The NI Interview
Many women who supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua
have had enough of burying their own demands for the sake of the revolution.
Sandra Ramos tells Richard Swift what they are doing about it.
Sandra Ramos doesn’t strike one at first as a likely leader of Nicaragua’s foremost feminist organization. Sure she looks street-wise in her black leather jacket. But she giggles disarmingly when I ask if it’s okay to take her picture in the course of our interview, and leans down to put on her lipstick. She tries to straighten her dark-brown, curly hair which flies off every which way.
But appearances can be misleading. And my North American cultural prejudices quickly melt away. When she starts to talk in rapid-fire Spanish there is little doubt that Ramos is a formidable spokesperson for the rights of Nicaragua’s women. She is currently the National Co-ordinator of the Movement of Working and Unemployed Women. The movement has 7,000 members, 12 paid staff and runs vocational training programs, a women’s leadership program and a legal-aid office.
Ramos earned her spurs as a Sandinista activist in the 1980s but gradually became disillusioned with the male-dominated Sandinista Party and particularly its associated trade union the CST. ‘We got to a certain point where the issues that were important to us as women were not the issues being taken up by the male leadership. Our proposals got no air time and the candidates we put forward for leadership never got selected. The male leadership of the CST were quite afraid of the emerging leadership of women, afraid to be displaced by us. We decided to set up our own movement.’
Here Ramos can barely disguise her lingering anger. ‘Two days after that there were arrest orders issued for us and for a year we were trying to get away from the police. They said that we had stolen their money and taken over a housing project that did not yet exist. They couldn’t debate with us politically so they decided to use force.’
I was curious as to whether, after this experience, Ramos still identified herself with the Sandinista movement. Her ‘yes’ was very qualified. ‘I have my own way of looking at things, my own space and my own way of judging. I no longer consider myself to be subordinate to the perspective of the “masses”. I am among those who believe that the popular movement should be more autonomous with its own agenda and its own ways of negotiating with political parties. I do not believe that the social movement should be subordinate to political parties. We are looking for other ways to achieve political power.’
Ramos sees the everyday effects of the neo-liberal model that is being imposed on a post-Sandinista Nicaragua as the central issue for the new autonomous women’s movement. ‘Some 70 per cent of the labour force is unemployed. So jobs and the right to healthcare and education are the basic demands for women. Neo-liberalism is working towards the privatization of healthcare and education, and also to reduce the number of jobs required to produce goods.
‘The Government’s only alternative in terms of jobs is to go work in the maquilas (export-only factories). This strategy is based on the poorly paid labour of women workers. There are 20 international companies investing here – mostly Korean and Taiwanese – all producing for the North American market. The women who work here have no benefits and are entirely outside the normal labour-law requirements. Women earn an average of $70 a month – less than a third of what they need to survive. They work 10 to 15 hours a day. We are organizing women in the maquilas. We are hiring a lawyer full-time to deal with women’s cases. We are making links with the Asian workers from where these investments come.’
But any change in maquila labour conditions must come from political influence on the national scene. Here Ramos is encouraged by the gains of Nicaragua’s autonomous women’s movement. ‘It has set in motion a process around the November election to negotiate with all women politicians, no matter what party. We will start up a campaign office to support all women politicians who will support our basic demands. Even right-wing women will oppose violence against women, and support daycare.’
Ramos gives a hearty belly laugh when I ask her about the outcome of the upcoming national elections. ‘I am no clairvoyant,’ she claims as she waves me off. ‘But 52 per cent of the voters are women and 48 per cent are between the ages of 16 and 19. So the parties will be making their promises to women and youth. All 26 of them will promise. But how many will keep their word?’
Ramos worries that Nicaraguan politics will become polarized between the Sandinistas (20 per cent currently in the polls) and a resurgent Somocista right wing (40 per cent) led by Arnoldo Aleman in ‘a highly ideological campaign with few concrete proposals that actually benefit either women or youth’.
Ramos recalls the heady days of Sandinista government with mixed feelings. ‘While there were important gains in social welfare, women’s demands for equal pay, equal rights and against violence were put on hold, subordinated to the global demands of the revolution. But today women are no longer prepared to tolerate this.’
Ramos’ face breaks into a wide grin: ‘I’m really sorry, but it is our turn.’