As hundreds of leaders and dignitaries descended on the Chilean port of Valparaiso on 11 March 2006 for Michelle Bachelet's inauguration, much of the world's press was focused on the impending encounter between Hugo Chávez and Condoleezza Rice. The two have engaged in a furious battle of words in the past weeks, as the United States secretary of state tries, unsuccessfully, to coax other Latin American leaders into forming an "anti-Chávez front".
But this was neither Chávez's nor Condi's day. It was a moment to be savoured by women and enlightened men from across the continent. Here was Chile's first woman leader assuming power, accompanied by Latin America's first cabinet – and one of only three in the world, alongside Spain and Sweden – with equal numbers of male and female ministers.
Justin Vogler works as a freelance journalist in Chile. He writes regularly in Diario Siete and the Santiago Times. His article "Chile, Iraq, and the deceitful British" was published in the Santiago Times on 15 February 2006.
Also by Justin Vogler in openDemocracy:
"Michelle Bachelet's triumph"
"Small-country power: Chile and the Iraq war" (January 2006)
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Furthermore, as Bachelet had announced on 8 March (International Women's Day), Chile will be the first country in the world to have gender parity across the whole of the upper echelon of government and the civil service.
The Chilean press didn't seem to notice that the economic and defence ministries are to be headed by women. Such things – unheard of in Chile and the rest of Latin America a few years ago – are now commonplace.
Indeed, in December 2005, Argentina's President Néstor Kirchner appointed Nilda Garré to the defence ministry, and another woman, Felisa Miceli, to the all-powerful finance ministry. In the last four years female defence ministers have been named in Colombia, Argentina, Uruguay, and now twice in Chile.
In Peru, Lourdes Flores (alias Lulú) is consolidating her lead in the polls ahead of the first-round election on 9 April. In Argentina, the feisty senator and first lady (or "first citizen" as she likes to be called), Cristina Fernández, is the country's most popular politician and is tipped to succeed her husband.
Figures from the Inter-American Development Bank show that between 1995 and 2005 the number of women cabinet ministers in Latin America more than doubled compared to the previous decade. By 2002, 46% of the Columbian cabinet was female.
Bolivia's new president, Evo Morales, hit world headlines for his inclusion of fellow members of the country's indigenous population in his government. It went almost unnoticed that for the first time a quarter of the Bolivian cabinet were women. These include Alicia Muñoz as cabinet chief and interior minister; and Casimira Rodríquez, a Quechua Indian and long-time head of the union of domestic employees, as justice minister.
Parliamentary representation for women is also increasing, albeit more slowly. In Peru's 2000 elections the number of women in congress doubled from 11% to 22%. By 2002, over a third of Argentinean parliamentarians were women.
Across the whole of Latin America, by 2005, 15.9% of congressional seats were occupied by women, compared to 9.36% in 1997.
One woman, one vote
There is consensus that people don't identify with a candidate solely because she's a woman. Marta Lagos, the director of Latinobarómetro, Latin America's first continent-wide opinion survey, says: "Most Latin Americans do not consider the gender gap to be the most significant source of discrimination. Poverty is foremost maybe followed by education levels, next race, and maybe then you are discriminated against as a woman."
Lagos attributes the success of women like Michelle Bachelet to their stand against all forms of prejudice: "Bachelet symbolises the whole spectrum of discriminated people. Not just women but the vast majority of people who feel they are not part of what's happening."
I asked why so many countries were naming female defence ministers. Lagos replied: "Politicians are using the military to transmit a very powerful message; the long discriminated majority are now in power."
Sara Beatriz Guardia, director of the Lima-based Centre for the Study of Woman in Latin American History (Cemhal), believes that the recent success of women politicians in the region reflects a widespread desire for change.
"Many people are simply fed up with the way men have been running politics", says Guardia. "In the last few decades government has become a hierarchy based on clientilism and corruption. In this context, people are saying; why don't we see if women can do any better?"
Kristen Sample is programmes officer for the Andean region and women's political participation for International IDEA. She says affirmative action has helped a lot of women politicians: "Quota fever hit the region in the 1990s, in total ten countries passed laws regulating female representation in parliamentary elections." Sample cites Argentina and Peru as examples where many more women have been elected to parliament since quotas were introduced. In countries like Brazil and Paraguay, quotas have proved less successful.
It seems reasonable to conclude that Latin America's democratic systems are becoming increasingly attuned to popular demands and open to previously excluded groups. Marta Lagos, annoyed by western media coverage of the region, says that this is the real headline from Latin America. "It diminishes the whole process to call it a leftist takeover – much less a feminine takeover; what's happening today is a takeover of the democratic majority."
Also in openDemocracy on Latin American politics:
Ivan Briscoe, "Néstor Kirchner's Argentina: a journey from hell" (May 2005)
John Crabtree, "Peru: the next Andean domino? " (June 2005)
Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "America's protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS" (July 2005)
Isabel Hilton, "Álvaro Uribe's gift: Colombia's mafia goes legit" (October 2005)
Celia Szusterman, "Argentina: the state we're in"
"The time of the underdog: rage and race in Latin America" (December 2005)
Roberto Espíndola, "Chile's new era" (January 2006)
Arthur Ituassu, "Lula in London" (March 2006)
Representation or window-dressing?
But not everyone shares Marta Lagos's jubilation. Men have obviously played a role in positioning women in politics. Ex-presidents Carlos Menem and Alberto Fujimori – neither a paragon of democratic virtue – were instrumental in getting quota laws passed in Argentina and Peru respectively. In Argentina, Chile and Colombia male presidents have opted to surround themselves with women ministers. If her predecessor Ricardo Lagos hadn't named Bachelet defence minister it is unlikely she would be Chilean president today.
It is safest to assume such men don't act altruistically. They simply want to attract women voters. People may not vote for women per se but voters will punish male politicians they perceive as being sexist. Some would argue that this is an example of democracy working.
However, Maria Emma Wills, a Colombian political scientist, warned me not to be taken in by token representation: "Women often become electoral booty as they are perceived as being more transparent and less corrupt than men. Male-dominated parties – often with no real commitment to gender equality – fill out their electoral lists with women's names. It's just political marketing."
Once women win elections, or are brought into government, there is still no guarantee of meaningful change, argues Wills: "Just bringing representatives of marginalised groups – be they women, Indians or people of colour – into the political elite does not automatically make that elite more democratic. It certainly doesn't mean that government policies will be more inclusive or fairer."
Diana Maffía, a philosopher and academic director of the Hannah Arendt institute of the University of Buenos Aires, agrees: "Many women like to accumulate power for themselves without sharing it with anyone. They don't represent other women and don't want to be seen as female representatives. Cristina Fernández is a case in point; she doesn't so much want to be Evita, she wants to be Juan Perón."
Bolivian congresswoman Rosario Paz is more upbeat. I asked her if she believed the four women ministers named by Evo Morales would champion women's causes in Bolivia. "Definitely", she replied. "It's much more probable that women's issues are placed on the political agenda by female politicians. Our experience in Bolivia shows that women's legislation is normally pushed through by female parliamentarians. Giving political power to women represents an important advance in terms of democracy. It also advances women's causes."
In Peru, Kristen Sample sees a spillover effect from Lourdes Flores' presidential candidacy. "Flores's lead in the polls has motivated other parties to compete for the women's vote by putting women on their tickets or focusing on women's issues. At least one other major candidate has promised parity in his cabinet."
But do more female politicians mean enhanced representation for women? "Not always", concedes Sample. "But it is certainly a necessary first step."
Down from the ivory tower
I asked Marta Lagos whether the number of women in power reflects a change in attitudes towards women in Latin America. "Politics is changing much quicker than society", she replied. "It will take generations before fundamental attitudes change, but (having more women in politics) is a step forward. It's a poignant symbol, but I think the process of social change will be much slower."
It is still rare to find women in the higher echelons of Latin America's finance and commercial sectors. Ridiculously long hours and engrained discrimination make life hard for working women at all levels. Socially, machismo often combines with pious Catholicism to punish women who don't conform to traditional stereotypes. Chile may have a woman president; it also has one of the highest rates of domestic violence of any country in the world.
Angelica Vargas is 18 years old. She lives in a lower middle class neighbourhood in Valparaiso and wants to study accountancy. With the heads of state jamboree getting underway down in the Chilean parliament, I asked her about her new president.
"I like Bachelet and I think it's fantastic that a woman can be president of Chile. It's ridiculous when half of us are women that it's always men that make the decisions", she told me enthusiastically.
So would having a female president change men's attitudes towards women? "Nothing changes", cried Angelica. "What does it matter who the president is? The men around here are all terribly sexist and they are going to go on being sexist." She paused for an instant, then added: "What might help is if they elected a woman pope."