Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Venezuela: Hugo Chávez lauded by gay leader despite minimal LGBT rights advances in decade under his rule

I feel as if I have been 'blogging in delay' as of late, as much as I've been procrastinating about finishing up some posts and deleting draft posts that are no longer relevant.

For example: A referendum on term limits has come and gone in Venezuela and I still haven't written a thing despite meaning to do it a few weeks ago.

If you follow Latin American politics you already know the result: President Hugo Chávez finally got his wish to be Venezuela's only president until he dies (that is, if he remains popular and is re-elected for consecutive 6-year terms 'til he throws in the bucket).

Already in power for a decade, Chávez has little to show when it comes to LGBT rights. So why would a small group of gays and lesbians stage a press conference lauding his record and throwing their unconditional support behind the referendum three days before the vote took place?

Well, when you call yourself the United Socialist Bloc for Homosexual Liberation, and proudly state that you consider yourselves to be "the gay wing of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela" (a/k/a the President's political party), it's not that big of a surprise. Nor the fact that it was prominently featured in television stations and news services owned by the government.

On Feb. 12, Heisler Vaamonde, a long-time LGBT-rights activist known for his allegiance to the Chávez regime, read a prepared statement in front of reporters expressing the Bloc's strong support for the referendum as he argued that equality for gays and lesbians could only be achieved through the Chavista revolution. As he spoke, he was flanked by ten other members of the organization, who wore t-shirts with an image of Chávez and caps emblazoned with a red star.

A brief report in Venezolana de Television, the government's official television channel, basically paraphrases some of the comments captured in the above YouTube clip [I have used the YouTube 'annotations' feature to provide an on-screen translation once you click on the video].

A longer article from the government-owned Bolivarian News Agency (ABN) provides additional information.

ABN says that Vaamonde began by lauding President Chavez' government arguing that no other government had brought so much change and development in such a small period of time. He listed community education efforts (or social missions) that had allegedly increased the literacy rate in Venezuela to 98% of the population; the launch of Venezuela's first ever communications satellite; the increased national reserves; the creation of agricultural incentives and the provision of free HIV medicines for people who tested positive for HIV.

On LGBT rights, Vaamonde lauded one of the few on-the-record statements by Chávez on LGBT rights in which the president acknowledged that it had been a mistake not to include explicit language extending protections to the lesbian and gay community in the 1999 constitution (the semi-apology came in 2002 during one of his infamous weekly radio addresses).

To be fair, Vaamonde's advocacy resulted in the inclusion of limited protections for gays and lesbians in the constitutional draft that was narrowly defeated last year, but the fact remains that Chávez never actively backed or fought for their inclusion and that, ten years after he took power, the Venezuelan government still does not protect its LGBT citizens from discrimination.

Vaamonde also credited Chávez for allowing gays and lesbians to be visible through the eight annual gay pride marches that have taken place in Caracas under his rule but that has mostly been thanks to Caracas Mayor Juan Barreto and not Chávez who, to date, has never appeared or officially acknowledged the events.

He ended by acknowledging that much remained to be done when it came to recognizing the rights of LGBT Venezuelans including same-sex partnership rights, adoption rights, inheritance and joint property ownership rights, housing rights, the right of transgender persons to change their identity in official papers and to have access to gender-reassignment surgery. Rights which Vaamonde said, "can only be reached through Revolution."

I feel for Vaamonde, I really do. His commitment cannot be faulted, his belief in the Chávez revolution seems to be sincere, and it has actually brought him several anonymous death threats from right-wing anti-Chávez zealots. There is also a point to be made that sometimes it's good to have someone who is within the system to elicit change. But if "change" means no results on LGBT rights in ten years of power, how can this be anything but sucking up to Chávez - and allowing to use you for his benefit without requiring any commitment or compromises on LGBT rights?

For a while Vaamonde also led a group called the Gay Revolutionary Movement of Venezuela and his efforts then also seemed to fall on deaf ears. Under the new organizational moniker (as well as the last), he has never criticized Chávez - to my knowledge - or called him up on his outright homophobia as when he denied rumors that he was gay by joking that he was too macho to be gay in 2007. He also did not speak up when the Venezuelan constitutional court nixed same-sex marriage rights in 2008.

At least one organization withdrew from the 2008 LGBT pride organizing committee last year and specifically singled out Vaamonde as the reason. The Venezuelan Reflection Foundation sent out a terse statement that read as follows:
The Board and members would like to state: WE DO NOT HAVE any relation, responsibility, nor are we any part of the 8th LGBT Pride March; this is due to the discriminatory, disrespectful and anti-democratic attitude of Mr. Heisler Vaamonde with the backing of the sponsor entity and supporting entities.
No other details were given. There are actually several LGBT organizations in Venezuela. Just know that the United Socialist Bloc for Homosexual Liberation is the only one organization that unconditionally supports the Chávez presidency despite the lack in the advancement of LGBT rights.



libhom said...

Accodring to the facts presented here, Chavez had a major effort to get constitutional protections for Venezuelan queers, and the Venezuelan right blocked it. I don't think you can fault queer activists who are working with Chavez for their choice in strategies. Queer activists in that country have legitimate reasons to push from a variety of directions.

I also take issue with referring to Chavez's government as a "regime." Chavez has been elected and reelected under elections that are internationally recognized as clean. In fact, those elections are far cleaner than US elections. The term "regime" usually implies unelected, tyrannical leaders like Bush or Pinochet. Unlike Bush and Pinochet, Chavez doesn't detain people indefinitely without charges.

Adriana Guerrero Escalante said...

I have to say, first at all a democracy is not a fact only because people is going to vote, I will put to examples: Fidel Castro in Cuba and Robert Mugabe in Zimbawe (by the way, Chavez friend´s).Democracy is to have strong and independient institutions and believe we don´t have it in Venezuela at all.
My point regarding LGBT rights is ¿It is good for if I recognize your rights but make fun of you like Mr. President Chavez make in his speech everytime? To me it is part of his convenient positions to get "lambs" but it is not sincere.