Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA-BRAZIL: Powerful Women Leaders Face Similar Challenges

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jan 27 2011 (IPS) - The high popularity levels of their predecessors smoothed the way for Cristina Fernández and Dilma Rousseff to become presidents of Argentina and Brazil. But they also share the challenge of governing the two biggest countries in South America’s Mercosur trade bloc, in the shadow of the leaders who went before them.

“Both of them have to face the challenge of being themselves while at the same time competing with their predecessors, who were heavyweights,” Mónica Hirst, a Brazilian political scientist who lectures at the private Torcuato Di Tella University in Argentina, told IPS.

The backgrounds of Rousseff, president of Brazil since Jan. 1, and Fernández, who has led Argentina since December 2007, are very different, but they face similar challenges.

Both Fernández, of the centre-left wing of Argentina’s Justicialista (Peronist) Party, and Rousseff, of the left-wing Workers’ Party, were preceded by presidents who ended their terms with extremely high popularity ratings, and both women were the hand-picked successors of their predecessors.

These circumstances facilitated their victories at the polls. However, they also force them to not only sustain, but to go beyond, the achievements of the previous administrations, while dealing with new problems that emerge — and doing all of this in the wake of two of Latin America’s most popular leaders.

Néstor Kirchner, Fernández’s husband who died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 60 in October, ended his 2003-2007 term with 70 percent approval ratings, while Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva left office in Brazil with a record 87 percent popularity, after two consecutive four-year terms.

On taking office, Rousseff said Lula was “the greatest popular leader this country has ever known,” and that “The task of succeeding him is, indeed, formidable.”

She pledged to honour his legacy and said the “audacity” of the “outstanding transformations” he oversaw in Brazil “inspired the people to further boldness”: electing the country’s first woman president.

Now both Fernández and Rousseff are alone on the stage. They set the course, make the policy decisions, choose their staff. If they govern well, other women presidents will follow in their footsteps.

Rousseff said it herself: “I have come here to open doors, so that many other women can also, in the future, be president.”

On Jan. 31, the two leaders will meet in Buenos Aires, during Rousseff’s first foreign tour as president.

Argentine analyst Natalia Gherardi said the fact that the two largest Mercosur (Southern Common Market) partners — the bloc also includes Paraguay and Uruguay — are governed by women provides “an excellent opportunity to demonstrate feminine leadership qualities and to work in a coordinated manner to forge ahead on the women’s agenda.”

But Gherardi also warned that in order for that coordination to work, the two governments will first need coherent gender policies. And in that regard, she said each of the two leaders will have “to do a lot to eradicate the still abundant, deeply-rooted stereotypes.”

Brazil and Argentina, with populations of 190 and 40 million people, respectively, account for 60 percent of the population of South America, cover 62 percent of its land mass, and are the two largest economies.

The two women leaders’ arrival to power “could boost social and gender equality, deepen democracy, and throw into question the stereotype of Latin American machismo, which has begun to show cracks,” said Gherardi, head of the Equipo Latinoamericano de Justicia y Género (ELA – Latin American Team on Justice and Gender).

They are both aware of the expectations hanging over their administrations. As soon as Rousseff’s victory in the Oct. 31 runoff was announced, Fernández called to congratulate her, saying “Welcome to the club” of women leaders.

Fernández is already all too familiar with the prejudice women leaders face. For example, if a female leader is stylish, she runs the risk of being depicted as frivolous; if she is soft-spoken, she could be seen as weak; and if she comes across as tough or stern, she could earn a nickname like the “iron lady”, as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher did.

Among Latin America’s women’s presidents — who include Laura Chinchilla, president of Costa Rica since 2010 — Fernández is often criticised for taking excessive care of her appearance, while Rousseff has been disparaged for just the opposite.

Although they have some things in common, the two presidents are quite different. “They come from very different political cultures, but the way I see it, diversity produces more than symbiosis does,” Hirst said.

“They both have a history of fighting for democracy and of concern for their countries’ need to strengthen the legal instruments that would deepen the commitment to human rights,” she added.

But while Fernández “has a closer knowledge of the murkier ins and outs of politics because of her experience as a legislator, Rousseff is very familiar with the structure of the state, and the advantages and limitations of the bureaucratic apparatus,” the political scientist said.

Fernández began as a provincial lawmaker and later was elected to both the lower and upper houses of the national Congress. She never held the executive posts of mayor, governor or cabinet minister.

Rousseff’s political career, on the other hand, basically got its start in the executive branch. She was a municipal secretary of treasury, a state secretary of energy, and later minister of mines and energy under Lula, before he appointed her as his chief of staff — in other words, his right-hand woman.

Hirst believes that relations between the two largest Mercosur partners will be strengthened under the two women currently in charge.

“They are two women from the same generation, with a strong political commitment, and they are going to generate a chemistry to work together well, without competition on a personal level, above and beyond the competition that arises from the bilateral relations,” she said.

The coincidence that both countries have female leaders right now “is very positive, because it represents a new chapter of inclusion, of progress against the inequality and discrimination of the past,” said Hirst. “This is a new stage of civilisation in our countries.”

The analyst lamented that both of the leaders did not overlap with former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010). “It’s a pity; an ‘ABC’ led by women would have been fantastic,” Hirst said. “Maybe it will happen if Bachelet is reelected.”

Bachelet, who was also the first woman president of her country, ended her term with approval ratings close to Lula’s: 84 percent.

Thanks partly to that popularity, she was offered the prestigious position of head of U.N. Women, the new United Nations agency promoting women’s rights — another high-profile political position occupied by a woman of stature from South America.

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