GENDER VIOLENCE

#MeToo wave breaks in Venezuela as sexual abuse and harassment cases come to light

A flood of social media claims against prominent figures has spawned a movement to end the impunity of aggressors. Poet Willy McKey admitted to statutory rape and committed suicide

Women protesting against gender violence in Caracas in November 2020.
Women protesting against gender violence in Caracas in November 2020.Ariana Cubillos / AP

“All women have something to tell,” wrote the Venezuelan poet Yolanda Pantin on Twitter last week. It was the culmination of a painful landslide of online denunciation by victims of rape, abuse and sexual harassment over the past few days that served to lift the lid on a crisis that no longer fits under the rug where other pressing problems are piling up in a country suffocating under the authoritarianism of President Nicolás Maduro, chief among them poverty and insecurity.

Four years after the start of the #MeToo movement that brought down powerful Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein and led to an avalanche of revelations worldwide, the tide of feminism has broken on the shores of a country that carefully cultivates sexism under the supposed premise of championing the mother as the head of the household. Musicians, actors, theater directors, writers, politicians and journalists have been accused during the past week of committing sexual abuse and other violent acts. The movement came from an open wound based on hundreds of testimonies and has resulted in the cancellation of many of those named, almost all of whom have been removed from their jobs, and in the suicide of one of the accused, the writer Willy McKey.

The domino effect started with the former lead singer of the rock band Los Colores, Alejandro Sojo. At least six women have come forward and reported that Sojo forced them to have sexual relationships with him when they were minors, aged 14, 15, 16 and 17. The statements have been gathered together via the Instagram account @alejandrosojoestupro, which makes reference to an old term, estupro, used to describe the statutory rape of minors allegedly under consent but nonetheless tainted by the fact that the aggressor is always an older person, with cognitive superiority and tools with which they exert power over their victims.

One good thing to come out of everything that has taken place is that it is generating a collective backlash, because these things cannot be allowed to go on happening
Magdymar León, Venezuelan Association for an Alternative Sexual Education

An abusive insistence on having sex, grooming, the sending of unsolicited photographs of genitalia, the rape of minors who were under the influence of alcohol, manipulation from positions of power and a string of victims behind each abuser is a constant among the accounts that have inundated Twitter. Tony Maestracci of the band Tomates Fritos was accused by a young woman who met him at Cusica Fest, an event that brings together most of the Venezuelan rock scene, in 2019. Through some friends, she was able to gain access to the after-party at the festival, where she consumed alcohol. Maestracci suggested they go somewhere else. “I was very drunk, I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I remember what happened clearly. He took me to his room and later I woke up naked, having flashbacks of him being naked on top of me,” she wrote through an account called @chellesoy.

The allegations transcend the world of music. In a video posted on Instagram, Andrea González accused Juan Carlos Ogando, one of the founder members of Skena, a well-known youth theater group that was based at a school in Caracas. Inappropriate behavior, groping and comments of a sexual nature were confirmed as a pattern by other victims, all of whom were minors with Ogando approaching his 50th birthday. The anonymous identity “Pía” made the accusation that has the most resonance of all. When she was 16 years old and attempting to start out in writing and theater, the author and poet Willy McKey started a relationship with her, under the guise of attempting to create a kind of intellectual “mentorship” that ended up with McKey, 20 years her senior, having sexual relations with the minor.

McKey admitted to the relationship, confessed to having committed statutory rape and asked his victims for forgiveness in three messages posted on his Instagram account, the only three posts that remain after he decided to delete all previous content. Other women came forward and said they had suffered sexual abuse by McKey, who would ask for photos under the pretense of promising access to the professional circles in which he moved. Twenty-four hours after his online confession, McKey jumped from the ninth floor of the building in Buenos Aires where he had lived for several years with his partner.

I believe you movement

“The only resource we Venezuelan women have is ourselves and social media,” says stand-up comedian Paula Díaz via a videocall with the singer Laura Guevara. Both artists emigrated to Mexico several years ago and from there, along with other friends from the same circles, they formed the movement Yo Te Creo (I Believe You) Venezuela after the first allegations emerged. The network has been navigating the turbulent waters of the last few days with the intention of acting as a support network so that women who have come forward do not have to face the emotional, physical and sometimes financial strain that surviving sexual abuse can cause. Díaz and Guevara, who have both been victims within the male-dominated industries they work in, count among their colleagues several of the people who have been accused in this wave of #MeToo revelations.

Díaz and Guevara say that they have watched the advance of the feminist struggle in Mexico with a certain sense of frustration. “These issues in Venezuela have always been drowned out by other emergencies. There is a yearning that we all have to stop normalizing so much covered-up abuse,” says Guevara. “We have decided to speak about our own pain and become recipients for these women because we feel a responsibility to carry their message.”

The struggle, they admit, is a long-term one and comes with its own set of unique challenges in Venezuela. “The imbalance of power is a huge cultural problem that has been fed and nurtured by both men and women,” says Guevara. “This is not a movement of women versus men. We all have to take responsibility for how we have behaved toward each other and how we have acted when we have been in positions of power. This is about the country and the dynamics of abuse that is being repeated on every level.”

Masculinity and impunity

Díaz and Guevara set up an email account and a form for reporting abuse. It is now full of messages, to the extent that they are seeking to form a volunteer group with psychologists, lawyers and gender specialists to go through the cases and start legal proceedings where possible. The search for justice to avoid impunity in crimes like these, which are punishable by custodial sentences, is another weak point of the fight in Venezuela, where a labyrinthine political and institutional crisis works to the benefit of the perpetrators. “The social media explosion is evidence that the state is incapable of providing a response,” Guevara says.

In late April, the prosecutor Tarek William Saab became a trending topic on Twitter – a social media platform that has become a boisterous and untended digital jury – after saying he would launch a “crusade for women” with the opening of investigations into some of the musicians accused of abuse, as well as a comedian, a writer and two journalists. Some observers have suggested the measure is an attempt at political persecution and not a genuine institutional response to gender violence.

Nine out of every 10 cases of violence against women in Venezuela do not make it to court. Since 2015 official statistics have not been published and the number of femicides is on the rise. In 2019, 167 women were killed in Venezuela; in 2020 the number rose to 256, one every 36 hours, according to the non-profit group Monitor Utopix. Venezuela failed to comply with the mandates of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case of Linda Loaiza, who survived kidnapping, rape and torture only to be revictimized by the Venezuelan judiciary before finally achieving justice at the regional tribunal in the first case of its kind to be heard under the auspices of the human rights legal arbiter of the Organization of American States.

In the view of social psychologist and criminologist Magaly Huggins, who has spent 40 years championing feminism, what has happened over the past week in Venezuela is a hugely important milestone. “It has to be given importance and pressure applied for justice to be served. We cannot accept impunity,” she says.

There are no institutions that guarantee security and justice, and none that raise awareness among the population. Instead, there is a society that blames us
Paula Díaz, stand-up comedian and victim of sexual abuse

“One good thing to come out of everything that has taken place is that it is generating a collective backlash, because these things cannot be allowed to go on happening,” says Magdymar León of the Venezuelan Association for an Alternative Sexual Education.

Hacking the system of dominant masculinity is a challenge that lies ahead and it is something that Huggins and the founders of Yo Te Creo believe is fundamental to driving equality. “The men that want to be part of the change should look back on their affective history, how they communicate with their sisters, with their partners, with other men and on social media,” says Guevara. “Men have to be given the opportunity to choose other roles. And it all begins with the amount of information that is put into their heads as children, when they are asked ‘how many girlfriends have you got?’”

In 2018, Paula Díaz was attacked in a parking lot by a man who attempted to strangle her. When she reported it, the police she was met with questions such as: “Was it because you were going out with another woman’s husband?’ She was pressured into retracting her statement and she did not receive any support in her professional circle. “There are no institutions that guarantee security and justice, and none that raise awareness among the population. Instead, there is a society that blames us, revictimizes us and silences us,” says Díaz. Two months after the attack she decided to leave Venezuela and seek a safe working environment among women.

In 2019, Laura Guevara traveled to Venezuela to spend the Christmas holidays with her family. On a night out with her friends from school, in a middle-class social bubble, all of them said they had been victims of sexual abuse. “I heard all these stories: ‘My grandfather used to masturbate with me,’ ‘My uncle used to touch me,’ ‘My cousin raped me.’ We have all lived through this shit because this is a systemic practice and it’s impossible that nobody was talking about it.”

English version by Rob Train.

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