How the Female Political Leadership Is Losing Ground in Venezuela

Both chavismo and opposition have reversed the progress made in electing women since 1989. The proof lies in the regional elections held in November 2021

As an experiment, if we Google the words “female candidates 2021,” the search bar will automatically complete the query with suggestions based on previous searches: Miss Venezuela, Miss Universe, and Nuestra Belleza Latina.

None of the auto-completed options include words referring to the women who participated in the electoral event in late November. The automatic invisibilization on a simple internet search serves as an analogy for a bigger problem: the lack of opportunities because of sexism.

When the regional elections were announced under promising conditions; such as a mixed CNE with board members from the civil society and the opposition, opposition parties taking part after years of being absent and the presence of the EU Electoral Observation Mission, the expectations were high. In Venezuelan society, that should’ve included gender equality in the government’s local and regional instances.

But even though the mandatory electoral quota of gender participation for candidates wasn’t followed, and those political groups that didn’t comply weren’t sanctioned. The push for female leadership within the opposition is still nowhere to be seen, and while chavismo brags about filled quotas, which are higher, they still don’t comply with the requirements.

The strategies to include women in politics have been merely symbolic, used only to give the impression of equality when it’s not really there. Therefore, we can see party practices such as opening spaces where women have a secondary role without wielding a true ability to influence political decisions. The loopholes in the rules are exploited by the parties to see them as a “suggestion” instead of a rule.

Political Decentralization: a Blocked Path

Venezuelans began electing governors, mayors, and other local authorities for the first time in 1989. Before that, only four women had been appointed governors by the Executive: Carmen Morales in Apure (1970-1972), Dori Parra in Lara (1975-1977), Dora Maldonado in Trujillo (1979-1984) and Luisa Teresa Pacheco in Táchira (1984-1989). There had only been one female presidential candidate in those 28 years: Ismenia Villalba, wife of historic URD leader, Jóvito Villalba, in 1988.

In part thanks to having elections on all levels, Venezuela saw a quick rise in female participation in regional politics in the ‘90s. In 1992, it was the country with the highest percentage of women (16.4%) in municipal councils in Latin America. In 1998, we had the highest average of female mayors in Latin America (6.7%), beaten only by Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, Chile and El Salvador. Three women ran for president, although only one had a real chance of winning the elections: Rhona Ottolina and Carmen de González in 1993, and Irene Sáez in 1998.

By the late ‘90s, it seemed like we were heading in the right direction to reach an equal quota in Venezuelan politics. “In the year 2000, Venezuela was one of the countries in the region that had more women as elected officials,” says Eugenio Martínez, a journalist who specializes in electoral events. “After that, the ratio of women as elected officials has declined significantly, to the point where Venezuela became one of the countries with the lowest number of women in those positions.” 

The main leaders in the newest parties which would soon become the strongest opposition to Chávez’s government were, for the most part, male. When party structures were reformed and the opposition forces joined under the MUD, the priority seemed to be just one: to take a stand against Hugo Chávez’s popularity. Other issues, like encouraging policies for equality or the emergence of new, young leadership, seemed to be left in the backseat, or not addressed at all.

Inaction As a Political Statement

In Venezuela, there are no laws that regulate female participation in politics and guarantee fair representation in the country. It’s been a historically neglected topic, softened with rules and regulations that don’t carry punishment and they end up being suggestions more than actual norms. 

“The National Assembly is called to establish equivalent women’s rights and codes for political participation in our laws (…) but we have a very important institutionalization problem, which complicates reaching all those goals,” says Eglée González Lobato, former CNE legal consultant and former director of UCV’s Law School.

The responsibility to guarantee gender parity falls on the CNE, which has issued rules where they require equal quotas for candidates. Eugenio Martínez says that the regulation on its own seems adequate: “However, the rule doesn’t solve the problem concerning female representation for elected officials,” he added.

In the parliamentary elections of 2015, when the opposition won the majority of the representatives, the CNE required 50% of candidates to be women. Only 22% of the elected deputies were women. The same happened in the elections in 2020, where, despite the same regulation being enforced, only 32% of the current deputies are females.

The CNE announced the equality rule once again for the November election, but only 16% of candidates were women.

The problem goes beyond the electoral body; it lies within the foundation of the political core, in the parties, which, according to Martínez, don’t have women in their structure, or very few of them. “The CNE makes an instrument out of the equality issue,” says Susana Reina, expert journalist on gender issues and founder of NGO Feminismo Inc. “They exploit equality to make things harder for the parties, especially opposition parties when they have to name their candidates. It’s a mockery in the sense that it doesn’t generate a specific regulation, it doesn’t control, let alone sanction.” Actually, the first decision by the CNE about gender equality was published in 2008 to regulate the legislative councils elections. The CNE then published the first rules before the parliamentary elections in 2015, for which the opposition was poised to win.

“Not only do we have to guarantee equality quotas, but we have to teach people to trust women,” González Lobato explained. “Political parties don’t consider female candidates because the voter tends to vote for men, and this is a proven reality.” 

“There’s a sex-based hierarchy,” Reina added. “With this premise, men have more privileges and more rights to be in the public eye, on the productive side, making decisions. Women under this system have a role to play in the household, the private side, and in reproduction.” 

The Law of Political Parties doesn’t mention meeting an equal gender quota, and there isn’t an article in the Constitution establishing the internal processes of a political party. The whole gender representation issue is left to the particular decision of parties which show no interest in the topic, not even in university politics.

The apparent current inclusion keeps women’s political aspirations at bay, reducing women who are activists to second-rate positions, like ladies’ committees, volunteer work, non-escalating positions, or token positions for women, in order to be perceived as being inclusive or politically correct during press conferences or media events.

The Chavista Rhetoric

On June 15th, 2021, Nicolás Maduro said that “women are to be respected, women are superior than us (…) we must remember that Hugo Chávez was who repositioned feminism in the world.” From his first incursions in national politics, Chávez declared himself a bearer of social causes and inclusion. The chavista project came to power thanks to the union of marginalized groups, among them women, and especially, poor women.

Around 2006, enjoying great popularity and high oil prices, Chávez began a “feminisation” of his proposal by creating programmes like Misión Hogares de la Patria, Misión Madres del Barrio, and Misión Niño Simón, among others, put together by the Women’s and Gender Equality Ministry. These policies were then continued by the Nicolás Maduro administration.

All the social assistance and empowering programmes aimed at women by the chavista government have one thing in common. Within their discourse, they emphasize the role women have as mothers and caregivers, the training for domestic work, and the call for volunteer community work in organizations like communal councils or neighbor associations, based on a caregiving and sweet woman archetype.

In the political power arena that chavismo occupies, we can look at leaders with a loud voice in the country’s decisions. There are many examples: Delcy Rodríguez, vice president and Economy minister; Tibisay Lucena, former board member of the CNE and Higher Education minister; Cilia Flores, National Assembly deputy and wife of Nicolás Maduro; Iris Varela, former Penitentiaries minister and National Assembly deputy; Luisa Ortega Díaz, the attorney general until 2017; or Carmen Meléndez, former Lara governor, former Defense minister (the first woman to be appointed) and current mayor of the Libertador municipality in Caracas.

Georgette Topalián, former president of the Baruta Municipal Council and former candidate for mayor of the government-supported party Somos Venezuela, said that political leadership inside chavismo is promoted through involvement in communal councils and neighbors’ associations. Furthermore, she justified not complying with the gender equality quotas for the candidates for the November 2021 elections with the fact that the candidacies were the result of PSUV primaries, which took place beforehand. Although chavismo integrates women more than other political coalitions in the country, gender equality in Venezuelan politics continues to be a problem.

Currently, 10 out of 33 ministries are run by women, meaning only 30% of the cabinet. The government won 19 states, but only two governors are women. Most of the positions occupied by women inside government parties are limited to communal leaderships, with zero influence on political decisions. The electoral quotas aren’t followed and institutions don’t write laws aimed at gender equality.

“With such a large and bureaucratic State, [chavistas] are forced to include female representation. But that doesn’t mean that the women in it are making decisions. Those social assistance programmes created by Chávez were the means for ‘21st-century socialism’ to indoctrinate, but they didn’t promote professionalization and independence of women, instead they would anchor them to the communal environment, which isn’t where political-administrative decisions are being made,” constitutional lawyer and political consultant María Verónica Torres says.

The Venezuelan Electoral Observatory pointed out that the creation of these spaces and programmes for women by the chavista administration hasn’t had any impact in political decisions, and the presence of women in positions of power doesn’t guarantee issuing vindicating public policies focused on gender.

Party Structures

“After 2007, the reorganization of political parties was done in a very messy way without a solid structure, where women weren’t actively involved,” recalls Eugenio Martínez.

“In essence, they’ve done away with merits. They lack meritocracy. The one who goes up the ranks is the one with the most contacts and is closer to the higher-ups in those parties or is more willing to follow instructions,” says María Corina Machado, one the opposition’s female politicians with the longest trajectory, about MUD parties. “The problem isn’t just that there’s gender discrimination, it’s wrong to be discriminated for any reason and especially to dismiss merit all the way,” she added.

Although female presence has diminished in party structures, it increased in NGOs focused on human rights. Martínez explains that this is due to the fact that women left the traditional structures to be part of much more horizontal and less sexist schemes.

González Lobato also underlined this phenomenon, “it’s like a contradiction: there are more women leading civil society which isn’t mirrored in numbers in movements or political parties,” she explained.

The inclusion strategies of MUD parties aren’t better than the ones used by the government. In fact, women who have executive positions in opposition parties are very few, and it’s much harder for them to climb up the ranks because they have to deal with prejudice, gender roles, and a much more severe treatment by the media than their male counterparts. Machado commented: “Being a woman, I’ve had more burdens, worries, and feelings of guilt on a personal level, by leaving my small children at home (…) Having my reputation and credibility attacked by state media. All this has affected my family very much, being a woman and also a divorced woman.” Wanting to show themselves as inclusive, they engage in offensive practices, according to Machado. “To please public opinion and political correctness, when MUD did press conferences, they would get a woman from out of nowhere to fill the quota, to have a woman in the photo. To me, that’s grotesque and deeply offensive.”

A Step Back 

In the regional elections of 2021, the Gran Polo Patriótico Simón Bolívar (GPPSB) only had 13.04% of female candidates to governorships and 26.35% to mayorships. The Plataforma Unitaria, the alliance that includes the MUD, had 8.7% of female candidates for governors, and 19.51% running for mayor.

Across the country, only 9% of the elected officials and 18% of mayors are women. In other words: for the 2021-2025 period, only one in ten governors and two out ten mayors in Venezuela are women. Compared to the results of 2017, the lower number of women elected is notable: governors decreased by 40% and mayors by 16%.

“We have to make a distinction between political representation and the struggle for women to vindicate themselves in the Venezuelan political arena,” says Eglée González Lobato. “With the pandemic, everything that had been achieved in the fight for women’s rights has been diminished and worsened. In terms of numbers, we can say that this is a ten to fifteen year regression.” 

Ever since the caretaker government was formed by Juan Guaidó, in January 2019, it has been heavily criticized both in and out of Venezuela for the lack of female inclusion in the high ranks and the cabinet. After the new board of directors was named for the 2022-2023 period, Vanessa Neumann, Venezuelan diplomat who was appointed as Ambassador for the United Kingdom and Ireland between 2019 and 2020, criticized the makeup: “We’re heading into the fourth year with Guaidó without one woman in the official political leadership. It’s like we’re not half of the population. I really don’t understand how they say that they represent the people without any women.” 

The diplomat also recognized that although the lack of inclusion of women isn’t intentional, the leaders are aware of the problem. “You can’t go into a diplomatic mission with four or five men and only one woman, and that woman being the secretary that brings them coffee. The irony is that there are many female ambassadors, like I was, who are very good, well prepared, speak several languages and have had good careers. However, there was Foreign Minister above all, which was Julio Borges (…) Being an Ambassador is a very important position, but you have to follow the line your boss tells you. At the end of my tenure it was all quite difficult, because I felt I was following orders of some men who didn’t really understand the topic.” 

One of the Worst Performances in the Region

The result of this research contrasts with the great advancements in other countries in the region. Chile’s President Gabriel Boric, presented his cabinet in January of 2022: out of 24 ministers, 14 are women (58%). And of those 24 ministers, seven (29%) are under 40 years old.

If we compare the makeup of their parliaments, Venezuela (with 22%) has a higher percentage than Colombia (19%), Paraguay (16%) and Brazil (15%). But it’s less than half of the parliaments of Bolivia (46%) or Argentina (42%), and a big difference with Peru (40%) and Ecuador (39%).

The efforts made in this sense have also been legislative. Argentina was the first country to pass the Quota Law, in 1991. And in 2021, laws have been approved to make it easier for women to access parliament, establishing quotas or gender equality, in 16 countries in the region.

In an ideal world, gender equality quotas wouldn’t be necessary because there would be a larger involvement of women in public affairs, without it being a big deal. But the reality is different. There are only 22 female presidents in 193 countries. Citizenship for women in Venezuela is barely 80 years old and there’s still a debt in terms of guaranteeing and vindicating rights for years of submission and domination.

For the time being, Norway is the only country in the world which has achieved gender equality. Equal rights laws have a transitional aspect, because once you reach representation, you don’t lose it. But to get to that point you have to go through a path that we haven’t even started.

Like most problems we have in Venezuela, to get close to solving them we have to recover democratic spaces where female leaders can have access to power. “The government has been able to renew their leadership because they’ve had free reign to measure their candidates in municipal councils in 335 municipalities in the country (…) However, statistics on women’s involvement which could show a feminist inclination from chavismo, evidence squalid political participation which the opposition is unable to match because they don’t have ways to access power,” constitutionalist María Verónica Torres concludes.

A Spanish language version of this article was published in @Cinco8