Twelve women in charge
Facing the possibility that a woman could get to sit for the first time in the Oval Office, its time to review the history and realize that we’re pioneers in Latin America.
The presidential race in the United States has meant a paradigm rupture whose giddiness hasn’t allowed us to absorb it calmly. It seems like racism, machismo, political caricature and the incredulity have been common places since the end of the primaries.
Latin Americans – a considerably enlarged population in the United States – not only have felt the absence of a dialogue about their needs inside the political rhetoric, but have forgotten - maybe as a reaction to the adaptation process to immigration - that in Latin America we are pioneers in gender equality inside the public administrations.
It’s true that such statement may seem paradoxical, especially when Latin American countries have been always labeled as macho cultures, a conduct fundamentally engrained by the woman herself. But history tells us otherwise:
After supporting her husband, Juan Domingo Perón, during his political career in the 70s, María Estela Martínez de Perón, better known as Isabel Gómez “Isabelita” (artistic pseudonym that she adopted after splitting with her family, while she lived in Caracas, Venezuela) accepted the charge of Vice President, offered very firmly by Perón in 1973. Her husband’s brief term would end with his death on the 1st of July 1974. Even though it’s well known that Isabel had resigned her position as President after Perón’s death, she had no option and had to take the reins of the southern country.
María Estela’s government was framed in the Cold War period, simultaneously with the American defeat in Vietnam. The political tension due to adjacent dictatorships and the insurgence of leftists guerrillas, made her work twice as hard. The divided administration and the strong right-wing tendency of her decisions made the military forces to create an intolerant atmosphere. After the incorporation of the military forces into the political conflict – raised by the economical scene and devaluation – María Estela refused to resign, putting forward, whoever, the presidential elections, which didn’t avoid the imminent coup the 24th of march 1976. The Military replaced the constitutional government with a Military Board that would put María Estela Martínez de Perón behind bars for five years.
Similarly, and during the leftists groups insurrection in Latin America during the 50s, the Revolutionary National Party from Bolivia earned some ground, and one of it’s militants was Lidia Guelier Tejada. After being accused for conspiracy and a brief career as a diplomat, Guelier joined the popular rising of the Central Worker in Bolivia, against General Alberto Natusch Busch. After the restoration of the government, the Congress chose Guelier as the nation’s constitutional and interim president until the elections on the 29th of June 1980. Such elections never took place, since Lidia Guelier Tejada was overthrown by a military coup sponsored by the Argentinian Army, on the 17th of July 1980.
But the first woman to be democratically elected as president in a Latin American country would be Violeta Chamorro, in Nicaragua. After the assassination of her husband, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro – owner of the newspaper La Prensa – Violeta joined the Government Board that would reconstruct the country after the victory of the Sandinista Revolution. After the triumph of the coalition National Opposition Union, sponsored by the USA government, Violeta Chamorro was elected president of Nicaragua until 1996.
During the restoration of the democracy in Latin America, at the beginning of the 1990s, Haiti entered the scenario belatedly after General Herard Abraham’s coup. This insurrection would make way to the then Chief of Justice in the Supreme Court, Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, to take the reins provisionally. In January 1991 her government was defeated with a new putsch that would call for new elections.
In Ecuador, for its part, women were already discharging local political charges. Such was the case of Rosalía Arteaga Serrado, Councilor for the Social-Christian Party in 1986 and later on Ministry of Education in 1994. She was also co-founder of the Independent Movement for an Authentic Republic (MIRA in Spanish) that supported her candidacy to the Vice Presidency in alliance with Abdalá Bucaram. The pair assumed power the 10th of August 1996 but their work was mined with conflicts of interests that would determine the Congress’ request for Bucaram’s cessation in 1997. As the “night of the three presidents” passed, Equator woke up with three people “claiming” to be Chief of State.
After the intervention of the Military, the government void was provisionally filled with the Vice President’s figure while the Congress resolved the circumstance.
But not all Latin American female presidents where born in Latin America. Such is the case of Janet Jagan, born in Chicago and married to Cheddi Jagan, an Indo-Guyanese with whom she moved to British Guyana. After being a leftist activist and joining the British Guyana’s Work and Union Party, she founded in 1946 the Woman’s Front and the Popular Progressive Party with her husband. She performed in the House of Assembly and in the Legislative Assembly, but her leftist tendency fostered a domiciliary arrest for two years. She came back to the Parliament from 1973 until 1992, when her husband was elected president.
After Cheddi Jagan’s death, Janet assumed the Presidential Role, to later run as president on December 1997, winning with the support of PPP. She resigned to her post the 8th of August 1999, for health problems.
In the same way, Mireya Moscoso, who had once been married to Arnulfo Arias Madrid – three times President of Panamá – changed the name of her late husband’s party to Partido Arnulfista in 1990, adopting the role of political widow, similarly to Perón. After losing the elections in 1994 against Ernesto Pérez Balladares, she reorganized her political posture to race again in 1999, wining heavily.
She was known for involving completely with the rural politics, improving the social conditions and implementing educational and cultural programs. The pinnacle of her presidential career was the total delivery of the sovereignty of the Panama Channel in the hands of Jimmy Carter in 1999. Such circumstance, joined with the economical decay, was overtaken with the encouragement of tourism through the Miss Universe pageant in 2003.
Moscoso ended her period with the remission of anti-Castro terrorists Luis Posada Carriles, Gaspar Jiménez, Pedro Remón and Guillermo Novo Sampol, decision that broke diplomatic relationships with Cuba and Venezuela.
Despite de historical debate around Puerto Rico’s autonomy, it is pertinent to mention that Sila Calderón was the first woman to be Governor of the Commonwealth, and the 8th person, born in the Island, to fill the position. After a political career in the Secretariat of State, Secretariat of Government and in the Municipality of San Juan, Calderón finally earned the position of Governor on January 2nd 2001, for a 4-year period.
Michelle Bachelet Jería, in Chile, particularly represented this second generation of woman in Latin American politics. Daughter of an assassinated brigadier in the hands of Pinochet’s tyranny, Bachelet studied Medicine in Chile University and, due to her militancy in the Socialist Party, she was persecuted, arrested and exiled until 1979. She developed her political career when democracy was reinstituted, working as Ministry of Health and as the fist woman in the Ministry of Defense in a Latin American country. She launched her presidential campaign with the support of the Conciliation of Parties for Democracy, winning the elections the 11th of December 2005.
In spite of the social crisis she had to deal with during her first period, it was her handling of the global economic crisis in 2008 what positioned her as one of the most powerful and influential woman in the world. However, the closure of her first period was marked by the earthquake disaster in 2010. She has been a spokeswoman for gender equality through the foundation of UNO’s Woman’s Agency, created from the platform she gained as United Nations Deputy Secretary-General. Upon her return to the country in 2013, she became once again candidate to the Presidency wining again the 11th of March 2014. Bachelet currently holds the Presidency of Chile.
The feminine incursion in politics would not relegate its pioneer, Argentina. The marriage between Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández would bring back to life the peronist provincial movements. Both lawyers and leftists began their career in the Santa Cruz Province, from where they’d oppose some capitalist projects of Carlos Menem’s Government. These disputes would be extended to Fernández period as MP and would finally break their relationship with the Popular Party. For 2005 she was elected Senator of Buenos Aires until 2007, when she’d assume the charge of President of the Republic, being the first lady to be democratically elected and the second one to serve.
The Kirchner marriage had been a left activist during the Dictatorship, during which they went unnoticed, even when their partners where arrested and disappeared. Openly Peronist, Fernández supported the candidature and the government of her husband, who’d win the elections after Menen’s resignation on the second round in 2003. Néstor’s demise opened the Presidential scenario for Cristina, as much as Perón’s death did for Isabel.
After her candidacy in 2007, Cristina Fernández won the first round with 45,29% of the votes, a historical figure not only in Argentina but in Latin America as well, being the first woman to be democratically elected for the Presidency in her country. Her political activity was framed by the popular reforms and her close relationship with “revolutionary” governments in the continent. On June 21st 2011 she launched her candidacy to the reelection, winning with an even larger range than her first period. Mauricio Macri succeeded Cristina Fernández on December 9th 2015. After her cease, Kirchner is being tried for economic malfeasance and abuse of power.
During the 1990’s, the political career of woman in Latin America would strengthen, separating them from the conjugal model for an independent and autonomous career. Such is the case of Laura Chinchilla. Puerto Rican political scientist, she worked as a consultant in Latin America and Africa with different groups like USAID, PNUD, BID and OAS. Chinchilla worked as Vice-Minister in Public Safety as well as President of the National Migration Council and the Drug Intelligence Group.
Inside the Legislature, Chinchilla worked in several reform projects, rising to the Vice-Presidency during Óscar Arias Sánchez’s period. Se resigned from her role to launch her candidacy as President with the support of the National Liberation Party on October the 8th 2008, being the fourth woman to run in Costa Rica after Norma Vargas Duarte (1994), Yolanda Gutiérrez Ventura (1998) and Naruba Volio Brenes (1998).
After the elections on February 7th 2010, Chinchilla was elected President of the Republic with a 46% of support. Her political posture was openly known as homophobic and ultraconservative.
Finally in Brazil, Dilma Vana da Silva Rousseff was the female representative in Latin America’s biggest country. Having been present in the coup of 1964, Rousseff was a political activist with the Revolutionary Marxist and Worker Organization and in the COLINA guerrilla, for what she was arrested, tortured and convicted in 1970 for a Military Tribunal. After gaining her freedom, she was formed in economics and began her political life in the Democratic Worker Party with whom she broke off relations when joining the Worker’s Party, led by Lula da Silva. Rouseff would serve as Mines and Energy Ministry during Lula’s presidency and would later replace José Dirceu as cabinet chief. Se resigned her role the 31st of March 2010 to launch her candidacy as President of Brazil, being elected after the second round with 56% approval.
Her government was characterized by following the guidelines of her predecessor, in a quest for overcoming the economical crisis of 2008, when she sought support from Mercosur, even though Argentina was in a critic situation. Brazil’s social crisis was evidenced with the criticism to FIFA’s World Cup in 2014 and her political image continued to deteriorate until the suspension of her charge by the Senate on August 2016. The Senate declared Rousseff guilty on the charges of “covering fiscal accounts and the signature of decrees without the consent of the Congress”.
This is the political historic background of Latin America in the hands of female figures, a change process that, even though facilitated by conjugal relationships, provided the economic profession in an equal scenario, allowing Latin American women to access a professional formation, once considered only for man.
It seems like, even though we have always considered ourselves inferiors in international political and economic subjects, we Latin Americans are the ones that possess a wide experience in gender equality inside the professional sphere, unlike “developed” countries that barely glimpse their firs political scenario in high heels.