Zika: reproductive rights, racism and resistance

Cuban soldiers on a fumigation drive to combat Zika

The Zika virus has spread rapidly across central and South America and to some neighbouring countries, leading to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) declaration of an international public health emergency. The toxic combination of factors behind the epidemic is distinctly social: poor, cramped living conditions, insufficient sanitation and environmental problems. The virus’s possible effect on pregnant women has forced health organisations and the media to acknowledge the region’s desperate lack of reproductive rights. What is being largely ignored however is that social solutions are needed for social problems – socialist Cuba’s vital, organised response shows that another approach is necessary if the health of people is to be cared for. Rachel Francis reports.

An epidemic

The Zika virus, first identified in the 1940s in Africa, is spread primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Four out of five people with the virus will experience no symptoms and the remainder will experience flu-like symptoms. However, the current media storm follows both the rise in the spread of the virus and a possible link to the birth defect microcephaly. Babies who are affected are born with a smaller head than expected and usually abnormal brain development which can lead to chronic complications. There are also possible links with Guillan-Barré Syndrome (GBS), a rare but serious disorder of the nervous system.

Brazil first reported cases of Zika in May 2015, and estimated cases since then may total 1.5 million. 46 countries are reporting outbreaks. An increased number of microcephaly cases has been noted by Brazil, with the Health Minister reporting 4,690 suspected cases since October 2015. However, the link between the Zika virus and both microcephaly and GBS remains strongly suspected but not confirmed – the WHO is calling for further investigation, as well as for other potential causes of microcephaly to be investigated.


The living conditions in north and north-east Brazil have made the spread of Zika all but inevitable. 71% of the north-east’s population, ten million people, do not have access to sewage systems. Women fare the worst through poverty – Brazilian journalist Nicole Froio argues that access to water governed by gender, with around 30% of women having no direct access to clean water. The rubbish that fills the streets offers endless spaces for pools of water to collect, the perfect breeding ground for mosquitos. Housing is cramped and overcrowded, making the spread of any illness rapid. There are fewer doctors than in richer regions; the country still has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world. Here lies the crucial problem – mosquitos will continue to spread diseases when such conditions exist and when there is no co-ordinated social response. Debora Diniz, law professor and co-founder of advocacy organisation Anis: Institute of Bioethics, Human Rights and Gender, is clear: ‘the epidemic mirrors the social inequality of Brazilian society. It is concentrated among young, poor, black and brown women, a vast majority of them living in the country’s least-developed regions.’ Neighbouring countries, devastated by the legacies and actions of imperialist plunder and control, are plagued by similar poverty and lack of healthcare – and thriving mosquito populations.

Women and reproductive rights

There have been some practical responses to the epidemic, such as Brazil’s organised home fumigations and community initiatives such as 'Sábados de Faxina' (Cleaning-up Saturdays), to reduce possible mosquito breeding grounds. However, concern over the microcephaly cases has prompted the region’s main public health response, with advice aimed solely at women: do not get pregnant. The choice to not get pregnant is clearly not made by women alone. There is no ‘choice’ when contraception is rarely available. Abortion is almost completely illegal. El Salvador and Honduras, where abortion is illegal and women have been criminalised for miscarriages, have called on women to wait for two years before getting pregnant. Colombia, which has strict abortion laws limiting legal abortions to cases of severe fetal abnormality and where there are sparse resources to perform abortions in rural areas, is urging women to wait 6-8 months to become pregnant. The severe restrictions on abortions in Jamaica, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Guatemala and many others make terminations illegal in all but name.

Women have done and will continue to terminate their pregnancies; many will have no choice but to put themselves in dangerous and ‘criminal’ situations. 95% of abortions in Latin America take place in unsafe conditions, with women forced to visit backstreet providers, paying vast sums they cannot afford for procedures that could cost them their lives. It is the lead cause of maternal mortality in the region. The poorest women face the worst of all situations – as Diniz states ‘when we talk about abortion and reproductive rights in general […] we have a social class split in Brazil – wealthy women will access safe abortion, legal or illegal, and poor women will go to the illegal market or continue to be pregnant.’ The Pope’s hints about liberalising contraceptive use in the wake of the virus have been misrepresented; he argued we should not ‘confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself, with abortion’ and that abortion remains ‘a crime, an absolute evil’. Of course, this is not about morality – it is about the concrete lack of reproductive rights that come with the impossible combination of poverty, lack of health care and dangerous laws.

Women resist

Women were protesting in Brazil for reproductive rights long before the Zika virus, sparked again recently by politician Eduardo Cunha’s call for a law to further restrict the already limited availability of abortion. Women across the region have used the renewed focus on women’s health to start grassroots community groups to educate each other about reproductive health and sexual rights. WomenOnWeb, a Dutch organisation committed to women’s reproductive autonomy, have offered online consultations to women affected by the Zika virus, irrespective of ability to pay, and will post medications to induce abortion.

The coming Olympics, due to be held in Brazil in 2016, has been considered a chance to raise awareness of the situation for women in Brazil, although the concern of the mainstream international media has been focused on the safety and health concerns of athletes and distinguished guests. Slick government and Olympic committee adverts and lies also pose a problem - they have already covered up the recent evictions that have taken place to make way for stadiums, with residents attacked with batons, tear gas and rubber bullets. Protests that surrounded the 2014 World Cup in Brazil remain close in people’s memories; the causes – poverty, police brutality and racism – have only intensified since the stadiums emptied. The spread of the Zika virus adds another burden – and cause of anger.

Cuba – a beacon of hope

Mosquito-borne yellow fever, chikungunya, and dengue are already familiar to the poorest areas now being affected by the Zika virus. One country, however, stands alone in its ability to resist and withstand such epidemics – socialist Cuba. With the major structures – sanitation, waste disposal, recycling, housing – in place due to the planned economy focused on meeting people’s needs, the possibility of viruses spreading is considerably reduced. The community-led public health campaigns, which see people organised to sweep their neighbourhoods of sitting water thus reducing the possibilities for mosquitos to breed, is simple, free and remarkably effective – and an example of what is possible when people work together in this way. Homes are fumigated and doctors are plentiful, 6.7 for every 1,000 people. Brazil’s doctors number 1.9 per 1,000 people and are concentrated in wealthier urban areas. Britain has 2.8 doctors per 1,000 people. Cuba’s extensive health system enables close monitoring of potential symptoms. Take dengue as an example: Cuba had 1,641 cases in 2015, all of whom recovered. Nearby and similarly-sized Dominican Republic faced almost 17,000 cases, 103 of whom died. Dengue has a huge impact on rural Brazil, with 853 deaths in 2015 alone.

Despite Cuba’s successes, it is of course not impossible for Zika to spread to the island. Cuba has released a statement urging improvement in their prevention measures and the need for the conscious participation of all the population. In an ‘appeal to our people’, President Raul Castro Ruz was confident that ‘our people will be able to show their capacity for organisation, to maintain the levels of health reached by the Revolution, and thus avoid suffering for our families. More than ever before in similar efforts, it is imperative to be more disciplined and exacting.’ Cuba must continue to fight to defend and push forward its achievements in the context of the US blockade, which continues to deny essential medicines and equipment. Crucially, women in Cuba can make choices that are impossible across the rest of the region, with abortion legal and accessible and contraception provided by local doctors.

Cuba responded to a crisis in Brazil in 2014 which saw millions take to the streets to demand access to health care. As part of Cuba’s health missions – active, practical solidarity which sees 37,000 doctors and medical professionals working in 77 countries around the world - doctors travelled to Brazil and committed to working in the poorest, neglected regions. That they faced resistance, protests and racism from sections of doctors in Brazil who have only been prepared to work in wealthy, urban areas, shows the different approach that is necessary when caring for the health of all people.

The Zika virus shows how rapidly epidemics can spread where poverty, a lack of sanitation and cramped housing are widespread and where access to health care is limited. That poor and predominately non-white women are most affected, and are expected to face the burden of reproductive control alone, is no surprise. In the media outpouring of moral judgements and fearful questions, it is crucial to look to the example of Cuba, which shows that another way is necessary – and possible.

Further steps in Latin America integration

The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), composed of every country in the Americas except the US and Canada, met on 24 June for a three-day conference in Caracas, Venezuela. Drawing up a common plan to tackle social and developmental problems in the region, CELAC aims to eliminate poverty and malnutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean by 2024.

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El Salvador: FMLN wins presidency /FRFI 238 Apr/May 2014

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 238 April/May 2014

On 9 March, Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren was declared a narrow winner of the presidential election in El Salvador in a run-off against Norman Quijano of the deeply reactionary Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). Ceren’s majority was just 6,600; his victory came despite ARENA death squad intimidation in some communities, employers threatening those voting for the FMLN with dismissal and appeals by ARENA members for military intervention.

A bloody history

From the mid-1970s, the US funded successive Salvadorian governments to use every imaginable method to repress popular demands for basic economic and human rights. The FMLN was formed in response as a coalition of five armed workers’ and peasants’ organisations, to defend the poor and overthrow the US-managed gangster state. By 1989, US imperialism had realised that despite the horrific Carter-Reagan strategy of mass murder, which had accounted for the lives of 100,000 people, mostly the rural poor, its puppet governments could not defeat the FMLN coalition. So it supported negotiations for peace accords which were signed in 1992, ending the 12-year civil war. However this did not stop continued attacks of every type against the working class and small peasantry, and any political party or trend that supported the FMLN. The FMLN consequently struggled to establish itself as one party, but on 15 March 2009, the FMLN’s candidate Mauricio Funes won the presidential elections, and became the first FMLN president.

FMLN in government

In the last five years the FMLN has brought some limited decency for the mass of the people out of the chaos created by US imperialism and its ARENA allies. Some 25% of the present Salvadorian population of 6.3 million had been forced from the country by the violence, unemployment and hunger. 1.5 million of them ended up being exploited for the profit of capitalists in the US, 400,000 as illegal immigrants. As a result, remittances to El Salvador sent by struggling exiled workers in the Americas are the largest after Mexico.

In 2013, US imperialism threatened to withhold all aid if Funes did not pass a Privatisation Bill, unveiled in November 2011 during a visit by President Obama. US advisers ‘helped’ Funes’s office to draft a Bill that aimed to auction off everything from highways, ports and airports to municipal services and higher education, for the principle benefit of US multinationals. El Salvador’s public sector unions led the fight against it, preventing the immediate sale of water, health care and education.

Despite all the economic and social difficulties, there were real gains under Funes’ presidency. Adult illiteracy fell from 18% in 2009 to 13% in 2012. The Family Agriculture Plan, launched in February 2011, supports over 300,000 producers, improving yields and incomes and so fighting hunger. The FMLN’s School Packets programme has Salvadorian factories making uniforms and shoes that are given free to elementary students. A glass of domestically produced milk is provided daily to children at school. The Ministry of Health serves 80-85% of the population free of charge. Ciudad Mujer is a one-stop social service centre for women, with health care, protection from domestic violence, support towards economic independence, and professional childcare onsite.

Such programmes reflect the example of the Bolivarian programmes in the ALBA states while representing the organised demands of Salvadorian workers. Rural health centres, a pension system for the destitute, temporary financial assistance for the unemployed while they get skills training, are part of FMLN plans for worker and social advancement.

The second FMLN presidency

Ceren will head a minority government facing powerful constraints imposed by US imperialism, in the form of criminal gangs, many deported from the US, narco-trafficking, and corruption. Poverty and inequality remain the central challenges. The vicious ARENA party detests the FMLN and has strong, established links to organised crime. In 2007, three ARENA representatives to the Central American Parliament were murdered while transporting $5m and 20 kilograms of cocaine in Guatemala. One was the son of ARENA’s founder, Roberto D’Aubuisson.

The state is currently trapped by free trade agreements implemented by ARENA governments acting on behalf of the US – such as dollarising the economy after 2001 – that are very difficult to reverse for a single country. Government foreign debt repayments were 23.6% of its income in 2011. Two thirds of the country’s exports go to the US. The FMLN has pledged to create 50,000 jobs each year, and somehow deal with the country’s massive external debt whilst starting to tax big corporations. The new president has to work with the current congress until elections in 2015, which means continuing to cooperate on legislation with smaller parties like the Grand Alliance for National Unity, a conservative party formed in 2010 by ex-ARENA deputies.

Alvaro Michael

Report back from the World Festival of Youth and Students

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 237 February/March 2014

In December, an RCG delegation went to Quito, Ecuador for the 18th World Festival of Youth and Students (WFYS). They joined around 8,000 young people from all over the world for debates and discussions around fighting imperialism and capitalist austerity. SAM RAE reports.

WFYS provides an international forum for anti-imperialist youth to meet, discuss and build links. It takes place every four or five years and is organised by the World Federation of Democratic Youth. The first festival took place in Prague in 1947. The RCG sent a delegation to this year’s festival as it was hosted in Ecuador, part of the anti-imperialist bloc that has emerged in Latin America since the late 1990s. In 2009 Ecuador joined the Bolivarian Alliance for Latin America (ALBA), a progressive regional bloc set up by Venezuela and Cuba.


Most of the Venezuelans arrived late to the festival because they needed to stay in Venezuela for the crucial mayoral elections, in which the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) took 54% of the popular vote, a 10% lead on the opposition. We spoke to Xoan Noya, Head of International Relations for JPSUV (PSUV youth wing) and Neirlay Andrade, a member of the national directorate of the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV).

The PCV, whilst maintaining its distinct identity from the PSUV, works with it as part of a revolutionary alliance. In the recent municipal elections the alliance managed to stand 92% of its candidates in unity. Neirlay welcomed the victory this had brought and told us:

‘Now we need to take forward this unity, this popular mobilisation for socialism beyond a partial and time-limited electoral alliance. We need to transmit a fundamental message that as long as we continue to operate within a capitalist system, the victories achieved in the last decade will be left by the wayside. As the PCV, we see our task as the construction of a popular revolutionary block that goes beyond an electoral alliance…

‘The Programa Patria sets out the construction of socialism as an alternative model to capitalism in Venezuela. It is more than just a plan, it’s a real challenge to the state because it requires a process of real organisation…’ She warned of what the PCV sees as the risk of the ‘institutionalisation’ of organisations of popular power such as the comunas and communal councils and explained that her party stresses the importance of workers’ organisation and control in the workplace, ‘placing more control in workers’ hands, equipping workers with the tools of experience and organisation necessary to confront and destroy whatever the bourgeois opposition throws at them’.

We were able to screen our documentary film, Viva Venezuela: fighting for socialism, twice at the Festival - once in the Casa del ALBA, run by the ALBA countries, and once in the cinema tent. Both were well-received and comrades from Venezuela were impressed with the accurate portrayal of what they are trying to achieve.


350 activists from the Union of Young Communists (UJC) and the Federation of University Students (FEU) attended the festival. We met with Jose Maury, Secretary of International Relations of the UJC and Dianette Martinez, President of the Student Christian Movement. The Cubans reiterated to us the urgent necessity of a political campaign to win freedom for the Cuban 5. We attended a forum event about the Cuban 5 and explained our solidarity work in Britain.

We also attended a presentation by Raul Capote, a Cuban agent who pretended for years to be working for the CIA, while in reality he was instrumental in destroying plans to orchestrate uprisings in socialist Cuba. Capote’s book, Enemy, will be reviewed in a future issue of FRFI.


One of the surprises of the Festival was that there was a delegation of around 800 young Colombians. This was an impressive achievement from a country where you can be killed just for being an activist. The Colombians explained that the delegation was part of a process of organising and uniting the different youth groups on the left. The Festival provided the Colombians with an opportunity to talk and debate more openly than they could in Colombia. (For more on the situation in Colombia, and the peace talks between the government and FARC, see facing page).


Like other South American states, in the late 1980s Ecuador was hit by a debt crisis. The International Monetary Fund offered bailout money, in return for cuts in public spending on health care, education, and welfare. Poverty rates shot up to 60% and unemployment reached 80%. This led to two decades of protests, including demonstrations and strikes led by social movements and labour unions, which brought President Correa to power in 2007.

In 2008 two-thirds of the population voted in favour of a new constitution that re-established the redistributive role of the state and assigned rights to indigenous Ecuadorians, LGBT people and even to Mother Nature. Also enshrined in the constitution is the right of everyone to buen vivir, which translates as ‘to live well’. Good food, shelter, education, and health care are now protected basic rights.

Eradication of poverty is identified as the main priority of the state. This has been funded through a renegotiation of contracts with multinational companies. Previously 80% of oil profits went to the multinationals, now 80% flow to the state. Since 2006 the poverty rate has fallen from 37.6% to 27.3%, while Ecuador has achieved the greatest reduction in the Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality) of all Latin American countries (Six years of the citizen’s revolution, Ecuadorian National Institute of Statistics.)

The Correa government has set up a universal state-funded health care system and made education free up to and including higher level. Between 2006 and 2012, access to university for indigenous people and Afro-Ecuadorians doubled. Over the same period 2,690 university scholarships were awarded and children in state schools now receive free uniforms and textbooks. The higher education registration rate has increased by from 34% to 40%. Over 7,000 students are studying at overseas universities paid for by the state with the only condition being that they return and work in Ecuador for two years.

In addition to these investments in state welfare, Ecuador’s foreign policy has been transformed, from that of a US client state, to principled anti-imperialism. This includes:

• the closing down of the US military base at Manta;

• the audit and write off of $8bn of foreign debt

• defending Cuba at meetings of the Organisation of American States and opposing the military coup in Honduras in 2009.

• Giving political asylum to WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, defying the British government, which threatened to invade the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

The activists we met all supported the Correa government and Alianza Pais, Correa’s electoral party. They saw their own role as one of radicalising the movement and pushing for the gains made so far to be deepened. All agreed that Alianza Pais has within it a right wing that will limit reforms, so they saw their work as socialists and communists as vital to pushing the process forward.

We met with Diego Vintimilla, Secretary of Foreign Relations of the Communist Youth of Ecuador and an elected member of the National Assembly. He spoke about the coup attempt against Correa in 2010 which was carried out by sections of the Ecuadorian police:

‘They took up arms against the national assembly, kidnapped the president and used their weapons against the people. Thousands came out to defend Correa. The coup attempt failed and those who were shown to be involved were sacked and arrested. However I am sure that people continue to infiltrate the police in order to generate destabilisation; a WikiLeaks cable exposes US intervention in the police. In this context we have introduced a law that allows us to monitor all the online activities and connections of the police, to highlight any connections with the CIA. It is essential that we take these steps, to develop much more patriotic security forces. These issues are repeated across Latin America. Imperialism will always have money to buy off our soldiers, and so we need to confront this. In the coming months the National Assembly is due to approve the Citizen’s Security Law, which will see further reforms to the police and security forces, to create a civil police force integrated into the community, in order to serve the citizen’s revolution.’

We also spoke to Diego about the recent government decision to allow increased oil exploitation from areas of Yasuni National Park, part of the Amazon rainforest. This decision has been taken after intense national debates and protests, and after an attempt to get funding from rich countries to protect Yasuni from further mining failed. Diego put the issue in its proper context – as a complex decision on how best to develop the country and eliminate extreme poverty when starting from conditions of underdevelopment that are a result of centuries of imperialist exploitation:

‘It is the hypocrisy of imperialism, that no country demanded the conservation of Yasuni from multinational companies who have been exploiting Yasuni for years; not one spoke out that this was against the environment or against the human rights of indigenous people, no. Not one country has acted on the strategy of paying to conserve Yasuni. But when Ecuador takes the difficult decision to use its own resources, for its people’s development, not one of these countries recognises that we have the sovereign right to do this.

‘...The government must demonstrate that it will act in accordance with the constitution and consult those potentially affected, that it commits to environmental restoration and decontamination. The government must demonstrate that mining and oil extraction can be conducted in a different way, to benefit the indigenous people, and the whole population of Ecuador, rather than just enriching multinationals.

‘Of course, there are foundations being set up, with thousands of dollars of resources and publicity, in order to fund illegitimate resistance to the state, using the Yasuni debate. They present themselves as the biggest ecologists in the world, but their interest is in the destabilisation of the citizen’s revolution.

‘... So we have a political fight, to intervene against arguments that all oil extraction or all mining is bad. Our main fight is against poverty, to develop away from dependency. It is in this context we must understand the decision to exploit Yasuni Park.’

We also interviewed activists from the US, Chile, Western Sahara, Palestine, Argentina and Vietnam. For these interviews and all of our activities at the Festival, go to the delegation blog: rcg-ecuador2013.tumblr.com


We are constantly being told that austerity, racism and war are necessary evils, but Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and other countries have emerged from what Correa called ‘the long dark night of neoliberalism’ and are moving towards socialism. Cuba has been successfully building socialism for more than 50 years, despite the US blockade and the best attempts of US imperialism to attack and subvert their revolution.

We have to create an anti-imperialist movement in Britain that changes the rules of the game and insists that there is an alternative. The example of socialist movements in Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba and all those around the world who are fighting for a better future can inspire us and help to get that message across to British people.

RCG delegation: The World Festival of Youth and Students 2013

18 World festivalDuring 7-13 December, three supporters of the Revolutionary Communist Group will be in Quito, Ecuador at the 18th World Festival of Youth and Students

As the capitalist crisis bites in Britain, it spreads war, poverty, austerity and despair worldwide. To successfully resist the war on welfare and peoples abroad we must support the war for welfare and for people’s freedom taking place across Latin America.

We will be blogging from the festival, putting you in contact with activists from all over the globe, gaining an insight into the citizens’ revolution in Ecuador and the movement towards socialism across Latin America today.

Visit the blog at:


Please share widely. We will organise report-back meetings in January; details will be posted here soon.