THINK of revolution in Latin America and you may well picture men with berets riding tanks, addressing large crowds and oozing machismo. Scan photos from Cuba in the 1960s, or Nicaragua in the 1980s, and most of the leaders have beards or moustaches. Women may have helped to seize power and smash the old order — especially in Nicaragua — but precious few got senior positions in the new.

For women, however, Venezuela’s revolution is more complicated. From a distance, Hugo Chavez’s outsized personality dominates coverage of the ‘21st-century socialist’ experiment unfolding on this Caribbean tip of South America. Always with something to say, the tank-commander-turned president is a magnetic, ubiquitous presence.

But beyond the Miraflores palace, where Chavez is protected by soldiers and bodyguards, there are a striking number of women in key positions.

The head of the supreme court, the head of the national electoral commission, the attorney general, the ombudsman and the deputy head of the national assembly, as well as numerous ministers and legislators, are women. Now, with the commandante battling cancer, and a question mark over his re-election next year, women are poised to play key roles in Venezuela’s political future. If Chavez recovers his health, women-led institutions could tilt the election his way, backed by female grassroots activists who mobilise voters. If Chavez dies or is sidelined, expect to see women prominent in the jockeying for power.

Feminist supporters say Venezuela has come a long way under Chavez, with laws enshrining women’s rights, the establishment of a women’s and gender equality ministry and a bank, Banmujer, which gives credit to poor women. Some 70 per cent of beneficiaries of government social programmes, knows as ‘misiones’, are women. “This is a feminist revolution. It has opened a path for us,” says Jacqueline Farias, head of the district capital government and a top Chavez lieutenant. But critics say progressive legislation is of scant comfort to women raising families amid rampant inflation, high murder rates and domestic

violence. Men still dominate key positions, notably in the cabinet.

Merely having women in senior posts does not prove feminist progress, says Blanca Rosa Marmol de Leon, a dissident supreme court judge. Such women are collaborating in an authoritarian regime’s human rights violations – including the prosecution of another female judge, Maria Afiuni, who made a ruling that angered the president, she says: “This is a society where people are blind and deaf to abuses.” Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among others, have also expressed concern about the president’s grip on state institutions and intimidation of opponents.

Venezuela’s economic and social woes, including rampant inflation, currency devaluations, decaying infrastructure and rising murder rate are also dismissed by supporters such as Eva Golinger, a Caracas-based American activist.

She points to the success of land reform, new state enterprises, expanded education and alliances with China, Russia and other anti-imperialist partners. “I’m a believer because I’ve seen the changes. People have short memories, they forget how bad things were before. Poverty and inequality are way down. And we’re just starting. In another 10 years this country won’t be recognisable.” — The Guardian, London

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