By Juan Andres Misle
Forget Caitlyn Jenner. South of the border – (no pun intended to reference Oliver Stone’s 2009 documentary about the same country) – Venezuela might just become the first nation in the continent to have a transgender member of Congress. Known for its social transformations over the past decade and a half, this comes as quite a surprise for many inside the country. Unlike the more socially progressive Argentina and Uruguay, Venezuela can be said to have possibly one of the most socially conservative societies in the continent. In the 2013 presidential elections, President Nicolas Maduro briefly attempted to make his opponent’s alleged homosexuality a campaign issue, while its centuries-long fascination with strong-man military leaders is still prevalent today. Machismo is alive and widespread. Albeit incrementally and slowly, there is reason to believe some of these attitudes and preconceptions might soon begin to change.
The December 2015 Congressional elections are said to be one of historic proportions. The country faces tremendous social and economic challenges. Economists claim inflation to be in the triple digits – if not already – at least by the end of the year. This has caused the government and its central bank to abstain themselves from releasing official figures on inflation and poverty, after last year showed significant increases on both counts. Failure to diversify the economy from its dependency on the oil rent, along with a complicated exchange rate regime, have caused all kinds of shortages ranging from basic products to medical supplies, now that oil prices have collapsed. Amidst these complexities, few would have predicted LGBT rights to become a side issue, now that polls show support for the Chavista government is at an all-time low and that the opposition might for the first time have a winning chance.
Enter Tamara Adrian. Born Thomas Adrian, the 61 year old was nominated by the opposition party Voluntad Popular (one of the twenty-seven parties inside the opposition coalition) to run for this year’s elections. Two gay candidates are also running with Voluntad Popular, but what makes her candidacy relevant in the December political race is not limited to her sexual identity. She is also, quite possibly one of the most qualified candidates in this year’s elections.
For years she has been an active advocate for LGBT and women’s rights, and has promised to advance legislation that ensures these rights are expanded and protected. A lawyer who graduated summa cum laude from one of the best universities in the country, Adrian also holds a doctorate’s degree from Université Paris II in commercial law, and has taught at some of the most prestigious universities in Venezuela.
“I don’t want my candidacy to be perceived as that of a minority, but a democratic and libertarian candidacy” she recently said in an interview, “one from somebody that’s highly qualified (…) somebody who can help overcome the worst crisis in Venezuelan history.”
This puts the Chavista government in an awkward position. For years President Maduro has struggled to deny claims that he is a homophobe. To counter this view, his ruling PSUV party promised to have candidates from the LGBT community in this year’s election. The party’s Vice President Diosdado Cabello even recently shocked many by expressing his support for future legislation on marriage equality. Yet, after an internal primary within the government-coalition where over 4,000 participated to pick LGBT candidates, the PSUV’s chief political operatives ultimately decided not to include the winners in the final roster for the upcoming elections, angering many within the movement.
Tamara Adrian’s candidacy is certainly an impressive and historic one. However, it is not a sure thing whether prejudices will prevail come election day, as in the case of the pro-government coalition’s primaries. In the end, machismo transcends party preferences across Venezuelan society. It is nevertheless highly symbolic in terms of what this can do to shift perceptions within the rapidly changing South American country. A handful of parties within the opposition are now openly in favor of approving same-sex marriage, as are some personalities within the government. Should this be the trend, Venezuela will have come a long way in overcoming a regressive trait that is still seen throughout most of Latin America.