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Sofia Montenegro interview
NACLA Report on the Americas, May/June 1997 issue
Sofia Montenegro was one of the founders of the Sandinista daily paper Barricada after the triumph of the revolution of 1979. She left Barricada-as well as the Sandinista Party-a few years ago, and now works at the Center for Communication Research in Managua, studying the relationship between the media, culture and democracy in Nicaragua. She was interviewed by Irene Ortiz in Cartagena, Chile in November, 1996, where she was attending an encuentro of Latin American feminists.
How has the women's movement developed in Nicaragua
The women's movement in Nicaragua is today one of the strongest and most purposeful social movements in the country. It is also the strongest women's movement in Central America. Women's groups have succeeded in creating spaces of dialogue with the state and at the same time we have succeeded in opening various spaces for the discussion of immediate issues. We have been generating new forms of participation for women, which is to say, forms of organization that respond more to the needs and styles and work possibilities of women themselves.
Do you think there is a significant difference between women's participation now and their participation 5 or 10 years ago?
Surely. Not only has participation increased in numbers but in quality, as well.
Before, Nicaragua had one women's organization, which was huge in the times of the revolution; now that organization is one of many. Women on the left, did not call themselves feminists five years ago, and now they do. The Sandinista front itself has said that it has an obligation to feminists.
There is an enormous analytical quality, which I think comes from all of the political training and the experience lived in that school of daily life that the revolution created for everyone in Nicaragua. If there is something that we the women owe to the revolution, it is the teaching of the organizational capacity that the women of my country have. We reached a consensus that women in Nicaragua needed political power more than ever. We needed to participate in public offices to improve the situation of women, and to change the value system within the enormous economic and political crisis this country is now going through.
We have succeeded in producing a minimal agenda that has been adopted by women of all political stripes, from social movements as well as from the political parties. Women from the right, from the left, from orthodox Sandinistas to Sandinista reformers, radical feminists, Christians, lesbians, together with women who have historically rejected the parties, everything. After a year of struggling together, the results are seen in the fact that the coalition has demonstrated its viability in Nicaragua. Therefore, we made the decision to keep it alive beyond the elections with the idea of analyzing the experience of these elections, and preparing ourselves to face the next ones in a more organized and well-planned fashion.
It can be said that the feminist movement was born as Sandinista, is there still a Sandinista feminism?
I would say that it is obvious that Nicaragua's feminism is of revolutionary origin. It was born in the revolution and it grew in the revolution in the second half of the 1980's and has grown at an accelerated pace after the Contra war.
Those of us who were stigmatized before within the party for being feminists are now outside. Despite everything, we can dialogue with some who continue to be activists and representatives in the Assembly on the part of the Sandinista front.
Although we have political differences as far as the party is concerned, we do not have large differences in what is referred to as the problem of the subordination and the rights of women.
Feminists have also been fundamental to the development of the wider women's movement. For example, in 1979 when the revolution triumphed, there were 12 of us who declared ourselves feminists and who began to act. Years later it is clear that feminism has gained legitimacy in Nicaragua. Ninety-five percent of the women's organizations declare themselves feminist, including those that are in mixed spaces, together with men.
There is a recent feminism in which those of us women who come from the left have succeeded in dialoguing with women who previously were on the right or lived in exile during the war. These women had many prejudices against the left, but they have had, as much as we have, the capacity to begin conversations and to succeed in getting closer, despite the differences and political antagonisms that are profound in Nicaragua. It is clear for example, that we can come to agreement with them that it is not permissible, that women continue to be beaten or raped. That is an issue upon which we agree, as well as on the right of land for women.
Is the feminist movement part of the progressive movement in Nicaragua and the region?
We are a movement along with other social actors and we participate in a proposition that is called "Initiative for Nicaragua" where all of the groups of the Nicaraguan civil society are trying to formulate a national project from the perspective of civil society. This has become necessary since the parties have largely lost their function with the failure of their ideological paradigms and in the face of the dismantling of the state. The progressive movement now is all of those forces, groups, individuals, institutions and broad sectors that fight for democratization of life in general, democratization of the political system and for the transformation of the conditions of poverty and inequality and oppression that exist in the country, whether these conditions are of an ethnic character, or of gender or class.
Tell us a little more about how this Nicaraguan women's movement is linked with other political movements, and about the church, for example, both at the level of Nicaragua and of Central America.
There is an ecumenical women's group in Nicaragua, where Protestant and Catholic women meet and, in terms of gender, and in terms of their faith, interpret reality and in some way contribute to the transformation of old ways of thinking and old values. There is a serious problem with the Catholic Church because we have a very reactionary hierarchy. The role of the Cardinal has been fundamental in that sense, so we prefer to associate with the women from the base ecclesiastic communities or with the progressive sectors of the Church. And we have begun a dialogue with the women from the Protestant churches, at an international level, since we think this is fundamental to our growth to maintain links through regional and global initiatives.
In the case of the Central American region, we have been contructing a program called "Regenerate the Current." The work of this group has allowed us to coordinate the actions of the Central American feminist groups and serve as a means of communication among women in the region. We are building Central American networks like the union networks, the network of black and indigenous women, the health network among others. We have organized feminist conferences to which we invite leaders from each country to have exchanges and political discussions. These conferences are meant to review what is in process and to discuss not only the advances but also the eventual pitfalls and obstacles that the movement will confront in each country.
How do you see the feminist movement in the Latin American context?
Well, I think that we are in a process of democratization I will call "formal," since there are no longer dictatorships in Latin America. It is obvious, however, that the gigantic economic crisis of the continent is active against those democratic processes, because it is not possible to think of democratic advances if there is not an economic democratization. These dreadful plans for economic adjustment that are applied throughout the continent seem dangerous to me because poverty is the cultivating stock for revolts and populisms from the right and the left. I think that the dismantling of the state is provoking a disarticulation of what were the traditional forces, like the unions and social movements. It provokes a greater dispersion. People have to dedicate more time to survival.
Every day there are more people entering the informal sector of the economy and therefore obviously, there is little room for discusion and organization in political conflict. I believe this puts at risk the processes of democratization in Latin America.
As far as the Latin American feminist movement, it has grown not only in my country, but throughout the region. And that is not by chance, because it is the women who are the most affected by the economic crisis, and basically because the administration of poverty remains in the hands of the women. That is why I say that we have to stop thinking small and start thinking big. We are obligated to rethink the countries, to rethink the movement, to rethink everthing in terms of macroeconomics and macropolitics, because if we do not, we will continue making the transformations at the individual level or at the level of the home, but not at the level of society.
That is the contradiction that has appeared at feminist meetings. Some feminists believe that we must continue developing strategies for social change for women as well as for society as a whole because the nation states are being pulled apart by the process of globalization, so we need to discuss those large problems and not only the narrower issues. This is to say we must think of the large issues in terms of gender and politics. This is the task.
Throughout the twentieth century, feminists have been fighting for the right to vote which is a specific demand for the real recognition of civil rights. Now we are talking about the macroeconomy and women's economic and property rights. The agenda has gotten more complicated for us, because the history of the world has become more complicated this century. What reality is demanding of the feminists at the end of this century is not the same as what was demanded when the first feminists were active.
I cannot stop to think or wait for a miracle to change the situation. Necessity obligates us to act, obligates us to think in a much more complex manner, obligates us to be more informed, obligates us to study what before we had not intended to study. We want total participation, to be in the places where decisions are made. We want more women to be where the decisions that affect us are made. I would like one day to have a woman as minister of finance or economic planning in my country, as minister of the budget, sensitized and committed to our demands. The fight should be from within the government, because otherwise it will always be others who make the decisions without consulting us, and we will remain in eternal denunciation and protest. Someone has to dirty her dress in order to open the way, even though she will be criticized today. I think that protest without commitment, without risk of making a mistake, does not take us anywhere. If the women of Nicaragua had never moved beyond denunciation and protest, we would never have had the revolution.
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