Women Leaders of Latin America

17 Jan
Las Heads of State

Photo credits to Remezcla

With the shocking news of Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s discovery of cancer in her thyroid last month. And the cheerful news last week that after surgery it was discovered that she did not in fact have cancer. I was inspired to write a blog about the women leaders of Latin America.

I have long been curious why Latin America, the land of machismo, has seen so many women leaders and the United States, where feminism rose from, has yet to have a female president. In fact, the first woman president in the world was in Latin America, in Argentina. And over the past couple of years the number of female presidents in Latin America has only increased. I thought that it would be worthwhile to take a look at the women leaders that Latin America has seen and the impacts they have had.

As mentioned earlier, the first woman president in the world was from Argentina. Isabel Peron took office in 1974 when her husband, and then president Juan Domingo Peron died of a heart attack. A former cabaret dancer she was known to the public as “Isabelita”. But unlike Peron’s second wife, Eva Peron, Isabel did not find popularity in Argentina. In fact, her presidency saw much controversy. During her time in office there were several labor strikes and hundreds of political murders. In March 1976, she was overthrown in a military coup and held under house arrest for several years. She finally moved to Spain and in 2007 Argentina ordered an international arrest warrant for Peron. The warrant was for the forced disappearance of an activist in 1976, which was thought to be authorized by Peron. However, Spain rejected the extradition request claiming there was not enough evidence.

Similar to our own Hillary Clinton there have many former first ladies in Latin America whom have bid for presidency, some of whom have won. Within the past year the first ladies in both the Dominican Republic and in Guatemala ran for presidency. In the Dominican Republic First Lady Margarita Cedeño de Fernandez ran for president last year, hoping to take her husband, Leonel’s, place when he steps down this year. She ran an unsuccessful campaign with the slogan “Llegó Mamá” or “Mom has arrived”. She lost her bid for her party’s nomination and now is running for vice-president with presidential hopeful Danilo Medina. In Guatemala the First Lady Sandra Torres divorced her husband, President Alvaro Colom in order to run for president last year. In Guatemala an incumbent’s spouse in banned from seeking election. However, despite her efforts, Guatemalan courts ruled her bid for presidency unlawful and she was excluded from the running. President-elect Otto Perez Molina took office this past Saturday.

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is one first lady who actually won her bid for presidency. In October 2007 she swept to victory in Argentina’s presidential elections and took the presidency over from her husband, Nestor Kirchner. Cristina and her husband worked closely together and were often described as the power couple of Argentina. Sadly, in October 2010 Nestor Kirchner died of a heart attack at the age of sixty. During her presidency Kirchner has frequently butted heads with Argentina’s large agricultural constituency. Many Argentinians also complain that she is obsessed with her image. She has however been praised for her handling of the economy and her promotion of human rights and women rights. During her presidency Argentina became the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage. In October of last year Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner ran for reelection and won with more than 54% of the votes, becoming the first woman in Argentina to win reelection.

Michelle Bachelet was the first woman Defense Minister in Latin America, she also was the first woman Health Minister. During the Pinochet dictatorship her father was held under charges of treason. While detained her father suffered a heart attack and died. After he died she and her mother were detained and tortured. They managed to exile to Australia due to their military connections. Bachelet later moved to Germany and finally returned to Chile four years later in 1979. She is a pediatrician and epidemiologist with studies in military strategies. In 2006, Bachelet became Chile’s first female president under the Socialist Party winning 53.5% of the vote. During her term, Bachelet focused on free-market policies and increasing social benefits to close the gap between the rich and the poor. In March 2010 her term ended, Chile’s constitution does not allow a second term. But in September 2010 she was appointed the head of UN Women, a new UN agency dealing with gender issues.

The sixth woman to be elected president in Latin America and the first in Costa Rica is Laura Chinchilla. She received her masters degree in public policy from Georgetown University. She served as the Vice-President to Oscar Arias Sanchez. In February 2010 she won her campaign for presidency with 46.76% of the vote. She is considered a social conservative, she emphasizes anti-crime legislation and free trade policies. She is opposed to abortion and opposes gay marriage but has stated the need for a legal frame to provide fundamental rights to same-sex couples.

Dilma Rousseff served as former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s Energy Minister and then later as his Chief of Staff. Rousseff also helped found the Democratic Labor Party. At a young age Rousseff joined a Marxist guerrilla group that fought against Brazil’s military dictatorship. She was captured and jailed from 1970 to 1972 and was reportedly tortured. On October 31, 2010 she was elected the first female President of Brazil a country which is expected to move from seventh to fifth largest economy in the world. She has pledged to continue the social welfare programs started by the Lula administration.

In Nicaragua, Violeta Chamorro came from a wealthy family and was educated in the United States. She took over the controversial newspaper, La Prensa, after her husband Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, who had been editor, was assassinated. In 1990, she ran for president under the National Opposition Union, an anti-Sandinista party. She beat incumbent Daniel Ortega and became president. She was in office for seven years and was credited for bringing peace and stability to the country. However, now Ortega rules the country once again.

In the late 1970s Lidia Gueiler Tejada was the second woman in Latin America to become Head of State. She was chosen as the interim president of Bolivia after temporary president Walter Guevara was ousted and there was an inconclusive election. However, she herself was overthrown in a military coup. In 1997, the vice-president of Ecuador, Rosalia Arteaga, served as interim president for two days. When the former president, Abdala Bucaram was declared unfit to govern by Congress. Arteaga later ran for president in 1998 but lost the election.

In 1999, Mireya Moscoso, a trained interior designer, became the first female president of Panama. Her late husband, Arnulfo Arias served as president three times. She campaigned to reduce poverty and improve education but was accused several times of corruption. She was responsible for the handover of the Panama canal to the U.S.

So how is it that the land of machismo has seen so many female heads of state? I myself continue to struggle with a sufficient answer to the question. One suggestion that political scientists have made is that thirteen Latin American countries have created electoral gender quota laws that require female political representation. It has also been suggested that women have a special vision that is critical to solving social problems, which voters in Latin America see as a pressing concern. I see each case as being different, some have been the country calling for change, some cases have been the country calling for continuation and seeing the predecessor’s wife as a continuation in policy and some have been the country recognizing that the candidate, be it a woman or not is the best. There is one thing for certain, Latin America is far ahead of the United States in female presidents.

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2 Responses to “Women Leaders of Latin America”

  1. sapitosetty January 18, 2012 at 2:34 am #

    Why do you say Latin America is the land of machismo? I think you have a lot to learn about the history of that word and the history of women in different societies. Sexism is everywhere, and it plays out differently in each culture.

    • Vamos Caminando January 24, 2012 at 12:29 am #

      How can I say that Latin America is the land of machismo, perhaps because the word itself is from both the Spanish and Portuguese languages and derives from Latin America. I think I also imply well in the blog post that the state of machismo in Latin America is improving.

      And nowhere do I suggest that sexism does not exist elsewhere in the world or in other cultures. My blog only concerns Latin America, that is the only part of the world I am focused on and commenting on.

      Perhaps it would do you well to read the post again instead of jumping to the conclusion that I am not versed in world history or womens issues which I believe to be contrary to the truth.

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