The politics of the presidenta

On Sunday 31 October, Dilma Rousseff became the president-elect of Brazil, replacing her mentor and supporter, the outgoing Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva. Modernists hailed the election of the first female Brazilian premier, and Rousseff became the ninth Latin American presidenta. But do female politicians in the Latin America have to rely on the support of men to get into power?

Machismo prevails across the Latin world but although men have dominated the political sphere, women have been increasing their presence over the last 40 years, since Argentine Isabel Martinez de Peron rose to prominence as the first elected female head of state in the Western Hemisphere. She was also vice-president during her husband’s third stint in the Casa Rosa. Argentina is no stranger to matrimonial politics and the current president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, took over the presidency from her husband, Nestor Kirchner, in 2007.

But on 27 October he died suddenly of a heart-attack, leaving Cristina on her own, both maritally, and politically, for although he had stepped down from the presidency, Mr Kirchner still had a major seat at the top table, running the Partido Justicialista (Justicialist Party) behind the scenes while his wife shook hands with other world leaders.

Such was the force and influence of Kirchner that commentators rushed to point out that ‘Kirchnerismo’ passed with the death of Nestor and that the key aim for Cristina now would be to try to see out the rest of her term in office and reaffirm her political principles, goals and direction, all of which were thrown into disarray by her husband’s death.

Indeed, some critics argue that all the objectives she has outlined so far have been her husband’s policies, and that her challenge now is to show that she is not just a puppet and demonstrate that she can lead her nation without the support of her husband.

In the case of Brazil, a different sort of wedding has been the main reason for the success of Dilma Rousseff. The marriage is purely political but it has been a conjugal arrangement which Rousseff has flouted to the maximum, using her proximity to Lula (and his fanatical popularity) to carry her to victory in last Sunday’s electoral run-off.

Once again, just like Mrs Kirchner 3,000 km to the south, the case arises of a female president facing the challenge of defining herself to the nation and displaying distinct political objectives. Brazilians have been extremely pleased with the direction in which Lula has been taking Brazil and they have chosen a politican built in very much the same vein as the outgoing premier.

Moreover, the fact that the new incumbent of the Palacio da Alvorada is a woman means that she has an extra responsibility to use her new position to show to the world that Brazil can be as successful under uma presidente as it was under Lula. To her credit, Rousseff has already made it clear that social and sexual equality will be a flagship policy of her period in office. She is caught between maintaining the popularity of Lula and not being seen as purely an inexperienced pawn of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party).

She has acknowledged the rise in status of the Green Party, whose presidential candidate in the first round was also a woman – Marina Silva. Indeed, the fact that many first-round votes which Rousseff had expected to go to her in fact went to Silva necessitated a run-off a month later. Rousseff has accepted the need to follow a green agenda in power, a possible policy declaration which shows that she has already recognised the challenges which a popular Green Party, led by another popular female politican, could create for her in office.

But these two Latin giants have not been the only countries where females have flexed their political muscles and over the years Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua have all elected female heads of state. From 1999-2004 Panama was led by Mireya Moscoso although her waning popularity towards the end of her term affected her chosen successor, Jose Miguel Aleman, and he failed to follow her into office, showing that the ‘Lula’ affect has not always been the case. In addition, Michelle Bachelet was in power in Chile until earlier this year when she was defeated by Sebastian Pinera. And the current president of Costa Rica is Laura Chinchilla.

The majority of these women have run on centre-left manifestoes and have been leading campaigners of social reform. But often the closeness of ties to men means that there are inevitable restrictions to navigate. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner lost a pillar of political support when her husband died and Dilma Rousseff cannot spend her whole presidency invoking her mentor; she has to continue Lula’s popularity while carving out her own policies to carry out which can define her as a separate success in her own right, not just one who basked in the glow of a former, male president.

Latin-Persian alliance on the way?

Is the confirmation by Bolivia of a loan of over $250 million from Iran a further sign of a growing alliance between the Islamic Republic and Latin America?

The thin air of La Paz can make first-time visitors feel faint. But the Iranian Minister of Industries and Mining, Ali Akbar Mehrabian, seemed completely at home as he signed an aid accord with President Evo Morales on 30 August. There are no specific demands placed on how Bolivia can use the money but it has been designated ‘development’ aid. It will probably go towards mining and mineral extraction; some believe that the small print of the deal includes details concerning the large uranium deposits located in the Bolivian region of Potosi. But the significance of the agreement really lies in the simple fact that such a deal has been done.

Morales used the press conference as an opportunity to denounce the UN sanctions placed on Iran, measures which are aimed at dissuading the country from developing a nuclear missile. Iran maintains that its nuclear programme is peaceful. In reply to the messages of Bolivian support, Mr Mehrabian replied “the two countries have good and common objectives in the world community”.

Pronouncements of shared ambitions and goals, usually doubling up as a chance to criticise the West are common when Iranians and Latin American leaders meet, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been obsequious in his comments towards Tehran. The BBC reported in 2009 that Venezuela and Iran had been trading and meeting for over five years, and the agreements they had come had been beneficial for the Venezuelan economy. The language has been truly brotherly with Chavez remarking that: “I assured him [Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] of our total solidarity as he’s under attack from global capitalism. He thanked me, and sent a fraternal hug to the Venezuelan people.”

Morales underlined the importance of the Caracas-Tehran link in last week’s meeting, announcing his ambition that Iran and Venezuela will join together to end the “unilateralism” of the world powers. And he also highlighted the growing friendliness between La Paz and Tehran by confirming that his Development and Planning Minister, Elba Viviana Caro, will visit Iran at the end of September to thank the Ahmadinejad administration for their backing and monetary aid.

But the movements by Bolivia and Venezuela are eclipsed by the actions of Brazil in fostering goodwill, teamwork and support between Latin America and Iran. Earlier this year the president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, led calls not to approve a new round of economic sanctions on Iran. Although the Security Council voted convincingly in favour of the measures, Brazil, along with the Turkish delegation, faced up to global pressure in offering a hand to Tehran.

And although last month government sources confirmed that Brazil will now accept the Security Council’s decision to impose further sanctions, Foreign Minister Celso Amorim made it clear that this decision did not mean that there had been a change of heart by Brazil, saying again that the government did not agree with the coercive measures.

Brazil has taken up an indisputable place at the global table as the most influential Latin American nation. It is fast becoming a very important country to the rest of the world, particularly in food production. Two weeks ago, The Economist investigated the meteoric rise in farming output in the country, stating that Brazil has no superiors in the export of poultry, sugar cane and ethanol, and only the US is ahead when it comes to exporting soyabeans.

In addition, the newspaper noted that Brazil has as much renewable water by itself (more than 8,000 billion cubic kilometres per year) as the whole continent of Asia. All this means that the Brazilian star is rising and the outgoing president has made sure that the foreign policy side of his star does not necessarily shine on the Western giants. It is now a political giant itself, and the administration believes that Iran is not simply a Western irritant to be dismissed and denounced.

Yet that does not mean that the relationship is problem-free. On 31 July, President Lula offered refuge to Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman who has been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, although that sentence is now under review after international condemnation. Interestingly, officials in Tehran gave the impression that they believed that Lula had simply been mistaken in his offer of asylum and did not have sufficient information on the case rather than rushing to reject Brazil’s actions. Ramin Mehmanparast, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman stated that: “as far as we know, [President Lula] is a very humane and emotional person…we will let him know about the details of the case.”

But Brazil cannot have its cake and eat it. In playing down the incident, Tehran has underlined the value it places on Brazilian support. If Lula wants to portray Brazil as a nation freely offering refuge to victims of capital sentences and maintain the country’s unique position in the world, he needs to balance his actions carefully. Close interest will be paid to the direction that his successor wants to take the country. Opinion over Iran will be high on the agenda, and, with Venezuela and Bolivia embedding themselves ever deeper with Tehran, the chance to build a strong Latin-Persian alliance may become increasingly alluring.