María Suarez Toro is a Puerto Rican and Costa Rican journalist, feminist scholar, university professor, peace and women's human rights activist with decades of experience working with liberation movements in Central America. She is the author of numerous books, book chapters, and articles. María is currently the co-founder of Escribana, a social network initiative in media and communications by and about women in their communities. She is also an activist in Petateras, a feminist activist initiative in the MesoAmerican region (Central America, Mexico and Panama). María was one of 25 participants on a human rights delegation in Honduras from March 16-25. The delegation met with community members and social movement activists fighting against issues including mining, monoculture agriculture, mega-tourism, “model cities”, land theft, displacement, and labor exploitation. At the end of the delegation Upside Down World spoke with María and asked her to reflect on what she saw and heard, while giving additional historical and political context based on her past experiences fighting for social justice.
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:black”>Thank you for asking that. I love to talk about the experience in Nicaragua because in Costa Rica, which was called the retaguardia of the Sandinista revolution against the dictatorship, we undertook a lot of tasks. I was a teacher at the University of Costa Rica, and we undertook a lot of tasks about supporting the Sandinista movement to oust the dictatorship and had a president that was quite supportive of ousting the dictatorship. And the day after the Sandinistas…ousted Somoza, they announced that the first task was going to be a literacy campaign for every campesino in Nicaragua to learn to read and write. And as a teacher, I said, “I’m going to be there.” So I resigned from the University of Costa Rica where I was teaching…and I drove the eight hours that it takes to go from the city of San Jose to Managua. And I went and knocked on the door of Padre Cardinal, who was assigned to be the director of the literacy campaign…So we started that and it was an amazing experience. If you think, for anybody who’s listening to this, to understand what it means to have a popular uprising where people participate in ending a dictatorship, to be able to have rights that they have never known in their lives, and one of them was learning to read and write. And that the revolutionary process was able, in six months…from July of ‘79 to 1980, to organize so that 20,000 youth from colleges and from high schools and communities to be trained by us and to mobilize country-wide to teach more than one thousand campesino people and people in workplaces and in communities to read and write. And it was unbelievable; the way we did it was a multiplied effect…But it was done because people were determined to make it a revolution where people could meet the needs that had been denied them forever. However, as we know now, two years later…there was no continuity about being able to provide schooling for the children and for everybody, and there are many factors…we knew immediately that the challenges were going to be huge…that it was going to put a lot of energy into the contra warfare instead of into the programs about health and education and so on…preventing for many of the social transformation projects to have effect.
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:black”>So why would we use a state that has been designed historically in Latin America for the past 500 years for the accumulation of capital, for the social control of people, and for a monolithic, monocultural state. Why are we going to occupy them and try to change it by occupying them? So I believe—I don’t have the answers—but I do believe that we really have to question.
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:black”>That’s a very good question. I wasn’t a feminist in the 80’s, I became a feminist in El Salvador during the war. And if you remember, at the time it was said that there were no feminists in Central America because women—us—in the revolutionary movements that were seeking to oust dictatorships, we knew that there were more pressing issues than women’s rights. False. The difference is that we were there and we wanted our rights also to be included, but we knew that they couldn’t be achieved without other structural transformations. But we expected them to be included. And we participated, pretty much like you see now, with a fundamental difference that at the time we didn’t include our rights. They were going to come about afterwards…
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:black”>Q: So you’ve already mentioned the need for culture. Could you go into more detail about what the role of culture is in social movements and how you would describe a cultural foundation necessary for building a human, emancipatory, and plurinational society.
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:black”>So, also, the feminist critique and the indigenous and afro critique is that that old social fabric that is being destroyed was still flawed because it was based on the double exploitation of women, on the non-recognition of cultural diversity—we know in biology that when you have diversity the crops can strengthen each other, when you have one monoculture, it dies. Well it’s the same with society! When you give value to one culture, it’s not going to survive. What is the Honduran culture without the history and culture of indigenous people and the history and culture of Afro and Garifuna people here, and also with the double exploitation of women. So that fabric was flawed, but it was a fabric, and it was destroyed. So how do we rebuild it? We rebuild it by reconnecting with a different relationship that recognizes the necessity for equality between men and women, that the Honduran society is multicultural; therefore we’re also going to learn from Garifuna peoples. They have ancestral knowledge of how to survive repression. They have always lived in the Americas, under invasions and repressions, where else are we going to learn it historically but from the Garifuna people, from the indigenous people… font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:black”>So the cultural fabric established on the basis of overcoming those flawed cultural values that were installed with colonization as a monoculture state, as a monolithic way of exercising power. You know, people say that colonizers came with a cross and with a spade. But they also came with a very sexist approach. They raped the indigenous women…Money, sexual exploitation of women, institutionalized religion that repressed people because it’s…also about a monocultural state based on white men of privilege, of money, of having the power and using the state to control everybody else, and using the state to further make money.
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:black”>We have a fundamental problem here in Honduras, and it’s that historically it’s the U.S. State Department that has decided elections. And that’s not over, otherwise we wouldn’t have had a coup. So elections are very limited…Government doesn’t rule anyway; elected governments don’t rule countries in today[’s] de facto power policies. But, participating in politics is very important because you cannot let them, the oligarchy, win without putting a good front and a good battle. But you cannot put your expectations into it. And one of the principal problems is—and I saw it in Nicaragua, I saw it in El Salvador, I’ve seen it here, and I’ve seen it in Costa Rica, everywhere—that when social movements organize a political party expression, the movement weakens and puts the energy into the elections. We have to learn to make that combination different because elections, political parties are already part of that system that we are challenging…So, what I think that has to be rethought is how do you develop a connection, because…Locally, people need that, more than nation[ally] people need that, because it is at the local level where the resistance is at now…But we have to rethink how to design strategies where you put some effort into the elections, but in a way that strengthens the social movements, not that puts all the efforts into the state elections and how to win them…So, what it means, is how do people include participation in electoral processes by bringing and giving visibility and showing the strength of the agendas that they have and of the leadership that they have in the community, not only the ones that are [qualified] to get elected, but the leadership of the communities that can then use that electoral progress to advance their struggles and not just to get into the state. We go back to the same strategy, occupying the state.
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:black”>The role of the State has not changed. In our analysis the State has always been for the past more than 500 years, a state for the accumulation of capital, for social control of the population by the wealthy, and of a monolithic way of expressing power and constructing culture. That has not changed, so the fundamental nature of the State remains the same. What has changed is that the way in which that is exercised and the way in which it connects to corporate globalization makes it take a different shape…We have to see what is the character of that interaction between the corporations – the de facto powers like the Church, like the narco traffickers, and today they have a direct involvement in that government. Therefore, it’s not a separate relationship like it was in the beginning, so that we have de facto powers, they are ingrained in the government of the state…we have a para state government, and you know the concept of paramilitary right? That it’s apparently apart, but very connected to fulfill the strategy and we have states that are para national and respond to transnational corporations. That’s what I’m developing now…So it’s very hard for us to know where it comes from in the violations of human rights and in the nature of the reactions to our thrusts for social transformation and therefore we have to sophisticate and communicate to be able to make further connections because the connections are hidden behind the relationships between the de facto powers, the corporations, governments that are para, states that are para national…So it takes a sophistication that can only happen if we work collectively, if we communicate with each other – internationally and locally…The nature of the State that we think is a national state for the exercise of rights – that’s what it should be. It’s never been that. We have had moments historically where we have neared that. When you oust a dictatorship there’s some political momentum where everything seems like it can change, but very quickly the powers establish themselves pretty much in the same way.
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:black”>So sovereignty of countries doesn’t exist now. We have to claim it. And in order to claim it we have to build autonomy from the bottom up…And the way in which you build autonomy is what we saw in communities…What Teresa in the community of Triunfa de la Cruz…said to us is we are not against development. What we want is development by us, for us, and with our own cosmovision – and that’s autonomy. But there are different cosmovisions and bringing them together has to do with being able to share them and understand each other and come to some agreement. In some cases you have to give up but not always be the one to give up. And in some cases you can amalgamate, like the Garifuna and the Indigenous Lenca people are working marvelously together because they know what the commonalities are about the struggle and they know the things that are different so everybody can express them and they are not going to affect what they have in common, which is very critical and it’s also critical to have diversity than you don’t get lost in autonomy.
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:black”>If you remember what the communities [in the Aguán] told us about our visit, [they are] in the middle of [a] production crisis because they even have to hide to produce their food and…their land is possessed. They have been impoverished forever. And if it’s not the landowners it’s the tourism projects and if it’s not the criminalization of their actions. So, if you remember what they told us, those two are not separate. It’s part of their survival. International solidarity and connection is part of their survival. Producing is part of their survival. Resisting locally is part of their survival. Everything is part of this same struggle that is about keeping and enhancing their capacity to live.
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:black”>Q: So radio has been a traditional tool of communication for social movements. In 1991, you founded Feminist International Radio Endeavour (FIRE), the first worldwide women’s feminist internet radio program. This merged the traditional tool of radio with the then emerging phenomenon of the internet. Talk about why and how you came to start FIRE and what impact it had on movement building in the twenty years that you directed it.
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:black”>I never did radio before so I was broadcasting the following day on the short wave radio station and…the amazing thing is that we used a strategy like what we’ve been talking about politically. Instead of building a new network of radios or an institution we were a collective that took into account that there were many women doing local radio programs throughout the world. And instead of building a new network we would form part of them and invite them to send us their local radio programs for their local community and we would air them internationally. So our program became a forum for women who did local radio in any language…And so it maelstromed internationally because of that strategy of building a democratic participation in the radio production that would mean that women would internationalize their radio production, they didn’t have to do anything extra but send us a cassette. And also because the women in the early 1990s were an emerging international movement that was going to influence the international agenda by influencing the UN and its conference on human rights stating that women’s rights were human rights, the conference on population and development claiming reproductive and sexual rights…and so we became an international radio program not only because we were part of a movement that was thriving to create an international agenda and that’s why it became so big…and we became very strong. There was 5 of us. Nobody could believe it that it was 5 of us and we would broadcast live from anywhere. We learned the technology and became our own engineers so that we could take the radio anywhere, so we would broadcast the same from the UN Conference in Beijing with very small equipment, very little pieces of equipment that we would broadcast from Nairobi…It was a miracle and then emerged the internet…
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:black”>Communication and the sharing of information is the bloodstream that constructs, that reconstructs the social fabric in a different basis because it’s based on a people’s…power, voices, and diversity. The community radio movement in Central America was huge and has been huge. With the emergence of the internet we were the first ones to tap it to do radio and taught people how to do it–not only to do it ourselves. [There have been]All kinds of popular communication that provided not only a voice, but the analysis that helps makes the connections….So that constant sharing also allowed us to make the connections and understand the situations that we’re facing are not national but are very global, although they have different expressions in each country, that they stem from the same policies and that we also have to face them together everywhere we are. But it also gives us strength. You know, when we won a fight like we did in Costa Rica against the mining project of Las Crucitas, when people in the Siria Valley found out they celebrated because they are confronting the effects of that, then they know that it can be done. And when we learn like that, when we lose in one place but are winning in another you realize and then you share strategies on how to do it – you give each other strength and the analysis when it’s grounded because it brings together everything – we all need that. If you don’t have media how are you going to share that?
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:black”>I just systematized that for myself…Common element – to all of these women, they have decided, we have decided that we can not have the men represent us we have to represent ourselves with them. Big monumental change. We have our own representation.
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:black”>And the men can get to listen, or get into a fight and they fight it out and then it works itself out…So a complicity amongst women that it has nothing to do against the men. But a complicity with not letting the visions affect them pass by and be able to work them out.
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:black”>They talked about how there’s a prolonged femicide. Femicide is the killing of women only because they are women, and they talked to me about a…a slow assassination of taking their lives away, for women, by taking away their livelihoods, by taking away their dignity, by violence by domestic violence that slowly takes away their lives by dispossessing them of their very dignity and their very sources of life and their counteraction of this femicide is their prolonged resistance…