Tag Archives: Sandra Torres

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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Guatemala and Nicaragua’s Elections: What’s Next?

2 Dec

Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala

Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala

Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua

Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua

Guatemala and Nicaragua are two Central American countries that have painful pasts. Guatemala had a thirty-six year civil war and Nicaragua also experienced a civil war and dictatorship. Both are currently faced with extreme poverty and violence. In early November both countries held controversial elections which resulted in controversial results.

In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega was running for reelection, which does not seem out of the norm, except for the fact that he was running for a third term, which is illegal according to the Nicaraguan Constitution. In late 2009, the Supreme Court decided that the Constitutional ban on reelection did not apply to Ortega. Call it a coincidence if you like, but only the judges of the Sandinista party, Ortega’s party, were told of the session. The other three judges were replaced by Sandinista replacement judges when they did not appear, because they were never told. The other judges said that they feel powerless, that the Sandinistas control everything and there is nothing they can do. Many say that the decision should have been taken to Congress because it deals with Constitutional re-form, but to no surprise Ortega said the ruling was unchangeable.

The Guatemalan elections also started out with high levels of controversy and dispute when the First Lady, Sandra Torres, ran for President in March. However, close relatives of the President are constitutionally not allowed to run for president, so days after entering the race the First Lady filed for divorce. Torres argued that the divorce was not a political move but the Guatemalan public was not convinced. In late July, the Guatemalan Supreme Court voted against the First Lady’s bid stating that “legal fraud” was committed. The First Lady argued that not allowing her to run was violating her human rights, but the Court stuck to its vote. With Torres out of the running this left Manuel Baldizón, a wealthy businessman, and Otto Perez Molina, a retired right-wing general, as the frontrunners.

In early November it was announced that President Ortega won the election in Nicaragua. It seemed perhaps voters were pleased with Ortega’s efforts to stimulate the economy, most notably his partnership with Venezuela which brings $400 million loans each year to Nicaragua. Ortega has set up social programs during his presidency and helped citizens gain legal titles to their land. Despite all of this however, before the elections even concluded there were accusations of fraud. The opposition party accused Ortega’s party of denying identification cards to citizens opposed to the government, but granting them to Honduran citizens. Supporters of Fabio Gadea, Ortega’s opponent accused Ortega’s party of stuffing ballot boxes and preventing Ortega opposers from voting. There were also several reports that polling stations were burned in the north and central provinces. The Organization of American States said that its election monitors were kept out of polling stations. When Ortega’s victory was announced crowds took to the street in protest, it was not long before protesters and Ortega supporters clashed and four people were reported dead as a result. Ortega and his supporters continue to call him the victor as civil society organizations call for investigations into the election.

Also in early November, Guatemalan voters showed that they favored the ‘mano dura’ and voted Otto Perez Molina for president. Political scientists were taken back a bit by the popularity of Perez, a retired general from a brutal and long civil war. Did Guatemalans really want a strong military leader as president only fifteen years after the three decade long war had ended? A war in which the military killed, tortured and raped the citizens; and now human rights groups fight to charge these former military leaders and bring them to justice. Perez’s role in the war has never been fully investigated, although he denies involvement in the massacres. Why would Guatemala want a former military leader whose campaign declares him the ‘iron fist’? Perhaps it is because more than sixty percent of registered voters are between the ages of 18-30, for them the brutal civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans is a shadow of the past. Guatemala’s failing education system does not teach about the country’s civil war. The majority of registered voters don’t remember the brutal genocide conducted by the military, what they are concerned with is the violence which now plagues the country. They perceive their war is against crime, drug cartels that have taken over the country and control northern border towns. Violence attributed to Mexican drug cartels is on a steady rise and many police officials and politicians are on the cartel’s payroll. Perez’s solution is a forceful one similar to Mexico’s Calderon’s failing drug war. While experts say that Guatemala’s solution should be police reform, a stronger justice system and a security tax on the rich. The public is eager for a quicker solution which Perez seems to be promising.

So what lies ahead for these two countries? Nicaragua will continue to see both citizens and NGOs call for investigation into the election. Ortega’s government will most likely feign investigation but will remain in power. Ortega will probably keep his popularity among his loyal supporters. My prediction is that we will see left-leaning Ortega become more and more like his ally, Hugo Chavez, as he will most likely continue to ignore democracy as it provides his prohibitions and take sole control over Nicaragua. Guatemala will probably not see the decline in drug cartels with el ‘malo dura’. If Perez takes the violent approach to drug cartels like he’s promised, battling them with military we will most likely see the same results we are seeing with Calderon’s drug war, steady flow of violence and civilian murders as the cartels stay in the country. For someone who has studied Guatemala’s civil war extensively I sincerely hope that Guatemala does not go into another war if the military gets too powerful and corrupt once again. But, it is not certain with a President who has been accused in human rights abuses and most likely had a hand in the genocide of the civil war. It has been speculated that Guatemala will see human rights and civil liberties threatened as the government takes a forceful approach to drug violence. One thing is for certain, the political action in these countries is just beginning and the world needs to keep a careful eye on these Presidents.