Latins Tap Leaders Like 'Irene!'

"Power to women!"

That T-shirt slogan says it all for the women waiting in one of Caracas's poorest neighborhoods to greet their candidate in Venezuela's December presidential election.

She's Irene Sez, the 1981 Miss Universe and former mayor of one of Caracas's better-managed suburbs. Her rooters chant, "Victory for Irene!"

Change the candidate's name, and it's a chant being heard throughout Latin America, as more high-profile women leaders than ever before enter politics in invigorated democracies.

This week, hundreds of women are gathering in Montevideo, Uruguay, for a conference, "Vital Voices of the Americas: Women in Democracy" (through Oct. 3). The US first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, travels there after her address yesterday in Santiago, Chile, where 21 first ladies met in a "summit" to seek solutions to social problems.

In macho Latin America, women still have a long way to go before they enjoy equal political power - or even come near the 30 percent of selected posts they aspire to. But the signs of the times are many:

Colombia. Former Foreign Minister Noem Sann got 27 percent of the vote in June presidential elections, Colombia's highest tally ever for an independent candidate.

Guyana. US-born Janet Jagan won a heavily disputed election last December, becoming the country's first woman president and the only current female head of state in the Americas.

Panama. Mireye Moscoso, unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1994, was both a central force behind - and principal beneficiary of - the defeat in September of a referendum that would have allowed President Ernesto Prez Balladares to run for reelection, analysts say. The outcome places Ms. Moscoso in a strong position to seek Panama's presidency again next year.

Ecuador. Rosalia Arteaga, a former schoolteacher-turned-vice president, became the country's first woman president - if only for a few days - after the congressional dismissal of Abdal Bucarm as president in February 1997.

Argentina. Graciela Fernndez Meijide, congressional opposition leader, is at the top of polls for next year's elections to replace outgoing President Carlos Menem.

"Women's leadership is growing as part of a normal process of incorporation of women into all areas of life," says Ms. Sez of Venezuela.

Latin America's economic crisis of the 1980s led many women to seek a second family income outside the home, she adds, and women became more involved in the "centers of power" where decisions affecting their lives are made: places of work, unions, and politics.

But another important factor is the broad desire for something new, honest, and effective in politics, and a growing impatience with the closed doors, old-boy corruption, aloofness - and machismo - that for many Latins characterize their national politics.

"Voters know what women have had to go through to break out of their four walls; in Latin America we've demonstrated our ability," says Margarita Londoo, a Colombian journalist who was elected an independent senator in April legislative elections.

"We're benefiting from the perception that we have gotten ahead maintaining honesty and efficiency, while still representing something new."

Yet women in Latin America still have special hurdles to cross in attaining leadership roles.

First, many a women leader will face the opinion that she, like Nicaragua's Violeta Chamorro, is simply an extension of her deceased husband's leadership.

And women leaders will be especially subject to attacks over failing to uphold the high standards set by their image or over any signs of weakness, some observers say.

Sez's campaign troubles illustrate this. Last year she led polls, but she has fallen behind former attempted coup leader Hugo Chvez. Some analysts cite Venezuela's economic crisis as turning voters toward a Chvez perceived to be "harder and tougher."

But others say Sez's decline stems from a "flip-flop" when she hitched her independent campaign to a traditional political party's wagon - the Social Christian Party (COPEI).

"This remains a machista [sexist] society," says Elides Rojas, chief editor of the Caracas daily El Universal, "so when this woman candidate who had emphasized her independence made such a big switch, people said, 'What can you expect, she's a woman, she lacks strength and character.' "

The challenge for Latin America's women leaders, Colombia's Londoo says, will be to demonstrate that their talk of change, accountability, and fresh ideas is not just words.

"If we don't answer the demands," she says, "we'll end up with even greater disillusionment as we're seen as just the same old politicians."

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