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The Age Question For Politicians Plays Out In Latin America

Older politicians seemingly face an image problem in some Latin American countries. But in this continent of massive corruption scandals, can age really be the issue for voters?

Tabaré Vásquez, 79, President of Uruguay
Tabaré Vásquez, 79, President of Uruguay


BUENOS AIRES — Quite a few people have asked me recently about my interest in gerontology, the study of aging. I was in particular asked what I thought of the ridicule heaped on one veteran Argentine politician and presidential hopeful, Roberto Lavagna, for letting himself be photographed wearing shorts, white socks and sandals. The very picture of an old man at home. My friends' condescending tone meant to say, he's past it, surely?

Memes and online reactions seem to indicate so. People are asking how someone dressed this way can think of becoming president, or if political rivals had picked his attire. One Tweeter suggested he needed to be taken care of. Worse perhaps was his son insisting that his father dressed this way "for his health"! Was the explanation necessary, considering the guy wants to be president, not a model?

Roberto Lavagna's infamous outfit — Photo: Popular via Twitter

Comments have indeed gone beyond the dress sense and suggest some people may have a problem with a 76-year-old seeking the presidency. We are in a moment in history that seems not to favor old age. Facing off the ageist onslaught, one of Lavagna's allies, Sergio Massa, defended "this 80-year-old gentleman" (who knows why he added four years) by insisting Lavagna did sit-ups every morning.

The more or less subtle forms of age discrimination are not exclusive to our country and affect candidates elsewhere on the continent. In Uruguay, the age of former president José Mújica, who left office at 79, became a political issue. Critics said it posed a risk and was at odds with his progressive discourse. When Mujica's term was coming up, Tabaré Vásquez, who had already served as president, run again, aged 75, for the 2014 presidential elections. His rival, Luis Lacalle Pou, made an acrobatic move dubbed "the flag" for his campaign commercial, using a pole in the street, presumably to show the youthful prowess Vásquez lacked. Thankfully voters in Uruguay understood that a president's dexterity had nothing to do with gymnastics.

Age is no longer an indicator of conservative or progressive tendencies, or of the old or the new

Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has also faced questions over the age of his cabinet — his ministers being 60 years old on average. The marked youth of his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, did not bother anyone of course, as if the norm of past times that frowned on youthful politicians had been inverted.

In spite of rivals wanting to show Lavagna as old and conservative, age is no longer an indicator of conservative or progressive tendencies, or of the old or the new. Britain's Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will turn 70 next month, while two top U.S. Democratic candidates for president Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden all already well into in their 70s. Donald Trump is 72, though admittedly one can barely classify him in any way.

Not that an advanced age is valuable in itself. You might say Peru's previous president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, should have known better because of his age. But neither age nor experience could protect him from the stain of suspected ties to Odebrecht — the Brazilian firm whose bribes have sunk a good many politicians across the continent — bringing his presidency to an early end. Perhaps sandals and shorts are not the issue — but the number of disappointing, disgraceful incidents that have besmirched so many presidents. Or could it be that past a certain age, the brain just cannot take politics seriously anymore?

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