and then spread their influence nationwide? The potential, the raw material, is there, but you have to arm those leaders. And the weapons this time are not military ones. They're tools of thinking, study, the capacity to organize. How to forge a leadership. That's the way the Sandinista Front worked. They took people, trained them, and then said: "Go back and do your job."

Let's talk about a couple of subjects that are important to understanding women's situation in Nicaragua. The first is reproductive rights. Can you describe the situation?

To begin with, abortion is the second most pervasive cause of death for women in this country. Women in Nicaragua tend to start their maternities very young, from age fifteen on up. This complicates the situation, because the death-risk is very high if you have a pregnancy while you're very young; your hips are still too small to allow easy passage. Either women live in extreme danger carrying the pregnancy to term, or they add to the high demand for clandestine abortions.

To this point, abortion has always been illegal in Nicaragua. Under the Sandinistas, though, it was never persecuted. After the Revolution, everything here was under such a bright spotlight, you know: enemies within and without, particularly the Church and the Vatican. That really made it difficult to bring abortion out in the open and provoke a public discussion of the problem. On the one hand, women themselves weren't yet conscious enough to see this issue as a collective question of women's rights; on the other hand, you had to deal with the pervasiveness of old religious beliefs, the conviction on the part of the population that this was a sin. The Revolution was concerned that abortion would become a political issue that the Right could pick up and run with all over the fucking world: "an ungodly regime," and so on. But it granted a high degree of tolerance to clinics and to doctors who would do abortions for payment, as part of their private practice.

Over the last ten years, then, there wasn't a serious crisis in this area. There was more social tolerance; it was much less a matter of disgrace for a woman to admit she'd had an abortion, or needed one. The problem was with the public health services. Because the hospitals were only willing to do abortions at the moment they absolutely had to. So we saw the rise of the practice of women pinching themselves in the stomach to bring on the beginning of the abortion. Then they could be accepted into a hospital and treated for free. Obviously, the sectors most affected by this practice were the poorest women, who couldn't afford to go to private doctors.

Women doctors in the hospitals were more conscious of the dimensions of the problem, and they created ethics committees to help broaden the range of acceptable reasons for performing an abortion at a public hospital. Since the election defeat, this has gone into sharp reverse. The ethics committees in the hospitals are now dominated by rightists. And additionally, they've stopped keeping accurate data, stopped classifying the reason for which women come in for an operation as abortion. Instead they register whatever secondary complications she had. According to the official statistics, then, the rate of abortions in Nicaragua has diminished. That's not true at all. It's only a question of categorization.

The other side of the crisis today is that the public health system is in the process of being dismantled. The network of neighbourhood clinics, free access to health, provision of medicines free of charge, the system of popular pharmacies - all of these have shrunk radically, and it's now harder for women to get means of birth control; they have to buy them. On top of that, women have to deal with the new government's prudish vision of sexuality. The model of sexuality they're thinking of is in one sense a return to the old reproductive model of an agro-export economy, one that needs a constant infusion of cheap labour. The government thus has no interest in encouraging smaller families. They've changed all the educational texts in the schools, and have practically undone all the efforts of the National Commission on Sexuality which the Sandinistas established. So women don't get the necessary information; there's no state strategy to educate them; and finally their access to health institutions and medicines is much more restricted.

That's part of the government's broader attitude toward social spending. Its economic policy is really founded on a savage capitalism. Social benefits, the social investment that's necessary in order to better the living conditions of the population, are dismissed as mere unproductive expenses. With this logic, obviously, women are going to be fucked up.

You've argued that even under the Sandinistas, there were as many women dying of botched abortions as there were men dying in the war. Do you have any figures on that?

No, we only have small-sample investigations. There's a woman who works at Gente who has been working in the Berta Calderón Maternity Hospital in Managua. She looked at mortality in abortion cases, and making an extrapolation from her figures, we could see the death rate was soaring. But that was only based on women who actually come to the hospitals. There are hundreds of abortions taking place in private clinics. But getting accurate figures is very dicey. There are women's clinics here that do abortions very cheaply, and they're collecting data, but they can't make it public. Because if it becomes widely known that they're doing abortions, the government might just shut them down. So there's no way to be sure.

The abortion issue is one of the banners of the women's movement now. We're pushing a campaign of reproductive rights as part of a wider strategy to reform all laws which discriminate against women. Our slogan is, "Women Have to Decide" - we call it a matter of "freedom of maternity," instead of using the word "abortion" which could just blur the issue irreparably, involving us in a whole range of ideological issues and debates which are absolutely worthless. Por Maternidad Libremente Elegida: For Maternity Freely Chosen. That includes the right to not have children if you don't want them - even if you're pregnant.

The problem's a broad one, because we see abortion not as a single issue but along with overall questions of women's issues and reproductive rights. As part of this strategy, some of us have constructed this agenda to conquer, in the long run, the right of women to their own bodies. We've been expropriated from ourselves, you know. And to recover ourselves means recovering our status as autonomous persons, independent, with status and recognition as a full citizen. That means undoing all the laws that stand in our way, fighting obsolete customs, and on the other hand giving women the material means to exert that right. You can only do a small amount addressing the abortion issue independently of the whole. The cultural problem lies at the root of it, as with so many other issues.

Our idea is to construct a broad vision that will really address the causes of the problem, and at the same time to take elementary measures to protect women while we're working toward the longterm goal. Those alternatives might be to create a chain of clinics run by women from ordinary society, from the ranks of the movement. And on the other hand, to press the state to change its policies, which has to touch not only on education and health services, but also economic policies.

What has been the impact of those economic policies on women in particular? Give me a beginner's guide to the feminization of poverty in Nicaragua.

It's a problem common to all underdeveloped countries. In Nicaragua, though, it means pushing women back, because women have been advancing forward all through this last decade. They've entered into production; now they're being kicked out of production. Unemployment has soared, and nearly always the first ones to be dismissed from jobs are women. Owing to the fact that there is a growing number of women heads of families in Nicaragua, a whole nucleus of the population is being affected quite deeply. If the only breadwinner or the head of the household is a woman, and you take away her employment, you're affecting the whole family.

We see cuts in scholarships for women, the return to pay discrimination and diminished opportunities. And there's a wholesale attempt to roll back progressive laws: for example, the unilateral divorce law. They want to give women back their pre-revolutionary juridical status, which is an outgrowth of the old Napoleonic Code: a woman is considered a minor under the potestad [power] of her husband. You must remember that in Nicaragua, before the revolution, a woman couldn't leave the country - even if she was 40 or 50 years old - without permission from her husband. At the same time, she had to have a man's backing in order to get a bank account! Sterilization surgery would never be done at the request of the woman: there were cases here where women had to fake a marriage with someone in order to get sterilization performed, because somewhere down the line a man had to sign to approve it - if not a husband, then a father or an older brother. Absolutely ridiculous!

Dredging up that old code would mean returning women to their former status of dependent. And they're working to do that by economic means as well, stripping women of their potential for autonomy and economic independence, forcing them once again to look to a man to guarantee their living. Obviously even that's not possible, because men themselves are all fucked up, with soaring rates of unemployment.

Now you see why our feminist strategy concentrates on the survival of the Revolution as its fundamental pillar. We have to keep the changes going, the kind of infrastructural shifts that can give us a base to reorganize the rest of society. We need women to take back control over their own bodies, and we need to change the gender division of labour, with all that implies. For us, this is the sine qua non.

Women, Men, and the Revolution

I look on our men with compassion. Particularly because Nicaragua is a very young country, with very young males. They are malleable. Everything depends on your approach. You can push them into a corner, or you can make a bridge for them to cross. I prefer to build a bridge. My sense is that men have reacted defensively, not only because we feminists are attacking their privileges and denouncing inequalities, but also because we pointed to the problem without offering any alternative. That only leads to a dead-end.

This comes from guerrilla tactics, you know. If you push someone into a corner, but don't want to eliminate or kill him, you have to leave him a way out. In the first wave of feminism, there was no way out for men. If you, as a woman, denounced men and applied your views consistently, you wouldn't want to live with one of these guys. On the other hand, the prevailing norm makes most people heterosexual. So you sort of have to be with one guy at a given moment. The question then becomes, how to build the bridge and get the other guy to cross it - not all the way, but at least to a meeting-point in the middle.

There was an experiment made here during the war that began as kind of a joke, but turned out to be very revealing. The Army was worried about the rate of desertions, and they found that most of the deserters were not running from the enemy, but were sneaking back to the cities because of their profound fear of what was happening with "their" women while they were away. To address the problem, the Army put together a seminar and gathered some chosen troops, a representative mixture. The soldiers were complaining that the Revolution and its comandantes [commanders] should stop talking about women's rights. The accusations were aimed particularly at Comandante Tomás Borge,(4) because he's been our ally from the start - he's a first-class machista, but politically he's always given solid backing to women's issues. The soldiers argued they could fight with more peace of mind if they could be sure the women weren't off screwing around somewhere.

The sociologist-psychologist that the Army brought in explained to the young soldiers why women couldn't and shouldn't return to their traditional patterns of behaviour. At the end, the soldiers in this seminar came to understand women's problems better, and their reaction was very interesting. They said, "Fine, we understand. We can make the effort to adjust. But if you don't like us the way we are, you have to tell us what are the new rules of the game. Because the problem is, now there are no rules! The behaviour we grew up with is no good anymore." And this was creating a lot of anguish and disruption.

What really touched my heart was the plight of the young men, saying: "Help us. What should we do?" But their attitude was one of openness, not rejection. It's a positive attitude. You couldn't just tell them to go to hell. Obviously, the women's movement wasn't prepared for this. It still has to resolve this problem in order to provide a positive platform that men can learn to live with. Women have to be taught how to argue with and persuade the particular male they're living with. Because the easy answer is just to leave him, but that doesn't really solve anything.

For one reason or another, the men here - the Revolution has made them open to the possibility of change, not only socially but on a personal level. Because they've observed, themselves, how they've changed over the years, and they believe in change. They know they're stuck in patterns that don't really belong to them - that belong to their parents, or to rock culture, or to the past. They're in a process of seeking and finding themselves. Obviously, they've done less thinking on this subject than women have, but they have the will, they can see how the different projects can coincide. That's the importance of mixed-group spaces and debates, in addition to the private spaces women need.

One thing you must bear in mind is that many men, during their time [fighting] in the mountains, discovered the experience of love for other men. I don't mean sexual love, because when you're huddled up close to your compañero in the middle of a freezing night, the last thing you can think of is being horny. But they've discovered affection, loyalty, commitment. They're coming back to the cities and to the universities as men, no longer boys - but still young. They have hundreds of question! Even the turmoil and chaos of the election loss has had the effect of creating a cauldron in which new ideas can develop. This is a rebellious male youth, not a reactionary one. It's full of empowering experiences. They've passed through their rites of passage into manhood, and this new manhood they are seeking with open eyes, whether it's in the way they look at women, or politics, or whatever. This opportunity comes once in a generation, you know. We mustn't miss it.

Granted this phenomenon may exist, isn't it a rather peripheral one? Couldn't you argue that the effect of the war and social dislocation has been to create a much greater degree of hostility and aggressiveness among men? I'm coming across regular mention in the newspapers here of horrible attacks, young men throwing grenades into parties out of frustration, that sort of thing. Doesn't that contradict your thesis?

War detonates a social phenomenon, which is increased violence at all levels of society. The increase in woman-battering, for example, is a reflection of the overall patterns of violence in our society, many of which are deeply embedded in the social fabric. There is violence in the economic situation: increased tension, stress, a decline in standards of living, unemployment. But within that context, I think there is the trend I mentioned, which the women's movement has to recognize and work out. This isn't contradictory. It's just the milieu in which you have to work, which makes your job even more difficult.

Male violence expresses a current of real desperation, and the movement has to have the capacity to understand that desperation, and to soothe it if it can. I can tell you that at the same time as there's been this rise in woman-battering, there's been a significant rise in male suicides. Then the phenomena of random violence, grenades tossed into parties ... In the psyche of this population that has been subjected to all sorts of extraordinary abuses and stress, what do you expect? I imagine the same thing happened in the United States during the Vietnam War, and it wasn't a coincidence.

A climate of violence also means a chain of violence. The big nation beats the small one. The men of the small nation exert defensive violence against the enemy, but at the same time they vent their frustration on women. The women turn around and assault children to compensate, in some way, for the violence that's being inflicted on them. This chain has been very visible in Nicaragua. But at the same time, the climate of violence casts everything into sharp relief, and there's a chance for awareness to increase. These phenomena can come to the surface as public and political issues that have to be dealt with.

For example, the milieu creates a powerful sense of guilt, angst, among the men who are most strongly influenced by it. In their sober moments, they ask themselves: "Why am I doing this? What's going on?" And that's the opportunity the women's movement has, to provide some sense of catharsis and synthesis, to explain the violence. To transform the rebellious impulse that underlies it - which is also a rebellion against the cruel economic conditions men are living in - into a political attitude and a political struggle.

There may be an advantage here for Nicaraguans. In one sense, this is a psychologically healthy population. It has resources that urge it on to struggle, mainly due to the tradition of struggle that exists here. That helps keep people more or less above the level of total schizophrenia.

Machismo exists in Nicaragua, but it has deep economic roots that need to be understood. If you don't grasp the deep structure that sustains social phenomena, whatever you do will be superficial - or wishful thinking, at any rate. The moral vision that the Chamorro government is applying to social issues is very dangerous, because it misses what's below the surface entirely.

To make a sex education campaign in Nicaragua, for example, you have to understand the character of Nicaraguan men. It's not that everywhere they're polygamous, but in general, each man has at least two or three women besides his wife. That's the reason it doesn't work to appeal on moral grounds to loyalty or fidelity. That might work for a society that's founded on the nuclear family. Nicaragua isn't. The family structure imported by the Spanish had a nuclear element, but was also a classic extended family, a clan-type structure. As for the peasant family - well, it was destroyed when capitalism established itself here in force in the 1950s. The plantation economy shattered it. Capitalism needed labour for its coffee and sugar and cotton, and that meant two things were necessary. First, peasant lands had to be expropriated, in order to force the peasantry to become a proletariat on the plantations. Secondly, the labour supply had to be adjusted to the needs of seasonal production. Before, the peasant family had a piece of land, its cow, its means of subsistence. When these were expropriated, the men were forced to work different crops all over the national territory, according to the season. A massive pool of male migrant labourers was created.

Men became "sailors of the land." They might have a job working a particular crop for only three months a year. When they finished with the coffee harvest, they'd move from the mountains down to the coast to harvest the sugar. That was the only way they could earn a salary year-round, assuming the work was there to be had. That pattern prevented anything like the formation of a stable family nucleus, of course. So what the poor men did - this idiosyncrasy of the Nicaraguan male - is that in each place they went to work, they tried to create bonds, tried to forge the nucleus of a family. This is the drama of Nicaraguan men: trying to create a sense of personal stability, never finding fulfilment. They could never say, This is my home, this is my wife and children. Instead, they spread children wherever they went.

Maybe now you understand my compassion for males here. Theirs is a never-ending story of trying to build a home of their own where they can feel even that small amount of security, that bit of soil in which the roots of affection and a sense of belonging can grow. This fragmentation of their lives has had an impact on men that we can hardly begin to measure. That's why we must not see the males of this country as the enemy. They are victims. They have been denied the possibility of building a transcendent relationship with a single person; instead, they go jumping from one woman to another, they fall into a woman's arms as someone would fall into the embrace of a drug, into oblivion.

This stereotype of the Central American male as shiftless, rootless, irresponsible, a drunkard - it's true in large part, but it's terribly short-sighted. All these phenomena are the result of the factors I've outlined for you. If you fail to understand the social fabric that produces such a man, you don't understand a damn thing. That's the reason we're working to avoid a direct confrontation with men, as far as possible. It's too easy to forget that you're in the same boat in many ways, and the answer you come up with had better be a universal one.

Coming up with an answer means providing men with the discourse necessary to understand their reality, to see what it is that they're a product of. The moment you can begin to understand that, you can understand your enormous frustration. Then you don't have to beat your wife. Beat the system, not her. Their struggle and their aggression has to be redirected. Only consciousness of their situation can give them sufficient strength to exert self-restraint in their impulses. Fuck the system. That has to be our message. First of all it has to be understood by all women, and then by all men. Then we can make an alliance.

What the Sandinista Revolution tried to do was to provide fulltime employment, the whole year round, in rural areas. One aim of that was to give the male a chance to re-establish a single family, to reunite the pieces of his life. Year-round employment for the man means the eventual possibility that he can root himself in a piece of land, or the city, or wherever. But of course, the whole process of disintegration and migration started all over again with the coming of the war. Once again, huge numbers of men were travelling all over the territory.

What happened with women, meanwhile? They started from their sheltered and submissive situation in the peasant family, where the man was lord. But now the man wasn't there most of the time. So they began to build themselves up on their own, carrying their children with them. Out of these intertwined economic and historical processes, two things emerged over time. The first was the phenomenon of women migrating to the cities, creating there whole pockets of slums unto themselves, providing the cheap labour force for domestic service and the informal market. Walk around Managua: you'll see that the whole informal market is still in the hands of women. But that migration and concentration in the cities also created the first nucleus which made it possible to organize women around certain issues - maybe twenty years ago. It started as something very tiny, and it's evolved into what we have now. So the second result of the uprooting of the peasant economy was the forging of a Nicaraguan woman with a strong spirit of independence. She became head of the family by default; the number of women heads has only risen over the last two or three decades. It created a certain sense of autonomy and freedom, a determination to struggle for their children's future.

One feature of life on the plantation was that those women who worked alongside the men were never recognized for their individual labour. As I think is the case among the Hispanic agrarian population in California as well, a man brings his wife and children to pick cotton or coffee or whatever. The more they collect, the more wages he gets. The owner thus ends up exploiting not only the man but his entire family, and the women get nothing directly for their pains.

Now, the first thing the Sandinista Revolution did was to separate the wages. The Sandinistas said, If a woman works, she'll be paid. If children work, they'll be paid. This was a tremendous historical jump. The male finally understood that the wife's work was work, and that she was entitled to her pay. They could share the money afterwards, combine it, but it wasn't fair or right that he should get the money for the labour of his wife and children.

To what extent was the gender division of labour broken down under the Sandinistas? It's often said that the conscription, by both sides, of so many men for the war allowed women to step into roles which traditionally had been denied to them.

It's a complex question, but you have to recognize first of all that one of the main achievements women won during the years after the revolution was the right to organize. The second major victory was what I call "the appropriation of the word" - women finally could talk. These two bring you to a third victory: participation. The revolution flung the doors open, and women passed through those doors like a stampede. They entered production - in this past decade women's participation in labour has increased astronomically.

The biggest trial, I guess, was the war. All these unskilled women, who had been locked up in their houses leading their solitary little lives, were swept up in a massive social movement. You must remember that perhaps one hundred thousand men left for the front each year. The cities were partially, at times almost totally, in the hands of women, for some three or four years. Women had to take over in the factories, the unions. The two central aspects of the war that are relevant to us today are, first, that men went into the mountains in massive numbers, and got brutalized by the war; and second, that women entered production and took practical control over the national economy.

It was only then that women really confronted the nature of the problem before them. They realized how inappropriately equipped they were to deal with this openness, this new realm of possibility. That's when consciousness began to grow. Women discovered various things in those years. They discovered first how disadvantaged they were. They lacked knowledge, they lacked skills, training, education. The second discovery was that despite these disadvantages, they could prove themselves able. And the third discovery was that they could live without a man - and enjoy it!

Autonomy and independence had their hardships, but their beauty as well. A woman who has always been submissive, who has always run to a man if there was a flat tire or something burning, finds she can cope with the damn thing on her own. She finds she isn't crushed by the new responsibilities placed on her, nor by being alone. This was a new sort of being alone - loneliness is something that's always present in people's lives, but this alone-ness meant taking charge, and it was exhilarating. I suppose one of the other results was that women discovered the possibility of enjoying other men, or of stepping outside a formal relationship that they had been carrying on just for the sake of propriety.

The impact of all this on men was to greatly increase their insecurity. What usually happened was that the man came back from his two years of military service to find in his house a total stranger. The war had changed both the man and the woman in different ways. The man left with a certain picture or image of a relationship; he went to the mountains and came back, brutalized, to find all these women making their own lives, making decisions. It was too much. The beatings increased: men wanted to return to the status quo ante, and women wanted to defend what they'd conquered.

You had the economic crisis, the war, the [U.S.] blockade, all the exhilaration of social changes, and in amongst that stew the destruction of the old way of interpersonal relations. For a human being to digest all this experience in such a short time - it created social tension, yes, but more importantly a tension in the innermost, most intimate corners of people's lives. War and revolution used to stop on your doorstep; now they found their way into your bed.

There's a famous movie here called Women of the Frontier. It's based on a true case, a whole village where all the men had left for the front and the women had organized themselves into cooperatives and learned how to handle the crops. When the men came back, they started beating the women, they wanted them back in the house. The Sandinista Front had to get itself into the middle of that village, to get the males to accept that they, the men, were associates on the cooperatives: it was the women who'd founded the co-ops, and who had to be accepted as equal partners. The Front told the men: "When you left, there was nothing in this village. Either you get used to the idea of your wife as your partner, with an equal say in how things are run around here, or you'll lose what you've gained from this co-op, and probably lose your women besides."

All over the country, this phenomenon was occurring. How deep it went, how much it affected things, is obviously impossible to measure.

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1. Astorga, a lawyer, came to national prominence through her role in the Sandinistas' 1978 assassination of General Pérez Vega (nicknamed El Caro, "The Dog"), Anastasio Somoza's key counter-insurgency officer. She later became the Nicaraguan representative to the United Nations and candidate for Ambassador to the U.S. (she was rejected by Washington owing to her involvement in the Pérez killing). Astorga died of cancer in February 1988.

2. Tellez played a key role in the Sandinista takeover of the National Palace in August 1978, and went on to lead the assault on León in the final stages of the insurrection. Her posts after the revolution included Vice President of the Council of State, Political Chief of Managua, and Minister of Health.

3. Milú Vargas: one of Nicaragua's best-known feminists and legal experts. As legal advisor to the National Assembly in the late 1980s, she was a prime drafter of the Nicaraguan constitution which was finally approved in 1989. Her companion was Sandinista comandante Carlos Núñez, who died in 1990.

4. Co-founder of the Sandinista Front; Minister of the Interior under the Sandinista government.

Created by Adam Jones, 1998. No copyright claimed if source is acknowledged and notified.
Blog: http://jonestream.blogspot.com
Last updated: 12 October 2000.