Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Gay Politics in Venezuela

Heisler Vaamonde, Jose R. Merentes and Tamara A. Hernandez
As the LGBT rights movement matures throughout Latin America, it's thrilling to be witness to history. One aspect of maturity is political engagement and in countries such as Chile, Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, the shape of engagement sometimes takes the form of openly gay candidates daring to run for office (and in the case of Mexico's Patria Jimenez or Enoe Uranga, actually winning).

Now it is Venezuela's turn.

Not that it is a first. Oswaldo Reyes, widely recognized as a pioneer in bringing homosexuality out of the closet in Venezuela by becoming one of the movement's first out leaders, was also the first person to run for political office in Caracas as a openly gay man in the late 1990's. Unfortunately - as some of the other candidates in Latin America - he seemed to run only on the fact that he was gay (and incorrectly assumed that he could win by counting on the gay vote alone). Rumors of campaign improprieties also followed him and tainted his reputation for the rest of his life. Mr. Reyes died earlier this year leaving an indisputable political legacy including the fact that he was the first one to call for constitutional protections for Venezuela's LGBT community during his failed candidacy to the National Assembly in 1999.

Now comes the December 2005 regional elections.

On November 18 Venezuela's El Observador profiled two gay men vying for a National Assembly seat in elections taking place next week and a transgender woman, Tamara Adrian Hernandez, who also tried to get on the ballot but failed to get the minimum signatures required by the National Electorate Committee. The paper said that by interviewing Ms. Hernandez, they hoped to highlight the issues she brought to her campaign.

According to La Opinion, Ms. Hernandez, an attorney by profession, said that she decided to "take the mask off" and run for political office to highlight the work that needs to happen when it comes to human rights in Venezuela and, particularly, as they pertain to women's rights and transgender rights:

"Perhaps the most discriminated of all minorities, not only in Venezuela but countries such as Sweden, are transsexual persons. Transsexuals are highly discriminated against from a social, educational vantage point, to the point that research done in Sweden and Canada shows that [their] educational level is 40 percent less than the rest of the population."

Ms. Hernandez says that Venezuela is behind other Latin American countries in extending human rights protections to minorities on a legislative level but says that a human rights agreement signed in 2002 by several Andes mountain region countries - including Venezuela - explicitly states that they will protect "women, children, immigrants, refugees [and those] minorities discriminated against due to their sexual orientation or identity."

During her campaign, Ms. Hernandez also questioned whether there was a true separation of church and state in Venezuela and argued that, despite the general openness of the Venezuelan constitution, when it came to issues such as abortion, violence against women, sexual education in high schools and LGBT rights, "seemingly dormant taboos [from as far back as] the 12th century" always trumped 21st century logic.

Backed by the politically centrist-right Federal Republican Party, which promotes a legislative change to parliamentary government in Venezuela, Jose Ramon Merentes also is running on a political platform which calls for the strengthening of human rights protections as well as the defense of women's rights.

He told La Opinion: "The Federal Republican Party, courageously and for the first time ever, included equal rights for gays in its agenda... I believe this is an opportunity to open a path that has never been crossed by our collective: The possibility to earn the respect owed to us by the rest of Venezuelan society."

Mr. Merentes is not a fan of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and criticizes a recent Penal Code reform as unduly "authoritative and repressive."

"The fact that a single person has so much power concentrated on himself evidently reduces the democratic possibilities of Venezuelan society, despite what the constitution says," he says, adding that society suffers "schizophrenia, because the constitution says one thing and the political reality is something that is the complete opposite."

He has also denounced what he calls the "persecution against Judicial Powers," has called for sensitivity trainings in all police departments to address police abuse against sexual minorities and refugees, and wants the state to recognize the rights of transgender persons. He says that it is not sufficient to instill legislative change to secure human rights protections and the recognition of the LGBT community and argues that legislative victories have to be supported with community awareness efforts and trainings.

Backed by the pro-Chavez leftist-leaning Freed Truth Party, an employee of the Caracas Mayor's Office in a post he created (Division for the Development of LGBT Individuals) and Director of the organization Gay Revolutionary Movement of Venezuela, Mr. Vaamonde is perhaps the best-known of the three candidates at least in international LGBT advocacy circles.

A long-time Chavez acolyte, Mr. Vaamonde tells La Opinion that Chavez himself was the inspiration for the organization he founded after the President made some pro-gay statements in his weekly television show. As an article appearing this week in Australia's Green Left Weekly elaborates: "On December 15, 2002, three years after the new constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela was adopted, President Hugo Chavez said on his weekly television program Alo Presidente that a big mistake had been made in 1999 during the National Constituent Assembly, when the rights of gays and lesbians were left out of the new constitution."

Yet, despite the fact that Chavez has yet to follow through in enshrining LGBT rights and protections in the Venezuelan constitution and the fact that he was recently quoted as saying that homosexuality is a "characteristic of the lowest [type of] humanity" in his televised show, in the Green Left Weekly article Mr. Vaamonde continues to defend Chavez, although he should get credit for criticizing other Chavistas for their failure on LGBT rights:

“The politicians did not want to listen to us gays. We had believed that because [the Chavistas] were revolutionaries they would have a vision, a broader mind, but it was all to the contrary ... we had too many obstacles from them for us to obtain results. There was not the political will on the part of the National Assembly, from the Chavistas, because the right-wing never even opened the door for us, they would not give us a yes or no answer, they were always ‘considering it’... well in the waiting we never got there ... Unfortunately we have personalities in the government behind Chavez that are not exactly revolutionary. Chavez is a revolutionary, but there are reformists around him.”

Yet, it is also a reality that Mr. Vaamonde's almost blind allegiance to Hugo Chavez has not only brought him some criticism but outright death-threaths such as one that was posted on Reconocelos (and has since been removed), a web portal that which seeks to list the 'traitors' who support Chavez.

As much as I distrust the populist semi-dictatorship that Hugo Chavez has built around him, the hard right in Venezuela bodes no better and, even if Mr. Vaamonde is entitled to his belief in the Chavez revolution, I wish he would also stand up to Chavez when he makes anti-gay statements such as the one above. Blind allegiance to any authoritative force, be it from the left or right, is still blind by definition and not necessarily what builds a truly independent political movement.

On Mr. Vaamonde's platform are a desire to introduce bills to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation and against HIV positive individuals; the establishment of institutions that will protect and defend the LGBT community; and a desire to promote a stronger separation of church and state. Mr. Vaamonde also differs with Mr. Merentes on the issue of marriage for same-sex couples which he does not see as a current priority in Venezuela.

One thing is for certain: By early next week we should know if whether Mr. Vaamonde, Mr. Merentes or both will get enough votes to become the first openly gay elected officials in Venezuela.

No comments: