An article from Do or Die Issue 10. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 173-177.
This interview was conducted with a member of the Bolivian anarcha-feminist group Mujeres Creando ('Women Creating'), at the 3rd People's Global Action conference in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
How did you become politically active and involved in Mujeres Creando?
The group has been going for 10 years, but I got to know them 9 years ago through some of the activities that the initiators of the group were organising at the university, like murals and different actions. I was very curious about what they were doing. It was a completely new kind of group. There was absolutely no talk about that kind of feminism at the time - a militant, radical feminism, a feminism of the streets, of everyday life. Of course the government was talking about the rights of women on the radio and in the papers, and about certain laws for women, but never about a feminism which engaged you in any form of struggle or politicised you. By contrast, the feminism of Mujeres Creando was so real and tangible. By the time I began to get involved, I was realising that political activity does not only happen in political parties or in organised groups; it happens as soon as you are conscious of your actions and your decisions - an intuitive kind of feminism. Within the university, there were a lot of groups on the left - Trotskyists, Maoists, Guevarists - but none of them appealed to me, or let me feel as though I could be myself. It was very different with Mujeres Creando. I think that through feminism, women come to know themselves and each other, with all our potential, our strengths, our weaknesses, and we discover a freedom that we keep on developing.
How would you describe the politics of Mujeres Creando?
When we got together we said, "We're a group of women and we're a different kind of organisation to the ones around us, where the revolutionary subject is the proletarian, full-stop". And we said, "No!" Why? We tried to demystify this whole ideology. There are groups and sectors in society who are oppressed and these are no less important. So with our starting point as women, and our identities as women, we can assert our own struggles and fight against oppressions in society. We also started by recognising that we are women from a particular social class, that we have our own ethnic origins, that we are different ages, and that we are part of society. In this sense, we don't only struggle for women's rights or issues that affect women, but against all types of oppression - from a feminist proposal of society.
How do you organise as a group and take decisions?
I think that above all, things really happen because somebody takes the initiative. We don't consult each other about everything we do, although there are things that we each take responsibility for working in specific areas, for example, some of us organise at the university, others with domestic workers, others with rural women. If there is an initiative that we all like and can all participate in, then we get involved and help to organise it. I felt that in the Peoples' Global Action meeting there was a lot of democratic decision making and a lot of respect for everyone which is great, but that the energy for initiatives was actually lost and people were neutralised. For us, the important thing is not to neutralise each other and that every woman takes her own decisions and puts forward her initiatives, without feeling inhibited.
CAP: "Be careful with the present you are creating - it should look like the future you dream of."
What kind of actions have you organised, and how have you done this?
We have a long history of actions! A fundamental element in our group is creativity. We are street activists, we are creative women, but we are not artists, and we don't want to convert ourselves into an artistic elite. We take up our right to create and to do new things. This goes hand in hand with our struggles. Creativity is not separate from but complements our political practice. After we brought out our newspaper eight years ago, we then moved into graffiti, and into street actions, or 'creative actions' as we call them. The street for us is an important centre of political activity, because it allows us to interact with and be in permanent contact with people. But our actions don't only take place in the streets, sometimes we occupy other spaces.
At the beginning, we focused a lot on the dictatorship. We mainly use symbols, rather than being explicit. We also use theatre: to symbolise blood, we use red dye; for death, we use crosses; for joy, we share bread and flowers with people. We've been doing these kind of actions for a long time. Two years ago we did a TV programme called Creando Mujeres which covered the different issues we work on. We touched on the subject of the dictatorship, on NGOs [Non Governmental Organisations], on work, on the question of justice. For example, we did an action at the Palace of Justice where we went in and filled the offices with rubbish. We also touched on lesbianism, Barbies, racism - all of which we've worked on.
How to Get Your Bank Manager's Undivided Attention
Nearly fifty heads of families have committed suicide, in a sign of the desperate situation that Bolivia's small debtors find themselves in. The entire family of one participant in the protests in La Paz had agreed before she set off to poison themselves should anything happen to her. But the debtors were still being ignored, even after 6,000 of them had slept on the streets of La Paz for three months, carried out civil disobedience and even attempted to burn some of the banks down. So on the morning of the 2nd of July they resolved to take more drastic action. Two hundred people occupied the Bank Superintendency, taking sixty staff hostage, while other groups took over the Episcopal Conference of Bolivia offices and the People's Defense building. Simultaneously, forty activists and fourteen children raided the Archbishop's office in the city of Sucre and declared a hunger strike. Some of those at the Superintendency said that they had nothing to lose and that they were ready to kill themselves if the police tried to enter the building. They carried molotovs while others were swathed in sticks of dynamite. The luxurious carpets of the building were drenched with petrol, and the doors were wired with dynamite. Top-level functionaries of the banking authority were tied up in their offices and bundles of dynamite were tied to their bodies to prevent any kind of police intervention. The activists wore dozens of dynamite sticks around their bodies and some carried old military firearms. Hundreds of police massed outside, and plainclothes officers attempted to storm the building, only to be repelled by dynamite and molotovs. After a tense stand-off throughout the day, all the hostages were released at 7.45pm, and the occupiers made their escape at 3am, spared from a looming police attack by the presence of hundreds of their fellow debtors.
At the same time as the debtors' actions, peasant farmers were blockading highways in the Altiplano region, demanding land and an end to neo-liberalism. After two of them were killed by government troops, peasant leader Felipe Quispe said: "Now there are no choices left because the government does not want dialogue; the government will not listen to legal means, to the democratic method. Then what else can the poor person do? There is no option but to choose more revolutionary, more honest methods, and these methods are waiting under every poncho." In retaliation for the death of their comrades, the farmers began dynamiting electricity pylons.
Can you talk about your involvement with the group of small debtors?
When we worked on this issue of debt, it was no longer just us - we were working alongside the organisation of debtors which is a large movement whereas we are only a small group. So we had to re-think the idea of creative actions because we were working with a very large number of people who wanted to get involved in peaceful protest. Later on it turned into something violent, out of sheer desperation and a whole host of reasons that I'll explain later.
We organised more collective actions where everyone took part, women and men. In one of them we painted a mural: the people took their shoes off, put their feet into paint and then they lifted each other up so they could leave their footprints on the wall. The children also put their hands into the paint and left their handprints.
What did this symbolise?
It symbolised the whole journey that these people had made. The first time we did an action together, they had already been in La Paz for a month, from many different districts, and they still hadn't come to the negotiating table. It symbolised the harsh and difficult journey that they had made. They suffered a lot of repression as a movement - in another action, we threw ourselves on the ground with them in front of the police so that we wouldn't be attacked. At the end, once an agreement was signed that benefited the debtors, we organised a kind of festival with flowers and bread. The children began to share out the bread with everyone, a symbol of the food of the poor, and of the poor who share what they have.
Can you give you give us some background on the debtors' bank occupation, and the involvement of Mujeres Creando in this?
What happened is that we had been working very closely with the debtors. Their organisation was fundamentally made up of women: 70% were women and 30% were men, and the leadership was made up of women, which is why we worked so closely together. We had openly denounced the abuse of micro-credit in Bolivia, as there were very high interest rates and a lot of irregularities in the charges. People's debts had doubled and tripled. When they arrived in La Paz they were already asking for the forgiveness of their debts. We soon realised that these were people who had been indebted to micro-credit institutions for eight, nine, or ten years. They had been trying to pay off their debts all this time, but they reached a point when they couldn't pay any more - they were bankrupt, they didn't have a penny left. They had lost their businesses, their jobs, their few means of production. We realised this as we talked to them.
We organised a range of activities with them, from actions to reflecting on issues such as non-violent direct action. We took films along to the place where they were staying in the university. We did courses explaining which international institutions were financing the Bolivian banks and financial entities. In a lot of cases these banks were actually misusing aid provided for micro-credit.
The debtors had been in La Paz for 3 whole months and all that time they didn't get a chance to sit down and be heard by the presidents of the associations, of the banks, the private funds, mutuals, and NGOs. During this time, many of them fell ill, and many had respiratory infections as they had been tear-gassed a lot. We brought out a newspaper with them and sold it together, so that the general public would revise their opinion of the debtors - people were saying that they were good-for-nothings, who just didn't want to pay their debts. But then people began to realise that it wasn't that simple, and that in reality the financial institutions were committing usury and extortion, that they were cheating people and exploiting their ignorance, making them sign contracts that they didn't understand.
The debtors became really desperate. We were not involved in the action, because we do not agree with using violence, and we didn't actually know about it in advance. It was a group that decided to occupy the Superintendency. We found out about the occupation on the radio, and immediately we got involved as we had done so much work with them up to that point. One of us went to the Superintendecy to make sure that violence didn't break out and to try and prevent a massacre from taking place, as the police were ready to go in and massacre the people inside the offices. Another companera joined the negotiating table. The participation of Mujeres Creando was fundamental as it was a very tense moment, and in that situation the debtors weren't able to think very clearly. We were able to get everyone to sit down together and in the end an agreement was reached that benefited the people. They didn't get their debts cancelled but a lot was put under scrutiny and the Superintendency began to look into what was happening with financial institutions in relation to micro-credit. We managed to stop the bailiffs seizing people's property - their houses and their possessions, for 100 days, from July to October. In cases where they had complained of irregularities, these were revised, and in cases where the women had paid out more than they should have, this debt was cancelled. There were many successes.
All of these people owed less than $5000. Of course there are many with much larger debts than this but we didn't want to get involved with them as them as they are more capitalist. These people were among the poorest in Bolivia. Now they are carrying on organising in their communities. Together with Mujeres Creando, we are going to organise an international seminar on usury, on high interest rates. This is a policy of capitalism, of neoliberalism. But these are people who will have to continue borrowing money - they have no money and no resources, and we need to find a way in which micro-credit can benefit them rather than making them poorer. We want to carry on the work we have started together.
Report from the Barrios of Guayaquil, Ecuador - Global IMC, August 2001
What I witnessed can only be described as first rate examples of grassroots democracy in action. In both barrios, meetings were convened by the president of the barrio committee to discuss the day's events, people's needs, and how to go about meeting them. In one, the committee also discussed the blockade they had organised to protest government policies, and how they would continue pressing the district prefect for access to drinking water. Not only was I witnessing an incredible example of self-organising to better defend rights, it was also an incredible example of the activism of empowered women. In both barrios women were presidents of their respective committees, and the overwhelming majority of committee members at the meetings were women. The sad reality is that barrio women bear the hardest burden of Ecuador's impoverishment. Half the women belonging to one of the committees were single mothers presiding over small shacks housing up to seventeen children.
What other kinds of actions have you organised against neoliberalism?
Well, we've also done actions against Coca-Cola and McDonalds, we've brought out publications, we were one of the first organisations to denounce the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) here in Bolivia, as a group of women in Germany sent us the document which we translated and published. We have promoted quite a lot about what happened in Seattle, in Prague. We've had various visits from people who were involved and we've given them the space to come and tell us about this.
CAP: Water War Victory! In 2000 an inspirational uprising of the people of Cochabamba managed to kick out the American transnational Bechtel, who had bought the city's water supply in a World Bank-supported privatisation. Prices immediately rose to match those in the US, in some cases up to 400%. The people responded with mass demonstrations of tens of thousands, a general strike and road blockades lasting days. They faced thousands of police who attacked peaceful demonstrators with tear gas and shot dead one 17 year old boy. Street fighting carried on for days, with hundreds of protesters injured. Faced with continued resistance, in April 2000 the government finally gave in and the city's water was returned to public ownership.
Do you feel part of a global movement?
Yes, I think so. You know, our aim is not to become the vanguard in any society. We have our struggles and we propose the changes we want to society and we try to provoke, but we don't think that we are the only ones that are going to change society - we know that we'll do it with other organisations around the world and in Bolivia, and although we disagree with many forms of organisation, we know that it is a common struggle. We also realise that we have to struggle here where we are, in our own society.
What we want fundamentally is to co-ordinate with other autonomous feminists around the world. In 1998, we organised the first meeting of autonomous feminists from Latin America and the Caribbean. In Latin America, there is a division, a political split, between the 'gender technocrats' or institutional feminists who work within government, or within large NGOs, and the autonomous feminists. We were appointed as the organisational commission for this first meeting of autonomous feminists, to deepen our reflection and debates. There we looked at globalisation in a lot of depth. We put forward many alternatives, as autonomous feminists from Latin America, and explored ways of co-ordinating our struggles. We plan to organise co-ordinated actions with other women, and to co-ordinate with other groups such as anarchists and ecologists.
We've been in contact with Spanish companeras as well. There are things that feminist women from Europe, from the North, can be active on; for example, on the question of funding which comes to Latin America in the name of women and is always mediated by big NGOs and by governments. This type of solidarity is helpful to women in Latin America and helps to combat colonialism. There are things that we would like women from the North to do in their own countries that in some way helps Latin American women, for example on immigration or xenophobia - not as a form of charity, but as part of a joint struggle..