Mass protests, political unrest. Argentina swings left, Uruguay swings right. Over the last six months in Latin America, we’ve borne witness to an often confusing mix of popular movements and authoritarian power grabbing.
One constant through these last months and years has been the force of women, including trans people and dissidents, building power from below. Women have taken to the streets again and again, in particular on March 8, International Women’s Day. Their capacity for mass mobilization has recalled the tide of protests that ended military rule in the southern hemisphere during the Cold War.
The organization and practice of women’s strikes have pushed issues to the top of the agenda –violence, debt, and care work– which are often relegated to the background in left organizing.
“Feminism is revolution” is one of the chants that echoes on the streets of Uruguay. My friends and comrades from the south are part of sustaining a years long effort that is transforming society, their energy and clarity is contagious and strong.
But women’s organizing in Latin America has failed to receive the attention it deserves in North America. With the exception of a handful of prominent voices, few of these experiences have been meaningfully translated or examined in a sustained way.
That is what América Feminista, a new series on Toward Freedom, proposes to do. Featuring the voices of the people involved in the frontlines of women’s organizing around the hemisphere, América Feminista seeks to provide insight into how women have built power in community centers, kitchens, in their workplaces and in the streets.
In order to situate women’s struggles today, it bears remembering just how much has happened in the months before social distancing and curfews related to the pandemic came into play.
In October, an 11 day strike paralyzed Ecuador. The President and congress fled Quito for the coastal city of Guayaquil, recalling colonial fears of Indigenous rebellion centuries earlier. These mass protests, which culminated in a women’s march, stopped an austerity decree.
Later that month, a student-led protest kicked off a sustained uprising in Chile. Neighborhood assemblies were activated, and a deeply radical movement stayed in city streets north and south, until coronavirus measures criminalized gatherings.
In November, after protests tied to accusations of election fraud drained the legitimacy of President Evo Morales, he fled the country with his Vice President and the Minister of Health. Morales instructed the president of the senate, who would have been next in the line of succession, to quit, opening the door for the opposition’s rancid, racist authoritarians to maneuver into the presidency.
In December, Alberto Fernández took power in Argentina, with former president Cristina Kirchner as his prominent running mate. Their election marked a break with four years of right wing rule under Mauricio Macri. In January, after elections marred by the barring of favored candidates, Guatemala’s new president took office, promising continuity with extractivism in the mostly Indigenous nation.
And on March 1, Luis Lacalle Pou of the National Party took power in Uruguay. His election put an end to 15 years of rule by the progressive Frente Amplio party.
Constellations in the streets
Looking back on it now, the weekend of March 8th seems like a miracle, a vision, an occurrence from another time.
In Mexico, women mobilized from north to south. I was in Ciudad Juárez, and the first article in América Feminista will be a report from the border city. In Mexico City the numbers swelled well over previous turnouts. Powerful marches were held in every city in the country, from Guadalajara to Monterrey, from Tijuana to Tapachula. Women were the first to massively defy the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office in December of 2018.
In Guatemala City, thousands made public a process of denouncing predators within institutions like the San Carlos University and also within social organizations and activist collectives. March 8th actions pushed beyond traditional feminist organizing, based on liberal concepts of equality, centering instead on land rights and ongoing struggles against authoritarianism.
In Bolivia, women turned out in each major city, in marches and demonstrations that pushed back against the overwhelming polarization connected to the departure of Morales in the fall. Autonomous feminists in Cochabamba marched against violence and stood united against fear and the political instrumentalization of their rage under the slogan “We don’t have fear, we have fire.”
Women’s organizing toward March 8th in Ecuador was built on alliances woven during the October rebellion. In Quito, women organized into blocs, supporting each other in bringing together the struggles of working and campesina women, reproductive rights and territory, and feminist struggles.
In Argentina, millions of women took to the streets as part of the fourth annual women’s strike, which was held on March 9th. “The debt is with us, not with the IMF or with the church,” was a central message among an estimated 750,000 women who marched in Buenos Aires alone.
March 8th in Montevideo, Uruguay, saw 350,000 women marching, dancing and singing in the main plazas, nearly half of the women who live in the city. Similar strikes around the country brought out thousands.
The largest action in the hemisphere on March 8th was, without a doubt, in Santiago de Chile. Over two million people turned out, men and women alike, in a massive show of support for a feminist program of struggle. The emblematic Plaza de la Dignidad was filled, the main square overflowing, besting even the largest marches in the uprising to date.
A mere three weeks later, President Sebastián Piñera posed for photos in the Plaza de la Dignidad, a gesture unthinkable a month previous. The photo-op was made possible by restrictions on gatherings related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Like elsewhere in the world, most of Latin America was observing distancing measures by the end of March. Different countries took different measures: some, like Bolivia, moved quickly to declare quarantine and close the borders, even to nationals. Others, like Guatemala, declared a nightly curfew, policed by the military. Others yet announced increased social spending for the poorest. The overall message was, as elsewhere, “stay home if you can.”
For women who can stay home, the burden of care work has tended to increase, as they look after children or elderly or ill family members throughout the entire week. By all appearances, staying home has also led to an increase in incidents of intimate partner violence: in Mexico, for example, more women were killed in the first quarter of this year, more than any other since records began to be kept. In Argentina, there were 12 feminicides reported during the first two weeks of quarantine.
Of course, many women (and men) have been unable to stay home. It is their work that sustains society –whether they labor in the informal sector or carry out tasks which have been deemed essential– and are often precarious and poorly paid.
“This is a moment to make visible what work means from a feminist perspective,” said Verónica Gago, co-founder of the Ni Una Menos (Not One More) collective in Buenos Aires. “This crisis has shown which tasks and infrastructure are indispensable.”
On May first, International Worker’s Day, women’s organizations have convened a worldwide noise demo. “We refuse to allow the future to look like the present, and we refuse to return to neoliberal normality, whose unsustainability is utterly revealed in this crisis,” reads the communiqué from the May First Cross Border Feminists, an international network comprised of women’s groups from Chile to Turkey. “We do not want to emerge from this ’emergency’ more precarious and with more debt!”
Feminist organizing, before and during the pandemic, as well as feminist interpretations of care work, violence, debt, and capital, are precisely what I propose to explore in the América Feminista series.
I’ll post the first piece –a report from Ciudad Juarez– next week, followed by stories from around the hemisphere in the weeks following.