Gioconda Belli, the Nicaraguan writer perhaps best known for her autobiography The Country Under My Skin, has been described as ‘an icon of Latin American feminist literature’. She spoke recently of the ‘extraordinary power’ of being a woman, and that despite this power ‘women have often been relegated to a second place, one where they are only seen from the role of reproduction, pleasure and service.’ Nevertheless, she added, ‘there have been enough ground-breaking women who have been and are still breaking into lots of situations where we couldn’t have been found before.’
Extraordinary, then, that Belli has attacked Nicaragua’s National Assembly, because it is proposing to strengthen the laws requiring female representation in politics. Essentially, the law (which is subject to consultation) would require 50% of electoral posts to be held by women. In fact, it is an extension of laws which already exist, requiring (for example) half of the councillors in local municipalities to be female. At national level, more than half of government ministries are headed by women, including key positions such as the interior minister and the education and health ministers, who are all women. Perhaps not surprisingly, over half of public health and education workers are women, but more unusually the police force is over one-third female and has twice been headed by a woman, probably a ‘first’ among Latin American countries.
While the struggle for women’s equality is far from won, Nicaragua’s achievements have been recognised in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gap Index, which placed it fifth, after Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden. Currently in 2021 the same index says Nicaragua has the best performance in Latin America. Many commentators qualify this achievement by pointing out that it also has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the region, a lamentable product of culture and poverty. Femicide and domestic violence also remain significant issues, although at lower levels than in neighbouring countries and much lower than the ‘northern triangle’ countries. Critics point out that abortion, made illegal under the presidency of Enrique Bolaños in 2006, remains illegal, as it is in most of Latin America. However, never have Nicaraguan women or doctors been prosecuted as happens in adjoining El Salvador, and abortion remains available for any woman whose life is in danger.
Gioconda Belli is sceptical of these statistics, saying that they are ‘a fiction created by the Ortega-Murillo regime.’ Women in public office, she says, are ‘just pieces on an illusory board.’ Lacking authority and autonomy, they carry out ‘orders from above.’ This must shock many of the women charged with vital responsibilities. Not only is Rosario Murillo, the vice-president, the key coordinator of government activities but in addition to female ministers it is notable how many younger women occupy important roles, such as attorney general Wendy Morales, the mayor of Managua, Reyna Rueda, and the mayor of my own large city, Masaya, Janine Noguera. Much of this is due to equality legislation of the kind which Belli now opposes. For example, in the World Bank report, Towards Equal? – Women in Central America, the proportion of Nicaraguan mayors who are women was shown to have increased from under 10% to 40% in only three years after legislative changes in 2011, while the average proportion for Latin America as a whole stayed the same (12%).
Belli deploys a curious argument in defence of her position. She says that women have been marginalized not only by ‘machismo’ but because they bear ‘the full responsibility for the caring functions within our families and homes’ and ‘do arduous, daily work whose value is neither recognized nor remunerated.’ This of course is true in Nicaragua as elsewhere, with the exception of many younger couples who share reproductive and productive tasks. But it not only appears defeatist to assume the status quo must prevail but contradicts her recognition in earlier interviews of the ‘ground-breaking women’ who have achieved new levels of power.
An even more curious argument is her contention that ‘the present organization and culture of the political classes is inimical to female presence,’ since the steps in recent years to ensure that (for example) Nicaragua has the highest proportion of elected representatives who are female in Latin America has been a giant step in making the political environment more welcoming to women. By emphasising the limitations placed on women which prevent them from participating in politics, Belli comes close to the position of opposition supporter and commentator José Antonio Peraza, who recently told Nicaragua’s Canal 10 that women should stay at home, looking after the family.
Of course, Gioconda Belli is opposed to what she calls the ‘Ortega-Murillo regime’. Until recently she was part of the opposition Civic Alliance and she was a member of the breakaway ‘Sandinista Renovation Movement’ from the beginning. Her contribution to the discussion on planned changes in the run up to November’s elections is only part of an opposition chorus of dissent. Ten potential opposition presidential candidates have rejected the proposed reforms as insufficient to guarantee a fair election. Belli claims the reforms are going ahead ‘without consultation’, which is not only untrue but ignores the submissions made about the draft law by several opposition parties.
It is a game in which it is unclear if the goal is really to secure such reforms or to discredit November’s elections and give the opposition a reason for refusing to take part. Essentially the electoral laws are the same as those applying when opposition parties won in 1990, 1996 and 2001. The problem is that subsequent elections gave the Sandinistas clear majorities. Given that a recent opinion poll put support for Daniel Ortega’s government at 66%, compared with 27% for the opposition if it manages to unite around a single candidate, they may already have decided that discrediting the elections is a safer option than taking part in them.