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Costa Rica elects first woman president, inspiring the region

Laura Chinchilla won Costa Rica's presidential election in a landslide victory Sunday that is eliciting cheers from women across Central America.

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“[President Moscoso] opened the doors for our gender to show its capabilities,” says Laura Rangel, a hotel receptionist in Panama City. And she says Chinchilla´s victory in Costa Rica will inspire women throughout Central America. “It is marvelous. It is an example for all underdeveloped countries that they can be run by a woman, not just a man.”

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Why Chinchilla won

Chinchilla, a former vice president and public security minister, led polls since her campaign was launched in June. Her popularity owes in part to her predecessor, Oscar Arias, a second-term president and Nobel Peace Prize winner who recently made headlines for his role in the Honduran mediation process and who boasts a 73 percent approval rating.

“Oscar Arias’s government has been a successful one and the only option to carry that forward is to elect Laura,” says Esteban González, a 28-year-old archivist, who campaigned outside a voting station for her throughout the day.

Mr. Zeledón says a series of factors led to her clear victory Sunday. “Laura drew her support from many areas. There were some who wanted to see a woman president and others who wanted continuity in the government. The rest of her support was a result of the machine that is the National Liberation Party,” he says, explaining that party organization and favor with the voters secured her a wide margin.

Often described as an independent thinker and skilled diplomat, Chinchilla found support on the campaign trail from voters such as Xinia Vargas Alvarado.

“Costa Rica is ready for a woman president,” says Ms. Vargas Alvarado, outside a polling station Sunday. “We think she will do a better job with … issues of childcare, single motherhood, and housing.”

Yirlamia Pessoa who came to the polls with her two daughters, Danisha and Yariela, agrees. “We think she will better understand the issues facing women,” she says.

Who she is

Born in Desamparados, a working class suburb of the capital San José, Chinchilla grew up watching her father navigate the political scene as the country’s comptroller for 15 years. The eldest of four children and only daughter, she studied political science at the University of Costa Rica and continued her education at Georgetown University where she received a master’s degree in public policy.

Back in Costa Rica she worked as a consultant on issues relating to security and judicial reform and held her first public office at age 35 as vice minister of public security. Two years later, she became minister of public security, the first woman to serve in that capacity. She was elected to the legislative assembly for a four-year term in 2002 and then served as vice president under President Arias.