Las Presidentas

Dilma Rousseff and Lula. Photo by Aloizio Mercadante Oliva Dilma Rousseff (center) and Lula.
Aloizio Mercadante (CC)

Late October brought two key events for female presidents in Latin America, which came attached to key events for their male partners. First, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner lost her husband and political partner Néstor Kirchner to heart failure on October 27, sparking uncertainty about her political policies in his absence. Four days later, Dilma Rousseff became the first woman to win the Brazilian presidency. Instead of recognizing the monumental feat of Rousseff's election as the first female president of Latin America's largest country, analysts worldwide are asking whether Rousseff is a puppet for her hugely popular predecessor, former boss and campaign-trail champion Luis Ignácio "Lula" da Silva (The Economist calling Rousseff "Lula in lipstick").

The past few years, trumpeted as the "Era of La Presidenta" by major news outlets (for example, this article in The Washington Post), has seen a string of female heads of state in Latin America. The region gained global attention for electing Michele Bachelet in 2006 and Cristina Kirchner in 2007. Since then, women have moved to the helm of Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, and now, Brazil. Indeed, the ratio of female country leaders in Latin America outstrips other regions of the globe. Many run on a strategy that compensates for their gender in one way or another in order to win, however; and once they gain office, their positions often remain weak.

Rousseff fits into a line of "status quo" female leadership in Latin America. Isabel Martinez de Perón inherited the presidency of Argentina from her husband, the populist Juan Peron, in the 1970s. Cristina Kirchner also won the presidency with endorsement from her incumbent husband. Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, who took office in May of 2010, rose to prominence as vice-president of her popular predecessor President Oscar Arias. Chinchilla is another female president who a campaigned on a "continuity" message. Indeed, enlisting a female successor begins to seem a tool for powerful men to extend their power and control beyond term limits—and even the grave—rather than a sign of women's progress.

Latin American female politicians also gain power through promises of "la madre" (maternal) leadership. Augusto Pinochet, along with other authoritarian leaders in Latin America, encouraged political support from conservative women, evoking images of the Catholic mother. Liberal groups have utilized the political mother image as well. Madres de Plaza de Mayo, who protest secret kidnappings of the Argentine authoritarian regime, raise a strong political voice. Most female politicians have used that accepted role to gain popularity among the Latin American electorate. Former Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro, widow of the assassinated editor of La Prensa, was elected president in 1990 based on her image as a martyr and her continuation of her husband's fight against the establishment and civil war. Chinchilla highlights her conservative platform, crafting her public image as mother of the people and protector of Catholic family values. Rousseff cultivated a mother image rhetorically, telling Brazil's Globo TV, "To take care of the government sometimes is like being a mother."

While female politicians' success in Latin American elections is laudable, this trend does not trumpet either the end of machismo or a new dawn for women's liberation in the region. Close association with another political leader can diminish any leader's own power. As a powerful senator, Cristina Kirchner has a longer history on the national political stage than her late husband did. However, when Néstor Kirchner decided to endorse his wife instead of seeking re-election in 2007, Cristina Kirchner's image shifted to become a placeholder for her husband's planned campaign for re-election in 2011. As expected, from 2007-2010, Cristina Kirchner continued her husband's economic and political policies. These policies have come under fire—the couple is accused of underestimating inflation levels and of increasing spending amid tax revenue shrinkage. However, in the wake of her husband's recent death, Cristina Kirchner's popularity has surged. Political analysts hope to see her move to further from his policies, gaining a kind of independence she had not asserted during his life.

Dilma Rousseff also suffers from weakness by association. Lula appeared on nearly all of her campaign posters and at the majority of her high-profile campaign events. Despite decades of experience as a political staffer, Rousseff is hamstrung by hopes that she will continue Lula's hugely successful policies—and fears that she cannot. Each decision she makes, particularly early in her term, will be judged against Lula's position and potential actions. Speculation abounds that Rousseff is another placeholder, and that Lula will run again at the end of her first term, when he is eligible for another election. Lula has recently denied those rumors, stating he has no intention to run in 2014. Still, the possibility he would run after a two-term Rousseff presidency in 2018 remains—and it's hard to predict how long his shadow will stretch over Rousseff.

Perhaps a more telling signal that female leadership is no death knell of patriarchy in Latin America is continued reluctance among female politicians to push for women's rights legislation. Largely Catholic, most Latin American countries have strict legal restrictions on divorce and abortion. There also remains a sizeable pay gap between women and men in the region. Despite her politically liberal background, Rousseff stayed away from women's issues in her campaign until her opponent ran ads painting her as pro-abortion in the runoff elections in late October; Rousseff reacted by reversing previous statements that she supported the decriminalization of abortion. The overtly feminine Kirchner has not put forward women's rights legislation in Argentina since taking office in 2007. In Costa Rica, Chinchilla has vocally distanced herself from women's movements. She has stated that she believes women have already achieved equality with men in Costa Rica, sparking howls of protest from Costa Rican feminist groups.The symbolic accomplishment of electing a female president, then, does not necessarily translate into a practical accomplishment of female-friendly policies.

Chile—so frequently touted in the post-Pinochet era as a paragon of economic and political success in Latin America—provides a counter-example. Chileans elected a female president in 2006 that enacted a swath of legal liberalization of gender laws. Former President Bachelet, who says she's been told "You are like the big mother of everybody," signed pieces of legislation allowing breastfeeding in public, legalizing divorce, punishing sexual harassment and domestic violence, protecting rape victims and requiring equal pay in the workplace. Furthermore, Bachelet pushed against the "madre" image once in office. As she told NOW on PBS, "When I am talking about social protection, it's not a Mom issue. It's an everybody issue." Bachelet's accomplishments as a female leader are so notable that she has been appointed the United Nations' Under-Secretary General for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and included in Foreign Policy magazine's "Top 100 Global Thinkers." Bachelet is also unique for her election independent of a male political sponsor.

In many cases, feminist groups, political analysts, and voters are left with a choice between supporting a symbolic achievement and holding out for a practical one. Indeed, electing status quo female leaders could paper over vital inequalities still evident in many societies. Until Latin America—and the globe—elects more Michele Bachelets, impressive statistics of female political leadership will remain hollow. Perhaps a step toward parity is encouraging female leaders to run on their own merits; while election to office may be easier with a strong male backer, feminist leadership is not.

Read More: Women's Rights, Latin America/Caribbean, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua

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