By: Victoria Padilla and Ana Guevara / Source: ELN Voces / The Dawn News / February 26, 2018
For the sake of the struggles that the rebellious, insurgent and oppressed sectors of society wage, it is an act of justice to remember and honor the life and example of those who preceded us, who broke the chains of the norms, traditions and establishment of their times.
While preparing for the International Month of Working Women and their Struggles, which are anti-neoliberal and anti-imperialist struggles, we, young women of the ELN, have embarked on the task of recovering and reflecting on the legacy of commander Paula, known as the Black Pearl of the National Liberation Army (ELN), who passed away on January 9 this year. The source for this reflection are the words spoken by the commander in an interview with the Informative Free Motherland Information System (Sinpal) in 2004.
Born in a Communal Family
Paula was born in an middle class cattle-raising family. She was raised in an environment with freedom of choice where she was encouraged to be accountable for both the positive and negative consequences of her actions. Her father was primary caregiver for her (since she lost her mother at age 4),and her brothers. Her father made no distinctions between her and her brothers, and the fact that she was a woman didn’t mean her education was any different.
His father fervently opposed physical violence against women. Her father figure deeply marked her ideals and her motivation for collective action; his comrades in struggle describe the commander as a strong, loyal woman who consistently followed the rules and principles of the organization, and was at the same time humane and able to listen and understand the individual points of view of the people around her. To this day, her comrades remember her for her taste in poetry and for listening the news on the radio, characteristics she got from her father.
Her brothers and father told her about her mother that she was a hard-working woman, who did any task in equal conditions to the men, a loving mother not only with her own children but with the other children of her community. Therefore, in addition to her blood relatives, the guerrilla commander always considered the ELN as her family, without making distinction between both groups, following the values of honesty and solidarity and knowing that, beyond the three children she gave birth to, the members of the organization to which she had dedicated his life (ELN) could also love her as a mother and vice-versa, since she demonstrated her affection by caring for their personal situations. Her family was the people, the humble working class, the exploited of the world, and for them she fought.
She studied in a boarding school, and as a teenager she was influenced by a Marxist and revolutionary teacher, and in the midst of the turbulent 60s, charged with revolutions and struggles that changed the ideas of an era, like the Cuban Revolution, the Vietnam war, the revolutionary movements of May 1968 in France and the political environment in Colombia, she took her first steps on the path of politics and clandestinity. She participated in cells of the organization, took on responsibilities in urban militancy, underwent three detentions, and went through many leading positions until she reached the National Direction in 2004, then became responsible for diplomatic and international relations in 2006 and finally participated in the ELN Delegation sent to dialogue with the government in the process of the Peace Negotiations. In total, she was part of the ELN for 5 decades.
Paula and her Children
Due to the tasks she assumed in the organization, being away from her children since the first years of their lives meant a complicated, painful but voluntary process. Reading the interview, one can appreciate that to the commander maternity was a secondary or subordinate role to the armed and popular struggle, in the context of a war where many other children of the people are left unprotected under the murderous and oppressive capitalist system.
Paula was a woman who never rejected the pleasure of loving and being loved. From the beginning, she announced that her first and biggest commitment was with the organization. This fighter wouldn’t comply with the idea of women as the center of the traditional family, an idea that has yet to overcome the stigmas of “housewife”, “good wife of…”, “women in the household, “sacrificed mother”, “loyal despite any circumstance and any behaviour of their husband”, among others.
From her own point of view and context, she considered love in its widest and deepest way, with no attachments that would compromise the dreams and works of the members of the couple. For women like her, whose biggest problems and concerns resided in politics and revolution, the choice of not sacrificing her dreams of being a wife and having a couple seem to be an anomaly. As women and men of the ELN, we call to build different practices in which we can love each other without giving up our militant projects, where women aren’t forced to be a social icon, to be diminish to other roles outside active participation for those that want it that way.
Woman and Commander
Up until now, Paula has been the only woman in the National Direction of the ELN and one of the comrades that has reflected about internal machismo and on the obstacles to exercise leadership in a political-military revolutionary organization. While she doesn’t define herself as feminist, her life and reflection leave a legacy for the new generations of women. A legacy that allows to see the various shades present in the struggle of classes, along the weight of of other systems of oppression that are sometimes relegated to the background over what we think is more important. Before class struggle, anti patriarchal and anti colonialist struggles are usually left behind, not only in the ELN but in most Leninist-Marxist organizations.
Paula, as a woman of the ELN, examined and questioned the organization. We may say that in her fight against class society, she was also touched and confronted by the machismo that forced her to strive twice as hard and to exercise harsh and strong attitudes, so that her authority and capacity weren’t questioned.
Commander Paula numbers some of the difficulties of the leading exercise, that allows us to comment and compare in a trans generational way with other experiences to get some considerations. In the first place, Paula’s example is considered as an extraordinary case. She always questioned the traditional “recognition” given to women as “companion of…”. It is time to be recognized by our own merits, named by our own names and not for being “companions of”.
As women, the access, dispute and exercise of power is a fundamental matter for the construction of our leaderships. Just as the commander said “if you investigate on the behaviour of female chief of staff, jail or hospital directors, etc., they are really intense because most men have problems to accept a female chief, so women must be extreme and adopt macho attitudes, to avoid being sabotaged from our authority”.
Paula doesn’t speak in an individual way, her enunciation includes other female comrades, she states it as an assumed characteristic. We ask ourselves, why authority is mainly associated to men? Femininity, tenderness and other ways of direction and conduction associated to women, are considered as a sign of weakness or condescence. This characteristic is not a rule or imposition of the ELN, it isn’t established in the rules or laws, but our dilemmas won’t escape from the historical segregation of women from power and authority in political and military sectors. In the Colombian and Latin American societies, the women of the peoples don’t have an aspiration to power, but we as subjects of the change, have the duty to face this in order to eradicate the contradictions that avert us from the world we want to build.
In the heat of the fights for recognition on behalf of our male comrades, we as women have the challenge to overcome envy, lack of recognition, competition and the difficulties to appreciate us as equals. Thoughts of other female comrades with leadership responsabilities, express the difficulties of being recognized by their female comrades and subordinates. This situations are product of the existing barriers for self affirmation, security, high self esteem and the constant effort to prove that we are valuable, good and skilled. The machista and capitalist society has already been really harsh on us, and to gain recognition in militant spaces is hard enough to make the path harder between us.
For those that read her today, 14 years after the interview, it is imperative to consider the context to which Paula belonged and the one we live today while being part of the ELN, as part of the reigning patriarchal system and culture.
The female guerrilla combatant pointed out with a critical perspective that even when the idea of the organization is to work for social transformation, the increment of female participation and the equality of rights and tasks between men and women, macho attitudes can be recognized, attitudes that go through the militant life and actions, like the severe value judgement before the “affective instability” of women; the discriminative identification of a “weak gender” and a strong one; the delayed female promotion in comparison to the recognition of the male work; the “ideal match” as a goal where the female figure is subordinated to the male one.
Challenges can be identified in the training duties inside the organization, some are mentioned by Commander Paula in her responses, others are noticeable in the same speech and seen daily within the organization, these must also be visualized for their transformation. Among the other challenges we can point out that inside the ELN the obstacles for the promotion and rise of female comrades to the leadership persist; there is the fight against the idea of the masculinization of woman and against the embracement of machismo by female comrades as a tool for the legitimization of power; the understated image of paternity in comparison to maternity, an aspect that affects the man who is restrained of giving love demonstrations to his children because, by the machista system “laws”, that is a labour of the mothers; the blaming on the woman for her social role, without the corresponding analysis that we are subjects that belong to said system that consume us in every possible way.
In comparison to the neoliberal, criminal, violent and femicide society, the ELN represents to us, women, a home, a family, an option of emancipation and struggle, an organization in which we can debate and construct with our hands and ideas, while the justice and non impunity advances against the violence against women, since harassment, physical aggression and sexual violence are punished. The ELN is our place and through here we position ourselves to the internal organization and before the situation of the women of the country.