This month Latin America boasts a record number of elected female heads of states. The irony behind this is that Latin America has been historically viewed as a culture of machismo. Although the stereotype unfortunately does have more than an ounce of truth to it, when it comes to politics and leadership, both Latin American men and women show no qualms in electing women.
According to the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, since 1970 eight of 29 women elected as heads of state around the world have come from Latin America or the Caribbean—an impressive 27.5 percent. However, the female movement began long before the new millennium, blossoming first in Argentina.
Although Argentina is presently experiencing economic and political instability, its attitudes towards women in politics was shaped light years ahead of their peers by their adoration of Eva Peron from 1946 to 1951. Highlighted in 1951, many Argentineans demanded that Eva Peron run for the Vice President’s position. She hesitated and speculation was that her husband and then Argentine President Juan Peron discouraged her from running; nevertheless, she had to resign her candidacy due to her sickness, which ultimately led to her death in 1952. Although never elected, she was given a state funeral, and to this day her spirit and politics are still championed by current Argentine political parties. In 1974, President Juan Peron died and his third wife, Isabel Peron, became the first female president in Latin America, leading the country for two years until she was ousted by the military.
After Isabel Peron, Argentina elected their first female president in 2007, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and in 2011 she was the first Argentine woman to be re-elected. Moreover, 38 percent of Argentina’s lower house (similar to the U.S. Congress) is represented by woman, significantly higher than the U.S. which only boasts roughly less than 19 percent female representation in Congress.
Aside from Argentina, in the last ten years the momentum for women in leadership positions have been accelerated many fold. In 2006, Michelle Bachelet become Chile’s first female elected president. She became the first female elected president in Latin America and the first woman who was not be the wife of a previous head of state to reach the presidency. In December 2013, Madame Bachelet was re-elected, beating another female, right wing candidate Evelyn Mathei.
In 2011, Brazil elected their first female president, Dilma Rouseff. A triumph indeed for Brazilian politics, however, Brazil lags very much behind compared to their Latin American peers. According to a United Nations study, Brazil ranked 116th out of 143 countries in terms of the number of women in the national legislature. Also, per the Brazilian mayor of Boa Vista, Brazilian woman only account for 12 percent of all the mayors, yet Brazilian women make up 52 percent of the electorate.
Costa Rica, on the other hand, has a more progressive track record when electing women in politics. First, similar to Argentina, women in the lower house represent 38 percent of the lawmakers, and in 2010, they elected Laura Chinchilla as the country’s first female president. Prior to President Chinchilla, in the 1990s Central America’s Nicaragua elected Violetta Chamorro as their first female president—and she also happens to be the Western Hemisphere’s first woman elected to the highest office. In 1999, Panama followed suit and elected their first female president, Mireya Moscoso. For such a small region that Central America is, it has been a trailblazer in choosing women to lead their countries; interestingly, it tends to go unnoticed in the international arena.
In the Andean region, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela have not elected a female president, but that does not mean women’s inclusion in politics have been negated. For example, in Venezuela, President Maduro hand-picked Carmen Melendez as Venezuela’s first female Minister of Defense, putting her in charge of the Venezuela’s armed forces. In Colombia, two women have top Cabinet positions, Cecilia Alvarez Correa Glen as the Minister of Transportation, and Maria Angela Holguin as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. However, it must be noted that in Colombia, women only represent 12 percent of elected politicians, making politics in Colombia a man’s world—for the time being.
In regards to the female participation in national legislatures, according to the Inter-American Dialogue, Latin America touts an impressive 1:4 ratio, second only to the Scandinavian countries. The United States does not fare too far behind, with women accounting for 17.9 percent of the House of Representatives, and 20 percent of the Senate. The current percentage of women on Capitol Hill is an unprecedented record for the U.S., perhaps only a foundation for further participation of U.S. women in politics. Yet when it comes to women in business, Latin American women pale in comparison to the U.S. According to a study by the American Society and Council of the Americas, Latin American women account for only 7 percent of corporate boards, which is a co-relation and perhaps one of many causes of the income disparity between men and women in Latin America.
Like many things in life, not everything is black and white. Latin America is no longer the machismo region it once was, yet machismo is still ever present in towns and rural areas, and it still occasionally rears its ugly head in major cities. Despite women making huge advancements in the realm of politics, especially when electing presidents, some countries are ahead more than others. Representation in the lower levels of politics does not equally represent the demographics between men and women in their respective country. Finally, if Latin America truly wants be seen as an exemplary region of women’s advancement, the business world must be more welcoming in inviting Latina women into top positions, creating both a narrative and a reality where both states and business are being led with a justifiable balance of both men and women.
Oscar Montealegre is a Los Angeles-based Diplomatic Courier Contributor specializing in Latin American markets, finance, economics, and geopolitics. He holds an MA in International Relations, a BA in Journalism, and a Certificate in International Trade and Commerce.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s March/April 2014 print edition.