Women Lead Latin America’s Growing Anti-Militarization Movements
This post is also available in Spanish
When George W. Bush left the White House, the rest of the world breathed a sigh of relief. The National Security Doctrine of unilateral attacks, the invasion of Iraq under the false pretext of weapons of mass destruction, and the abandonment of multilateral forums had opened up a new phase of U.S. aggression. Despite the focus on the Middle East, the increased threat of U.S. military intervention cast a long shadow over many parts of the world.
Two years later, that sense of relief has given way to deep concern. After hopes of a something closer to FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy of (relative) non-intervention, we find ourselves facing a new wave of militarization in Latin America–supported and promoted by the Obama administration.
In some countries, militarization already characterizes everyday life; soldiers with assault rifles patrol neighborhood streets and armed convoys rule the highways. For Haiti, Honduras, Mexico and Colombia hopes of returning to civilian peaceful coexistence have been dashed in the wake of this wave.
In other countries, like Costa Rica, new policies forged between conservative governments and the U.S. State and Defense Departments are cracking civilian and constitutional restraints on military involvement. Fear, chaos and secrecy are the preferred tools for breaking downs the barriers to militarization.
The Cost of Militarization
An examination of this new reality reveals deteriorating living standards, increased violence, forced displacement, the diversion of budgetary priorities from the basic needs of the population to weapons and espionage, and violations of civil and human rights. In our region, the Bush counterterrorism paradigm has been converted—with very few tweaks—into a counternarcotics war.
This rhetorical shift seeks to distance the no-less interventionist polices from the discredited national security doctrine of the Bush administration. The latter was wildly unpopular in Latin America, a region that does not face international terrorist threats. The promoters of the war on drugs, on the other hand, can at least point to a real threat and a classic villain. The macho mindset once again trots out the old story of good and evil fighting it out on the social battlefield, the only possible outcome being the victor and the vanquished.
As citizens we are merely on-lookers, called on to ignore the way massive corruption blurs the lines and accept the fact that the battle never ends.
In Latin America, the new drug war is accompanied by a subtext of counterinsurgency. The drug war’s inclusion of counterinsurgency is well-established in countries like Peru and Colombia, and implicit in the war on the hybrid “narco-insurgency” announced by Sec. of State Hillary Clinton recently in Mexico and Central America. Once armies have been assigned to fight their own citizens on national soil, the shift from a focus on drug cartels to a wider objective of all perceived challenges to the state historically has proved to be a minor step. It’s a step that places all dissidents, even and especially non-violent ones, in the crosshairs of a repressive state apparatus.
What we see now in Latin America is that behind the stated goals, lie longterm objectives to control and guarantee access to natural resources–through the use of force if necessary.
Women in the Call for Non-Violent Resistance
Throughout Latin America women—among the most vulnerable and formally least powerful sectors—are organizing against violence. Their fundamental role in peace and anti-war movements has nothing to do with fundamentalist arguments that women have a stronger biological link to life that causes them to oppose war. We’ve seen enough examples of women in politics and society who have promoted war and militarization to belie the claim, and numerous examples of men who refuse to support wars.
The commitment of women who organize against militarization arises from their particular consciences, experiences and roles in society. From Feminists in Resistance who joined to fight the coup in Honduras, to the mothers of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, it’s the terrible violence sown by strategies of confrontation and militarism that has motivated women to mobilize on behalf of peace and democracy. Their own experiences compel them to act.
Another reason that explains the widespread activism of women in anti-militarization movements is that they face particular risks under military occupation. They are, or can be, victims of sexual violence and gender-based crimes, including the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war and sexual abuse as punishment for insubordination.
For some time we have known that rape and sexual abuse aren’t merely acts of indiviudal soldiers or “war booty.” They are tactics of domination that employ women’s bodies as a means of achieving military and political goals. Nevertheless, it was only relatively recently that the United Nations recognized sexual violence as a war crime and a matter of international security. Despite the adoption of Resolution 1325 ten years ago this past October, impunity in these cases continues due to public indifference, the weakness of judicial systems and the power of the very military forces responsible for the abuses.
Women’s Organizing in Nations Under Siege
Haiti today is a tragic example of sexual violence in a militarized environment. Despite the presence of 12,000 troops of the MINUSTAH [United Nations Stabilization Mission], after the January 12 earthquake hundreds of cases of rape have been reported in refugee camps; one NGO reported 230 rapes between January and March 2010 in 15 camps alone–a statistic that unfortunately appears to be just the tip of the iceberg. Although it seems that most rapes are not attributable to the security forces, the concentration of international aid in security and the deployment of troops have not served to protect Haitian women. In their testimonies, Haitian women who have been raped in the camps point out that soldiers don’t respond to their complaints. Through their weeping, they note that the country’s militarization strategy has diverted enormous amounts of resources to troops and that if those resources were channeled into food and housing, women wouldn’t be in such high-risk conditions.
The case of Haiti highlights the importance of developing gender-based analysis from the beginning of peace efforts, to achieve a comprehensive vision of the violence and a broad and inclusive definition of security. The contribution of women to anti-militarization movements in their countries is not just a matter of lending support to popular organizations or ensuring that more women are represented in these movements, although those are both important motives. They also have their own demands for their rights as women and gender equality. That agenda must be a pillar in the construction of social justice and lasting peace.
Despite the urgency of struggles against militarization in many places, women haven’t set aside the feminist agenda or left it “for later” the feminist agenda. As Adelay Carias of Feministas en Resistance explains:
“At first, the urgent and immediate need to fight the military, to stop repression and demand a return to the constitutional order was what motivated us and guided us in joining this struggle. But also, from the beginning we understood that it was time to position our demands, to broaden the boundaries of our feminist project … Our chants– “No to the coup d’etat, No to blows against women” [Ni golpes de Esatado, ni golpes a las mujeres] “Stop femicide,” “Neither the soldier’s boot nor the priest’s cassock against lesbians,” “Get your rosaries out of my ovaries,”–could be heard as we marched in towns all over Honduras demanding peace, freedom, equality, democracy, justice.”
Yolanda Becerra, of the Popular Women’s Organization of Colombia (OFP, by its Spanish initials), emphasizes that in her country the women’s movement against militarization and for peace with justice is fighting “for all rights—the right to a life with dignity, the right to choose, the right to speak, the right to eat, in the midst of poverty….”
In August, Colombian women held the International Encounter of Women and Peoples of America against Militarization to build networks, discuss armed conflict from a gender perspective and “look for ways to disarticulate the logic of war.” Women from all over the world participated in the event, which was tied to protests against the agreement to allow U.S. military presence in at least seven Colombian military bases.
Women pay a high price for their resistance. Members of Feminists in Resistance–the alliance of women’s organizations formed after the Honduran coup— presented a report to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission on Nov. 2, 2010 that documents hundreds of cases of rape, sexual abuse, violations of rights, and the assassination of women in the resistance at the hands of the coup regime.
After receiving multiple threats, Becerra of the OFP was granted precautionary measures (protective orders) from the Commission.
Senator Piedad Córdoba, a well-known opponent of the militarization of her country and an advocate for a negotiated end to the conflict, described the situation in Colombia at the anti-militarization conference. She spoke of the four million internal refuges that are the result of the Colombia’s militarization and “the transfer of more than five million hectares of land belonging to campesinos to big business interests that finance paramilitaries….”
She concluded: “That’s why we women have decided: No more sons for war, it’s impossible to use war to stop the war here. … Peace is not just a pretty word. Peace is the need to talk about how to distribute the benefits of development, about who ends up with the wealth… We confront a state that militarizes thought, that even militarizes desire, love, friendship—whatever happens, we have to use our voices to speak up against war.”
The government’s response to Córdoba’s bold words was swift. Less than a month after her participation in the women’s meeting against militarization, the Colombian Attorney General announced his decision to remove her from her Senate seat and prevent her from holding public office for 18 years. The government of “democratic security,” the latest form of militarization, alleged ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Indeed, Córdoba has participated in official negotiations with the FARC–another expression of patriarchal military structures–and achieved the release of several hostages. She says that she will not be silenced by the government measure and continues to play a role in the peace movement.
Now Mexican women are beginning to suffer what their Colombian colleagues have known for decades. Despite the admittedly dismal results of Plan Colombia in reducing drug trafficking and creating stability, several weeks ago Hillary Clinton announced that Mexico and Central America need “the equivalent” of a Plan Colombia. The militarization of Mexico has advanced to a shocking extent under the pretext of Calderón’s war on drugs and the U.S. Mérida Initiative. So have the number of drug-war related deaths. Under Clinton’s proposal, this violence would be intensified.
In Mexico, as in Colombia, women are at the forefront of new organizations against militarization. It was a woman—the mother of a young man who was assassinated—who interrupted Calderón’s speech in Ciudad Juárez in February of 2010, shouting in protest against the failed security strategy that has turned the city into occupied territory and increased more than tenfold the number of killings. It was women who stood up and turned their backs on a president who promised security and delivered death. It continues to be women–within women’s organizations or in mixed citizens’ organizations–who reject the claim the government makes ad nauseum that the death of their sons is a reasonable price to pay in the confrontation with organized crime.
On Mexico’s northern border, human rights defenders have been executed and exiled. Their cases are different from those of the young women who were victims of femicide—they are targeted not because of their vulnerability, but precisely because of their courage and activism. Nevertheless, the complete lack of justice in both kinds of murders and nearly all cases of sex crimes against reflects the same deep-seated discrimination and corruption of the legal system–a system that works against, rather than for, women.
The militarization of countries like Mexico, Colombia and Honduras has a direct impact on the lives of women and on their forms of resistance. Daysi Flores of Feminists in Resistance explains their experience: “In just a year, we’ve had to learn to live with sadness, with a sense of impotence, anger, fear and despair. They try to put a pretty face on the dictatorship, but just walking through the streets you see that it’s a country taken over by the military.
“So we’ve had to be creative–to learn how to face threats, to not be killed, detained, raped or kidnapped. Despite the threats, we refuse to give up the idea of democracy, the real democracy, the one they robbed us of with their rifles, tear gas, beatings and killings. That’s why we continue to go out and protest, even when we put our lives at risk.”
The solidarity networks between women at an international level have been piecemeal or ephemeral. Women who confront militarization in conflict situations are exposed to risks that range from threats to themselves and their families, to assassination, sexual abuse, physical and psychological violence.
We have to build rapid response networks so that no woman who has been threatened or put in danger for having raised her voice against militarization has to go through this alone. National women’s organizations against militarization and for peace are just beginning their organizational development in most countries; meanwhile they face the accelerating pace of militarization. Yolanda Beccera notes that the women’s anti-war movement in Colombia has been developing for more than ten years to arrive at the point of organizing the recent international meeting. What is certain is that for Mexico and Central America the process has to be speeded up, before militarization becomes a structural aspect of everyday life and destroys the social fabric that is the basis for lasting peace. This is the great challenge for all of us.
Laura Carlsen is director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy in Mexico City at www.cipamericas.org.