Up until around fifty years ago, with the exception of Eva Perón in Argentina, Latin American first ladies tended to play a carefully circumscribed role in their husbands’ political careers. They were, essentially, ornaments that reflected positively onto their husbands but refrained from active political engagement. Since the 1970s, however, the wives of Latin American leaders have gradually increased their political influence—to the point that many have become essential to their husbands’ political appeal, and some have even developed political aspirations of their own. However, those first ladies who have gone on to run for office have met with mixed success, and some have encountered a significant backlash.
Eva Perón attained an unprecedented level of power for a Latin American woman
of her time due to support from unions in Argentina, though she was never elected
to office herself.
The key to understanding the expanding political role of these primeras damas is to understand that, traditionally, Latin American first ladies have taken charge of social programs oriented toward development of families and improvement of the social welfare. This tends to involve a lot of direct contact with people living below the poverty line, who make up about 20 to 40 percent of the population throughout Latin America. When the first lady steps into this role of “mother of underprivileged families,” she creates empathy with the lower classes. In addition to whatever economic benefit poor citizens get from the programs implemented by the first lady, they gain a sense of her as a powerful public figure who understands them and their needs.
Imagine, for instance, that the wife of the president pays a visit to a single mother of several children who lives in conditions of grinding poverty. In election cycle after election cycle, this impoverished woman has seen political candidates passing through, asking for votes. Once they are elected, these politicians proceed to forget about the poor for the duration of their term—until it’s time to campaign again—and nothing ever changes in terms of development and improvement of their living conditions. Now, the first lady—the person most intimately connected to the country’s most powerful figure—has come not to ask for the woman’s vote or to make empty promises, but simply to listen to her talk about her needs. In sum, being a first lady in Latin America is a bit like being on a permanent campaign. Is it any wonder that a first lady who plays a major role in social causes, such as Margarita Cedeño de Fernandez in the Dominican Republic, polls well when people are asked who should be the country’s next leader? Or that Sandra Torres de Colóm in Guatemala, who announced last month that she would run to succeed her husband as president in this September’s election, is beloved by people who live in small rural towns outside the capital city? (Before they get to vote for her, however, Torres will have to grapple with a constitutional ban on close relatives of a president running to succeed him.)
Sandra Torres de Colóm, first lady of Guatemala, with students last year at a “Women in Politics” conference
at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
Jessica McConnell Burt
In general, first ladies develop an emotional link with the common citizen that is similar to the one that candidates develop with voters. The difference is that while voters follow candidates based on three types of feelings—hope, anger, and fear—in the case of a first lady, the bond is all about charisma. There are, of course, charismatic male leaders, but first ladies inspire affection more easily than their husbands do. This influence and popularity constitutes what I would call “pink power,” and frequently when a first lady attains a significant level of public approval, her husband tries to take advantage of her positive image to increase his own popularity. Take for example Enrique Peña Nieto, the front-runner in Mexico’s 2012 presidential election, who has capitalized on the popularity of his wife, Angelica Rivera, a well-known and widely admired soap opera actress nicknamed “la gaviota” (the seagull). In fact, the couple’s relationship started in 2008 after Peña Nieto, the governor of Estado de Mexico, hired Rivera to star in commercials advertising his claim to have delivered on hundreds of campaign promises. After the two were established as a couple, they began to be covered by show business news and magazines, helping to increase Peña Nieto’s national popularity and name recognition, particularly among female soap opera fans who don’t usually follow politics. “His popularity is being reinforced thanks to the affection that people feel for her,” says Juan Carlos Limon, Peña Nieto’s publicist. “Looking forward to the election of 2012, it seems that they will be the most charismatic couple in the presidential race.”
Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez waving to supporters on Election Day in 2007.
Well-known Latin American first ladies have to walk a very fine line, though. If they become politically active to the point of making their political aspirations public, they risk becoming perceived as rivals by other ambitious political actors who will attack and attempt to discredit them. A once-popular first lady may quickly find herself tainted by association with the dirty game of politics. “A first lady is like a beacon,” says Dario Mendoza, a Mexican political consultant who has advised a number of Latin American first ladies. “She can cast a favorable glow on her husband and his projects. However, if she tries to direct her light onto herself, it can become blinding.”
Few women, first ladies or not, find it easy to succeed in Latin American politics. This is exemplified by Mexico, where gender quotas designed to ensure that women have at least some representation in government have been easily circumvented by men. Political parties in the country sign women up as candidates for Congress to fulfill the quotas, but just a few days after the congresswomen are sworn in, they are asked to resign for a male surrogate, who occupies the seat for the rest of the term. These placeholder women have become known as “Adelitas” after the women who did hard work in the barracks and fields of the Mexican Revolution.
So, are there any primeras damas who have been able to parlay the affection of the people into a position of real power? As mentioned above, Eva Perón attained an unprecedented level of power for a Latin American woman of her time due to her influence over pro-Perón unions of Argentina. She became the primary connection between her husband, President Juan Domingo Perón, and the lower class base of the Perónist Party, called “los descamisados” (“the shirtless ones”), which worshipped her. Though trade union leaders urged her to serve as her husband’s running mate in 1951, she declined due to failing health and opposition from the military.
Some other first ladies have successfully made the leap from the passive role of the president’s wife to running for president themselves. The most remarkable recent example is Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez, former President Nestor Kirchner’s widow, who was elected to succeed her husband in 2007. There are a number of explanations for Fernandez’s success. First, she had a substantial political career before she became first lady, having served three terms as a senator and one term as a national representative. (Indeed, at one point when she was a senator, her popularity was generally understood to have exceeded that of her husband, who was governor of Santa Cruz province at the time.) “She was not known as, ‘The wife of…’,” says Silvio Waisbord, an Argentinean political communications pundit and associate professor at George Washington University. “She was an important senator and quite visible before becoming first lady.”
Margerita Cedeño de Fernandez, wife of the
Dominican Republic’s president, Leonel Fernandez.
Second, she appealed to voters because she promised to continue her husband’s policies while taking a less confrontational approach to the opposition—and benefited tremendously from the boost in name recognition she gained as first lady. Third, she followed in a tradition of politically active Argentinean first ladies, including Eva Perón and Hilda “Chiche” Gonzalez de Duhalde, whose husband, Eduardo Duhalde, was president from 2002 to 2003, and who served as the head of the national council of social welfare during his term and is currently a senator from Buenos Aires province. Because of this tradition, Fernandez’s entrance into politics was met with less resistance than it might have been elsewhere in Latin America.
Indeed, some first ladies who have attempted to enter politics in their own right have encountered a significant backlash. Take for example Marta Sahagun, the wife of former Mexican President Vicente Fox, who was his spokesperson before they got married. Once she was first lady, Sahagun got involved in public life through a foundation she created called Vamos Mexico (Let’s Go, Mexico), whose purpose was to help build a network including the private sector to fight extreme poverty in the country. Though this endeavor fit in with the sort of social welfare activism common among Latin American first ladies, there was a self-promotional air to Sahagun’s foundation work that rubbed people the wrong way. She had never been involved with philanthropy before becoming first lady, and suspicions grew that she had launched the foundation with the ulterior motive of boosting her public image. The fact that she seemed to play to the camera in public appearances didn’t help, and when she began making declarations to the effect that Mexico was “ready to have a woman as president,” attacks from potential political opponents quickly followed.
Marta Sahagun, former first lady of Mexico, holds
one of her grandchildren.
Although many expected Sahagun to run for president in 2006, she ultimately bowed out, at least in part due to a scandal involving the use of state lottery funds to support Vamos Mexico. Fox’s private secretary quit in protest and in his nineteen-page resignation letter criticized the president for inappropriately supporting Sahagun’s political ambitions. “Marta Sahagun didn’t attain the nomination for one reason: her husband,” says Mendoza, the Mexican political consultant. “She was used by Fox as a lightning rod every time there was a conflict. Since Fox put his wife on the front lines as a shield against public opinion, all the negatives were absorbed by her.”
Whatever role the first lady plays, it is clear that male officials and candidates in Latin America require some connection to an attractive woman to thrive politically. A Latin American president who lacks a wife does not fit with the region’s standards. In some such cases, the role of the first lady ends up being fulfilled by a daughter. For instance, before Mexican President Vicente Fox married Marta Sahagun seven months into his term, his daughter, Ana Cristina Fox, ran the social programs of the national family welfare system. And in Peru, President Alberto Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko, took over the role of first lady when her parents got divorced. (Now, Keiko is running for president herself and is polling a close second in the first electoral round, which will be held this month.)
There are some interesting similarities between the roles played by first ladies in Latin America and the United States. Over the last half century, U.S. first ladies have ranged from Jacqueline Kennedy, who played a largely ornamental role, to Hillary Clinton, who has gone on to great success as a politician. (However, even Clinton fell short of being elected president.) In between, most U.S. first ladies have devoted themselves to a chosen social project such as childhood obesity, in the case of Michelle Obama, or education, in the case of Laura Bush. And U.S. first ladies, like Latin American ones, are frequently the most popular figures associated with their husbands’ administrations.
It is clear that many male politicians in Latin America are buoyed by the appeal of their significant others. Increasingly, these significant others are becoming significant political players in their own right. One key reason is that in recent years, direct contact campaigns have become substantially more effective than massive communication campaigns, and there is no other political figure associated with a president who can connect with the electorate as effectively as the first lady. As women gain a firmer foothold in the region’s politics, we may soon have to rethink the old saying, “Behind every great man is a great woman.” There are currently three female presidents in Latin America, and many others are running for office. There is no doubt that politics in Latin America are taking on an increasingly noticeable shade of pink.
Israel Navarro is associate editor of the Latin American version of C&E.