Latin America's Female Leadership Paradox

Despite the high profile women presidents of Brazil and Argentina, the fairer sex is notably underrepresented in cabinet positions across Latin American governments.

Brazil's Dilma Rousseff and Argentina's Cristina Kirchner -- the exceptions that prove the rule
Brazil's Dilma Rousseff and Argentina's Cristina Kirchner -- the exceptions that prove the rule
Sandra Cesilini

BUENOS AIRES — Female cabinet ministers in Latin America are few and far between. They are rare even in countries such as Uruguay, which has just one even though it is considered one of the most advanced with regards to education levels, and Argentina, where there are just two despite a strong progressive discourse there.

This bias seems to apply whether the president is male or female, left- or right-wing, from an academic background or a president of the people. Indeed, part of the paradox is that there are currently several elected female leaders in Latin America: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, for example. Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla has, unlike many of her peers, been notably effective in promoting women to positions of influence.

There is a cultural barrier that has meant many politicians fail to surround themselves with female collaborators, even though there may be a large number of extremely able female professionals, trade unionists, politicians and leaders in their country. It doesn’t matter whether the top decision-makers have different politico-ideological views on other issues. When it comes to selecting strategic partners, women are out.

Despite the rap on Latin America overall, there are some countries with a significant female cabinet presence. Nicaragua has over 50% women, Bolivia nearly 40%, and Ecuador 39%. In these cases, equality has been immortalized in recently updated constitutions. In other countries, despite not being constitutionally mandated, individual leaders choose to promote equality of the sexes. They include, for example, Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010) in Chile, Chinchilla (2010-2014) in Costa Rica, Rafael Correa (2009-2013) in Ecuador, Alan García (2006-2011) in Peru, and Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) in Venezuela.

“The appointment of female ministers has not been consolidated or become commonplace,” according to the Economic Commission for Latin America. “From 2006 onwards, the presence of women in ministerial cabinets has not only not been maintained, but the regional average has actually decreased from 26% in 2006 to 18% in 2011.”

So why are “quota laws” currently in force in many Latin American countries — requiring that women hold a certain percentage of seats in Parliament, for example — not reflected within government administrations and other areas of society?

It is difficult to explain this inconsistency. A plausible hypothesis is that international co-operation organizations active in Latin America — that favor laws very similar to those in force in Europe — force the elite to adopt perspectives that are more inclusive with regard to certain issues (such as parliamentary participation) than the views they hold in other areas of daily life. On the other hand, the quota laws don’t cause disagreements with religious or economically powerful groups and therefore their adoption is easily achieved and has very little impact on political debate.

Gender equality has had a strong influence on the inclusion of women in the public sphere, but much remains to be done before we will see a significant female presence in the day-to-day decision-making bodies of trade unions, the economy, cultural organizations and — it goes without saying — the government.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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