Women in Power, South American Style

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In the past 10 years, three women were elected – and reelected – as presidents of Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. They are, from left to right in the photo, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Michelle Bachelet, and Dilma Rousseff. (See mini-bios in Notes below.)
Unlike Margaret Thatcher, the first and only female Prime Minister of Great Britain, or Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States, these three women are not conservatives. They were elected as part of the “Pink Tide” that swept much of South America following the 1998 election of Hugo Chávez as president of Venezuela.
Women in power in South America is not what I would have expected when I was in school. The picture presented then was that Latin American countries staged frequent military coups and traded one dictator for another. This was all due, I was led to believe, to their extreme macho culture and volatile, militaristic temperaments. They favored a strongman type of leader, a “caudillo.” Decades later, as I learned more about history, I realized how much power the United States wielded in that region designated “America’s Backyard.” The instability and violence had less to do with culture and temperament than it had to do with the School of the Americas, IMF loans, and the CIA, and later the War on Drugs and the wrongly named National Endowment for Democracy.
Meanwhile, these three women have joined other Latin American leaders in turning their focus away from the superpower to the North and toward their own people.
We can find more examples of women in power in the World Bank’s chart showing the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments. Three of the top ten are Latin American countries: Bolivia, Cuba and Ecuador. If you’re curious, as I was, about where the United States falls when you sort by the year 2015, you’ll find it in the middle of the list of 187 countries.
Michelle Bachelet became president of Chile in 2006 and served a four-year term. The Chilean Constitution does not allow a president to serve two consecutive terms, but does allow a later run. Four years later, Bachelet ran and was elected to a second term, which began in 2014.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was elected in 2007 after her husband Néstor Kirchner had served four years in office. Some speculate that they were planning to trade off running for president every four years, but he died of a heart attack in 2010, and Cristina ran again and was re-elected in 2011.
Dilma Rousseff was elected in 2011 to the presidency of Brazil, after serving as Minister of Energy and Chief of Staff for President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. She was reelected in 2015.
Further information on women in political power around the world.

Laura Wells is a political activist who blogs about the electoral and social revolutions in Latin America, and how they might apply to California and the United States.