Sex and violence: Venezuelan women take point in anti-Maduro protests

By Carlos Camacho

Caracas.- This happened on Monday, during a violent protest against the government of Nicolas Maduro in “La Isabelica”, a middle-class neighborhood in the Central Venezuela city of Valencia: A body-armor clad member of the National Guard wrestled a protester to the ground, then proceeded to administer a beating that included using a helmet like it was a mallet.

Par for the course, one would think, after three weeks of violent protests that have left 50 dead (government figures), 731 arrested (opposition figures) and dozens injured, right? Well, here’s the kicker: both the Guard and the demonstrator were women. After beating her opponent, Marvinia, badly in the face, the Guard woman, who answered to the name Josneidy, dragged by the hair to jail, where Marvinia was kept incommunicado for two days .

Venezuelans of both sexes were not surprised by the female-on-female, violence: women here laugh when husbands and boyfriends call them “Cuaima”, a particularly touchy type of poisonous snake, meaning they are jealous and possesive, and have adopted the handle proudly.

Opposition politician María Corina Machado was also assaulted by a pro-government woman. She is a national lawmaker at the National Assembly, the attack happened at work, and the perpetrator was a coworker: a fellow lawmaker from the ruling party. And she is beautiful and fierce, when she talks politics she looks like a “telenovela” (soap opera) protagonist that just had her boyfriend stolen by her nemesis: she blushes, her eyes glint and her nose perks and flares. But she talks dead serious.

“First you have to recognize the contributions of women during these 15 years of anti-Chavez struggle. Women, during protests, offer more of a protective presence The first mass protests this country saw against Chavez, in 2001, were organized by women and labeled “Con mis hijos no te metas” (Don’t mess with my children) and were aimed at stopping the introduction of pro-government political notions in education”, Machado said during a phone interview. Those protests, it must be remembered, resulted in Chavez being relieved of power and placed in prison for three days in 2001. What does it all mean? Machado tries to sum it up: “Women here, we love our children, we love our country”, she muses laconically, suddenly a female version of a Clint Eastwood character.

It will soon be a year from the time of her own assault,  Machado reminisces. She says she has been in touch with Marvinia’s family and that, as soon as she can talk to the victim herlself, she will tell her: “Every second of pain will make you stronger”.

“Cuaimas” and First Combatants

Even embattled President Nicolas Maduro’s wife eschewed the traditional title of “La Primera Dama” (The First Lady) and opted instead to label herself as the more aggressive “La Primera Combatiente”: The First Combatant. And the present protests began largely because of “kitchen” issues: Food shortages. But when push comes to shove, anti-government women take the cake, a veteran observer noted. “Opposition women are fierce, while pro-government women, well, they just kiss up to the guys in government”, said Jose Luis Carrillo, a Venezuelan journalist. “Pro-government women, they make do when there is no bread. Opposition women take to the streets to set up barricades, burn tires and garbage”.

However, Machado notes that the government is also putting women on point, from National Guards women to the Attorney General. “That is not casual, they are using women against women”, she says. And then takes a stab at the men in government in this Latin country: “That’s just hiding behind women, they are shielding themselves behing women”.

Victim to activist

More and more, women are at the front of anti-government protests in Venezuela, and they are not always getting beat down by female National Guards. From a political stand point, Marvinia Jimenez (the victim’s full name) emerged as the winner: a throng of reporters was waiting for her at the jail when she emerged from her cell to talk to her family after two days. Pictures of her badly battered, yet still defiant face, quickly became a Twitter staple and even traditional Venezuelan media defied a tacit news blackout surrounding the protest to carry her pictures. The newspaper “Tal Cual” devoted Wednesday’s editorial to her including, yes, pictures of the now famous helmet beating.

The government however, did not try to build the victor, Josneidy, into an icon of anti-fascism (the government claims Marvinia and women like her a part of an ongoing fascist coup): according to local media she was transferred from Valencia to CORE 5, a National Guard regional command several hundred kilometers away, in the capital of Caracas and she has not spoken to the media. A Facebook profile under the name “Josneidy Nayari Castillo Mendoza”, which showed pictures of a woman identical to the one that beat up Marvinia dressed in a National Guard uniform, was shut down on Tuesday. Besides the uniform pictures there were pictures of the same woman, wearing a skimpy top, amplious cleavage and a pendant with the initial “J”, smiling for the camera. In those pictures she did not look like somebody capable of beating another woman in the face with a helmet, she looked like your average dark-skinned Venezuelan beauty queen with a tongue-twister of a name.

“Opposition women are fierce, while pro-government women, well, they just kiss up to the guys in government”, said Jose Luis Carrillo, a Venezuelan journalist. “Pro-government women, they make do when there is no bread. Opposition women take to the streets to set up barricades, burn tires and garbage”.

Of late, the mothers and wives had taken a bit of a back seat to students, Machado concedes, but that changed on Monday. “These latest protests were begun by students, but they are a social movement now”, Machado says. “I was at the funeral of Jimmy Vasquez”, Machado says. Vasquez was an opposition demonstrator killed also on Monday in San Cristonal, where the fiercest anti-Maduro clashes have occured so far. “And Carmen, his mother, told me “don’t give me condolences, just keep up the fight”. She made me swear I would not give up the struggle ”. Opposition women, you know how they are, she seems to be saying.

A woman’s touch

On Wednesday, two days after Marvinia was assaulted and still jailed and cut off from her family and the planet, Machado and thousands of other opposition women went to a National Guard headquarter in El Paraiso, a middle-class neighborhood in Caracas not unlike La Isabelica. The march was met with hostility, but no outright violence, as if something had changed after Marvinia’s assault. When Machado and her cohorts arrived, a detachment of guardswomen commanded by a Lieutenant Coronel, last name Capote, was awaiting, but not in riot gear this time: they wore their street uniform, a maroon beret, short-sleeved khaki shirts and green slacks. And instead of giving Machado another beating, they presented her with flowers. “I think I managed to convey to them, that they are mothers too, they have children. So I demanded that they protect our children”, Machado says Thursday, the day after that march.

The women’s demonstration ended well. Even Marivinia was released from jail Thusday, charged with five counts, including robbery, but alive and, according to Machado, a clear leader of the opposition. The sour note however is that, unfortunately, the world now knows that, in Venezuela, a woman’s touch can include being clubbed with a helmet in the face.