By Dan Davison
COVID-19 has exacerbated the already major hardships women were facing due to Venezuela’s prolonged economic and political crisis. Shortages and low wages have left many women unable to access contraceptives, increasing the risk of unplanned pregnancies that women cannot terminate safely because of Venezuela’s extremely regressive abortion laws.
Although Nicolás Maduro’s presidency has been in dispute since January 2019, in practice Maduro still holds political power. Whilst Maduro’s popular support is very low – by some estimates, barely 14% – his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, or “PSUV”) and its allies won a supermajority in the National Assembly elections on 6 December 2020. This is largely because the opposition saw the elections as a farce and boycotted them, since the government had removed most of the National Assembly’s functions and imposed the National Constituent Assembly, a supra-constitutional body composed solely of official party members.
Whilst the PSUV positions itself as pro-worker and likes to blame the country’s crisis on American imperialism, the Venezuelan government systematically attacks the working class and is itself backed by imperialist powers like Russia and China. The regime imprisons independent socialist activists like Rodney Álvarez and union leaders like Rubén González. As part of a broader set of austerity measures, the Ministry of Work’s Memorandum 2792 undermines collective bargaining agreements. The current minimum wage is approximately 0.8 USD (1,500,000 bolivars) per month.
Around Venezuela’s capital city Caracas, a pack of three condoms costs around 4.40 USD and birth control pills cost about 11 USD. An intrauterine device (IUD) can cost over 40 USD. Since these prices far exceed the minimum wage and free contraceptives are no longer readily available at public hospitals, millions of women find themselves with unwanted pregnancies at a time when infant mortality and deaths in childbirth are soaring due to widespread malnutrition and a collapsing healthcare system.
In these circumstances, women in Venezuela increasingly seek abortions. Although Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez declared that his “Bolivarian Revolution” would make women full and equal participants in society, and the Venezuelan Constitution enshrines the right for couples to “decide freely” how many children they wish to have, his government never legalised abortion. The regulatory framework for abortion in Venezuela has gone essentially unchanged since 1873. Under Articles 430 and 433 of the Venezuelan Penal Code, pregnancy can only be terminated if a doctor determines that the mother’s life is in imminent danger.
A recent high-profile case grimly illustrates this framework’s repressiveness. Vanessa Rosales, a young teacher and activist, was placed under house arrest because she allegedly helped a 13-year-old rape survivor get an abortion. Whilst Venezuela’s constitution is secular, the Catholic Church’s influence has kept the near-total abortion ban in place. More recently, Evangelical churches have also allied with Venezuelan politicians to push for laws that “respect Christian ethics”.
Matters are not necessarily better for women who leave Venezuela. By the end of 2020, an estimated 5.3 million Venezuelans had fled the country. Due to their expected familial role as caregivers, Venezuelan migrant women often find themselves under additional pressure to support their relatives back home. Their journeys also come with dangers, especially where the host country fails to provide adequate protection. On 23 January, an 18-year-old Venezuelan woman was drugged and raped at a job interview in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but the main suspect was released just three days after his arrest, which rightly sparked outrage.
The international left’s basic duty is to make solidarity with socialists and feminists organising against both the Maduro regime and the Venezuelan right.
- For news and articles from left-oppositionist Venezuelans, visit the Venezuelan Voices blog.