In Latin America, no more women presidents – for now

As Chile votes, Latin America is poised to have no 'presidentas' for the first time in more than a decade. Does that matter?

Sebastian Rodriguez/Chilean Presidency/Reuters
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet takes part in the annual military parade in Santiago, Chile, Sept. 19. She will step down after national elections Nov. 19.

When Michelle Bachelet won Chile’s presidential election in 2006, she not only became the first woman to hold her country’s highest office; she ushered in a wave of female presidential victories that shattered glass ceilings across Latin America.

At one point, in 2014, more than 40 percent of the region’s citizens lived under female rule.

But as Chileans head to the polls Sunday to elect their next leader, and President Bachelet prepares to step down, an era is ending: For the first time in over a decade there will be no women presidents, or Presidentas, in the region.

It’s an important shift. In a part of the world known for its rampant machismo, the recent Presidenta period marked a hopeful turning point for Latin America. There have been signs of progress in gender equality in many nations, but some women are disappointed that Bachelet and her fellow women leaders did not do more.

And they are wondering whether the gains since 2006 will outlast the women who fought for them from their presidential offices, as the continent returns to all-male leadership. 

“At one point Latin America had four women presidents at the same time,” in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Costa Rica, says Farida Jalalzai, who teaches politics at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. “It’s spectacular,” she adds, “but it doesn’t mean something will be built on that.”

Other observers are more optimistic.

“The symbolic weight of having a woman president can’t be underestimated,” argues Gwynn Thomas, who studies gender and politics in Latin America at The State University of New York at Buffalo. The Presidentas “really changed the perception of women’s leadership. It may be the end of an era, [but] it’s not The End.”

Progress, of a sort

Latin America had known female presidents before Bachelet, but half of them had taken over from their dead husbands and another, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro was the widow of a martyred Nicaraguan journalist.

Bachelet and other female leaders, however, benefited from the greater role in politics that women carved for themselves in the pro-democracy movements that emerged from dictatorships that collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s.

They also profited from voters’ hopes they would be less corrupt than their male counterparts, and from the blessings they received from their popular male predecessors, such as Luiz Inácio da Silva in Brazil, or Nobel peace prize winner Óscar Arias in Costa Rica.

But once they took office, distracted by other issues, the new leaders did not always make gender equality and women’s rights a priority.

Even Bachelet, who ran on a strongly feminist platform and who did more than any of her sister Presidentas to change policies affecting women, gets only a passing grade from Chilean feminists.

Esteban Felix/AP
Supporters of presidential candidate Alejandro Guillier from the Nueva Mayoria coalition wave flags featuring current Chilean President Michelle Bachelet during Guillier's closing campaign rally in Santiago, Chile, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. Chile will hold presidential and congressional elections on Sunday.

"The presence of a woman in the highest office in the country extended the symbolic limits in a very conservative society,” acknowledges Perla Wilson, former director of the feminist radio station Radio Tierra.

But, Ms. Wilson says, progress in Chile over the course of Bachelet’s two presidential terms, from 2006 to 2010, and again starting in 2014, was mixed.

Bachelet worked hard to loosen a strict abortion law, provide pension bonuses for women who leave the workforce temporarily to care for their families, legalize the “morning after pill,” and create a Ministry for Women and Gender Equality. She also won approval for gender quotas in parliament, which will be implemented in Chile for the first time during this weekend’s election.

But on other important issues, such as violence against women, she failed to pass any significant legislation, and the rates of such violence have not dropped as a result of her presidency.

“I think she could have done more,” says Maria Elena Soto, a member of the Resueltas, or Determined, feminist collective in Santiago. “Of course there have been improvements made in terms of gender equality, but she really didn’t commit herself.”

In Argentina, Kirchner was more “reactionary, not necessarily promoting womens’ empowerment herself, but not obstructing others’ efforts,” says Dr. Jalalzai, author of the book “Women Presidents of Latin America: Beyond Family Ties.”

Machismo still rules

Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff was seen as  inconsistent, though she did appoint more women to her cabinet, including her chief of staff. She appointed more women justices, and expanded poverty-alleviation policies, framing them as “specific to women,” Jalalzai says.

But her impeachment last year underscored some of the gendered stereotypes – and perhaps higher expectations – that women leaders face in the region.

“We have hopes that women will lead differently, maybe be more inclusive or democratic,” suggests Jalalzai. But, she adds, if they don’t lead strongly, their failures are blamed on their gender.

President Rousseff was impeached for tinkering with the federal budget in an attempt to conceal the country’s economic woes ahead of her 2014 reelection. The practice is illegal, although it is widespread at all levels of government.

The impeachment proceedings put Brazilian sexism on full display. Congressmen, for example, held up signs reading “Bye, dear” when voting to initiate impeachment in the lower house.

“I’ve always been described as a hard-charging woman in the midst of delicate men,” Rousseff said during her impeachment trial, putting her gender front-and-center after years of avoiding the topic. “I never saw a man accused of being hard-charging.”

A clearer path

As Bachelet leaves office, some fear the end of this chapter could also herald a setback for womens’ rights. The expected victor in Chile’s election, Sebastian Piñera, for example, has said he will “review” legislative amendments that legalized abortion.

“With Michelle [Bachelet] leaving power, there won’t be a single woman leader in Latin America,” Jalalzai laments. “It shows that there isn’t a direct positive effect of women” occupying the presidency. “And maybe there’s even evidence that there will be a backsliding or backlash. The work isn’t done.”

But Magda Hinojosa, a politics professor at Arizona State University in Phoenix who specializes in womens’ role in Latin American politics, is more hopeful.

Every country in Latin America except Guatemala now has a law on its books that sets quotas for female members of local and national assemblies, she points out, and the number of female lawmakers has more than doubled over the past two decades.

Bachelet and her fellow Presidentas may not have done everything their feminist supporters might have liked, but at least they have opened a path for the next generation of female politicians.

“Seeing a woman in power, say in the presidency, makes a real difference to women as they consider running,” Dr. Hinojosa says. And such women are credible candidates.  “Latin Americans are absolutely willing to vote for women,” she adds. “If parties nominate women, men and women will vote for them.”

– Piotr Kozak contributed to this article from Santiago.

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