Woman cracks Mexico's 'machismo'

That wasn't said may be the best measure of the progress of women in machismo-bound Mexico.

When Amalia Garca Medina assumed the presidency of the nation's main left-center political party yesterday, the fact that she is a woman did not even come up in the media coverage or party publicity.

A former communist and mother of one daughter, Mrs. Garca's 20-year political career has made her a household name among Mexico's politically attuned families.

But it's still significant that she's the first woman elected to head one of the country's three big political parties, insists Patricia Olamendi Torres, a member of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) national executive committee. "Not everybody is happy with it," she says. "In our society, and even within the PRD, we still have the idea that women are not capable of handling this high a position. It's a further chipping away of that old thinking."

The old thinking is still as strong as green salsa here.

Mexico is a country where women are revered every Mother's Day, but often forgotten the rest of the time. And it's not just men who favor women stay at home and out of politics. Carolina O'Farrill Tapia, an independent member of the national congress, says that Mexican women are as likely as men (perhaps more) to favor a traditional, male-dependent role for women. "A lot of women don't like to see women in politics," she says.

Still, with more women entering the work force and family size continuing a downward trend, more women are pushing into positions of power. That's especially true in the public sector.

Garca's party has an "affirmative action" policy of achieving 30 percent representation of women in the party's different posts. The goal is met and surpassed in many committees and candidate lists, but still distant in one-person posts like state party presidencies.

Only in one state, Nuevo Leon, does the PRD have a woman president. But the generally high representation of women within the party apparatus reflects a similarly high level of participation of women in Mexico's federal government work force - a level that falls off in state and local governments.

A recent survey of women in "positions of power and decisionmaking" in Mexico found that 30 percent of higher administrative posts in the federal administration are held by women. In the Foreign Relations Secretariat, where a woman, Rosario Green, is in charge, the level rises slightly to 31 percent. But that high representation gradually falls off in other secretariats (20 percent in Environment, also headed up by a woman) and governmental branches. In the House, it's 19 percent, the Senate 17 percent. But it's in local government that women in "power positions" fall off to trace levels: Less than 4 percent of Mexico's more than 2,000 towns and cities are governed by a woman.

For some women in politics, Garca's higher profile on the national scene should be a plus for women's participation in public life in general. "We're going to see a greater number of women candidates for a variety of public offices, within Amalia's own party but in other parties as well," says Congresswoman O'Farrill. "This is one more impetus for women to get involved."

The first woman party leader

Garca is not the first woman to take the reins of a Mexican political party. In 1995 Maria de los Angeles Moreno (now a senator, as is Garca) took over the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). But she was appointed, not elected, and her short presidency of the long-ruling official party ran into a lot of resistance that Ms. Moreno herself acknowledged after she left that office.

A former assemblywoman in the Mexico City legislature, Garca was first a candidate for the PRD presidency in 1996. In March she ran for the presidency again in elections that were thrown out by the party as hopelessly mired in irregularities. Sunday's election, in which 482,000 party members and sympathizers participated, was more orderly than the March vote, although participation fell off by 20 percent.

Garcia will have ample opportunity to demonstrate the "feminine" qualities for which she has become known during a long political career: moderation, inclusiveness, and a talent for reconciliation, all while steadfastly holding to her core beliefs.

"Amalia brings a tradition of working with and opening up to a wide variety of people and groups and ideas, even while maintaining the positions of the party," says Patricia Olamendi Torres, a member of the PRD national executive committee.

Her talents will be quickly put to the test in two crucial matters the PRD must soon resolve. First is the continuing (and deteriorating) schoolyard spat between party founders Cuauhtmoc Crdenas and Porfirio Muoz Ledo.

Second is the proposal on the table to enter the 2000 presidential election with one candidate from a broad coalition of the opposition, including the right-of-center National Action Party (PAN).

The Crdenas-Muoz Ledo feud - largely a clash of egos - doesn't help promote the vision of a harmonious political organization. In an interview with a Mexico City daily this week, Garca said reconciling the two leaders - both of whom fancy a candidacy for the Mexican presidency - was a personal priority.

She said the two party leaders' debate should be carried out across a table and not "in a ring." Focusing on personal and "superficial" issues is "a very gringo style of politics," she added, not one she advocates for Mexico.


Garca has relatively little time to act, since Mr. Cardenas is expected to step down as Mexico City mayor by Sept. 15 to seek the presidency. But she also will have to get moving on the opposition alliance proposal if that has any hope of flying. Mexico City political analyst Sergio Sarmiento notes that if anyone can get the idea off the ground from the PRD side it is probably Garca, since she is one of the "principal architects" of the party's alliances program. That program has helped the PRD win two governorships over the past year. The question now is if the PRD under Garca can agree to an alliance with the ideologically dissimilar PAN. Most political analysts agree a coalition of the two is the only way Mexico's opposition can wrest the presidency away from the PRI - which has held power for 70 years - in elections next May.

Garca's abilities got an endorsement from an unlikely source this week. Vicente Fox, the PAN's only declared presidential candidate and according to polls the opposition's strongest contender, said Garca's election makes an opposition alliance all the more possible. "She's an independent voice," Governor Fox says, "that's very positive for an alliance."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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