Nora Castañeda should be tired from her gruelling speaking tour around Europe. Instead she is like a power station, pumping out energy and radiating sparkle; inspiring packed audiences wherever she speaks.
She is President of Banmujer (the Women’s Development Bank of Venezuela) – a unique initiative by the Chavez Government. For, as she explains, the bank is about something much more than money: ‘It was set up in consultation with people in the shantytowns and the countryside as one of the mechanisms to tackle endemic poverty in Venezuela. Since 70 per cent of Venezuelans living in poverty are women, we decided to target them. Banmujer tries to create a level playing field by empowering these women not just economically, but also politically and socially. It’s a social development bank that assesses the viability of projects, and provides training in citizenship, organization, leadership, education, health and self-esteem as well as personal development. We are not building a bank – we are building a different way of life.’
‘Banmujer’s main function is to provide micro-credits to enable people to form or develop co-operatives and run local businesses. Low interest rates are subsidized.’
Since 2001, 96 per cent of monies lent by the bank have gone to women and 4 per cent to men. Borrowers receive loans averaging between $260 and $520, with a total of around one billion Bolivares ($520,000) already lent in the first quarter of this year. ‘People ask how my government can afford this. The answer is: because we have oil! In most countries, aid simply helps women administer poverty, whereas our programme helps them climb out of it. We want to create an economy at the service of human beings, not human beings at the service of the economy, and economic change has to start with the poor.’
Being the daughter of a low-income single mother of African-indigenous descent, she knows this first hand. ‘My mother slaved every day to send me to school and then university. When I gained my doctorate she was so proud and told everyone: look at my doctor daughter. But I replied angrily: “I’m not a doctor, I’m a woman!” As a mestizo (mixed race) woman, I know what poverty and discrimination mean and it was this as much as anything that made me determined to do something about it. That’s why I studied economics.’
Then she chuckles: ‘But I learnt Chicago economics and I had to rid my brain of that virus.’ And in that, she’s been successful. As a consequence, Banmujer has been attacked by its opponents because it doesn’t produce profit and had run up bad debts of 40 per cent. But Nora says they are countering this with better training and creating ethical principles of co-responsibility. ‘Anyway it’s not a valid argument. Most of the loans are being repaid, whereas in the past million-dollar loans by the state to big companies often remained unpaid.’
What is particularly impressive is the language Nora uses when talking about her work, which reflects the building of a whole new consciousness. ‘We don’t have bosses or chiefs. We only have what we call Responsables [those with responsibility].’ She also despises terms like ‘economically inactive’ when referring to women and the so-called unemployed. ‘What does that mean? It implies that women, who do all the housework and often work a small plot of land and sell their produce, are not active. Of course they are! But it’s unrecognized and unpaid labour.’
With Banmujer’s help, more than 70,000 people have been able to set up co-operatives and this in turn has created over 144,000 jobs. Over 60,000 people have been trained in basic business principles. Just one example of the enterprises that the bank has helped to establish is the Valles de Chirgua co-operative. It’s a 30-hectare allotment, worked by 19 women. At first they grew Chinese cabbage, but have since diversified into vegetables of high nutritional value and plants whose extracts are used in medicine. They have also acquired additional tools and implements using credits from Banmujer. As profitability has increased, members have been able to renovate their homes and provide better nourishment for their families. Almost 70 per cent of Venezuela’s food is imported. By helping rural businesses like this, Banmujer hopes to promote self-sufficiency in food production. Nora explains that the emphasis is on a co-operative rather than a competitive way of working – ‘no doubt anathema to neo-liberal economists, but it works’.
Then Nora holds up her copy of the little blue book – the new Venezuelan Constitution. ‘This is the revolution. It was not written by a group of jurists or academics but is the fruition of years of history and widespread consultation and debate among the people. They have taken ownership of it. We women won our rights in the Constitution: article 88 recognizes that women who work in the home create added value and must be properly remunerated. After all, what is more valuable than bringing up and looking after the new generation of society?’
Read more about Banmujer on the web at: www.banmujer.gov.ve
Nora Castañeda from the Women's Development Bank (Banmujer) talked with John Green