Chile women break political mold
In one of Latin America's most conservative countries, the two front-runners in next year's presidential election are women.
First it happened in Argentina. Then in Guyana, and then again in Panama: Presidential wives, following the death of their husbands, succeeded them in the country's highest office. In Nicaragua, it was the wife of a murdered high-level political activist who rose to the top spot.Skip to next paragraph
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So far, riding the posthumous coattails of powerful husbands has been the only path to the presidency for women in Latin America.
Even now, two of the most talked-about Latin American women are first ladies: Marta Sahagun Fox in Mexico (married to President Vicente Fox) and Sen. Cristina Fernández in Argentina (wife of President Néstor Kirchner). Both may make presidential bids. It's a lot like north of the border in the United States, where a White House run could be in the future of Sen. Hillary Clinton, wife of the former president.
But here in male-dominated Chile - where only 36 percent of women work and there are no more women in Congress than there were three decades ago - the two front-runners in next year's presidential election, both women, are trying to break that pattern: Neither is wedded to el presidente. This is no stuffy old Latin country, say political insiders here.
"[Chile] might seem very conservative," says Clarissa Hardy, director of Foundation Chile 21, a think tank, "but if you scratch under the surface, you will see that we have been changing over the last 15 years, and things are very different than they look."
Former Defense Minister Michelle Bachelet, a virtual unknown before 2000, who once ran for a municipal council seat and got 2 percent of the vote, officially announced her intention to run for president of Chile last month. She is favored to win both her coalition party's nomination and the general election a year from now.
Nipping at her high heels is Soledad Alvear, the hard-working, tightly wound former foreign minster, who belongs to Ms. Bachelet's coalition - the center-left Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia, which has governed Chile for the past 15 years. She is less popular but might yet snag the nomination.
Either one, according to polls, would trounce the right-wing candidate, Santiago mayor Joaquín Lavín, if the election were held today. The latest numbers from Foundation Futuro show Bachelet winning 59 percent to 33 percent when pitted against Mr. Lavín; Ms. Alvear would win 50 percent to 36 percent.
"During the 17 years of [Gen. Augusto] Pinochet's dictatorship [1973-90], typical South American machista tendencies were magnified, and advances for women were frozen," says Ricardo Méndez, a pollster and commentator here. "But since then, there has been a pendulum effect, and people's attitudes are changing rapidly to make up for lost time. Women candidates are the latest manifestation of this process."