If the third and final presidential debate was any indication, U.S. foreign policy appears to revolve around six states—Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, China, Russia—none of them in the Western hemisphere. Despite U.S. politicians’ persistent inability to recognize the continent adjacent, we are rarely out of reach of what happens in Latin America. The region remains our main source of immigrants, satiates our appetite for drugs and even provides the largest portion of our oil imports. On the other side of that relationship, Latin America remains, as one Mexican president famously put it, “so far from God, so close the United States.”

Porfirio Diaz

Porfirio Diaz, president of Mexico 1876-1911.

While politics in the Middle East and economies in Europe dominate media headlines, several storylines in Latin America lend new perspectives to our own elections.

Mexico’s summer presidential election results promise a circuitous route to the future by revisiting the past. The return to power of the PRI, Party of the Institutionalized Revolution (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), came at the possible apex of the recent explosion of violence associated with the drug trade. Further south, the rise of female presidents in the last few years raises the narrow debate about a “war on women” here in the U.S. to a new level, forcing questions about adequate representation and the role of women as legislators rather than merely people to be legislated upon. Finally, the role of students as a semi-organized interest group demanding changes by governments in Chile and Mexico points to the absence of this constituency as a powerful voting block in the U.S.

Back to the Future—the Return of the PRI in Mexico

In recent years, U.S. voters have demonstrated their dissatisfaction with politicians in Washington by throwing out the majority party in Congress at a faster pace. Control of the Senate and the House shifted as many times in the first decade of the twenty-first century as they did in the last four decades of the twentieth. One major cause of this amplified vacillation is the call on the right to remain faithful to “traditional values” and return to the past glory of the American culture and economy. The popular appeal of returning to a more stable past is a campaign strategy that also works elsewhere although its plausibility as a governing style is less clear.

The longest single party state rule of the twentieth century (holding power for 71 straight years, through three name changes) was not the Communist Party in the USSR but Mexico’s PRI. With wide-ranging political beliefs under the party’s broad umbrella, the PRI morphed from a party bearing the weight and promise of a fierce social revolution into an increasingly corrupt mechanism for gangster cronyism. Soon after its founding, President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) redistributed land to nearly 800,000 peasants, created vast networks of rural schools and instituted a whole host of social policies ranging from health care to union protections. In a decisive act, he also intervened in a labor dispute in the oil fields by nationalizing oil and creating PEMEX, which still runs the only gas stations you’ll find in Mexico. But by the 1940s, PRI politicians began to favor industrial development over redistribution and the coffers of the state grew alongside the pockets of the politicians. Despite challenges by students in 1968 and a debilitating debt crisis in 1982, the first major challenge to the PRI came in 1988 when the son of beloved President Cárdenas, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, split left from the PRI and ran against the Harvard educated PRI candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

The 1988 election in Mexico was a tight contest down to the evening tally; early polls showed the PRI behind. Then, a mysterious computer crash was announced and in the morning, Salinas and the PRI returned victorious (and three years later decided to burn all remaining ballots). Widely regarded as the low-point of PRI popularity, the party nevertheless managed to also “win” the 1994 election on the eve of the ratification of NAFTA, which deeply integrated the economies of Mexico, the U.S. and Canada. When the PRI was finally swept from power, in a 2000 election widely regarded as fair, it was the rightist party, the PAN and former Coca-Cola executive Vicente Fox who ended the party’s stranglehold on power. In 2006, Mexicans again chose the PAN, driving a stake into the heart of the PRI.

Or, so we thought. Then, on July 1, earlier this year, the PRI was resuscitated.

Enrique Peña Nieto

Mexico’s incoming president, Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI.

The former governor of the State of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, with his playboy face and soap opera story, grinned his way into office with visible media—if not popular—support. Just what this means for Mexico is not yet clear. Certainly, there were Mexicans who saw the possibility that a return to the PRI—and its concomitant corruption—at least promised stability. Perhaps stability was preferable to the exploding internal war unleashed by outgoing President Felipe Calderón, who sent the army after drug traffickers. With more than 50,000 gruesome drug war deaths since Calderón took office, the public has become increasingly impatient with his strategy. Add to this unrest, the global economic situation and lack of progress on immigration issues with the United States and many began to see the PRI of the past through rosier glasses.

Allegations of electoral fraud continue to plague the PRI and while the preference for Peña Nieto was clear on the two major television networks, Televisa and Telemundo, especially in their reporting of polling data, other media sources point out Peña Nieto’s connections to the Salinas group and his authoritarian tendencies as governor of the state of Mexico. One caricature from the online group, Despierta México (Wake-up Mexico) jokingly listed a recent poll for the US election with Obama at 12 percent, Romney at 10 percent and Peña Nieto at 88 percent.

Despite disputes over his real popularity, Peña Nieto captured a commanding lead over his rivals, the leftist PRD candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who also ran unsuccessfully against Calderón in 2006, and the first major party female candidate, economist Josefina Vázquez Mota of the PAN.

A pink tide?

The elections of bombastic, leftist politicians like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales in the early 2000s brought news of a so-called “red” tide in Latin America. More recently with the election of female presidents in some of the most geographically and economically robust countries in the region, we see more of a gendered wave. Argentina, Brazil and Costa Rica currently have women presidents and Chile’s first female chief executive left office in 2010. The pattern of their rise to power and collective success raises questions about a region often thought to harbor more stereotypical “machismo” than the U.S.

Women gained franchise in Latin American countries decades after their American sisters but have achieved prominence in the highest political positions much sooner. American women won the right to vote for president in 1920 and have yet to elect a woman to that office. By contrast, Brazilian women first voted in 1932 and elected their first female president, Dilma Rousseff, in 2011. Chilean and Costa Rican women earned suffrage in 1949 and elected their first female presidents in 2006 (Michele Bachelet) and 2010 (Laura Chinchilla). Argentine women voted in 1947 and elected Cristina Kirchner in 2007. Nicaragua had the shortest gestation between women’s suffrage in 1955 and a woman president, Violeta Chamorro, in 1990—just 45 years.

How did this happen? One reason is the prominence of gender quotas for elected officials. Argentina led the region starting in 1991 by adopting specific targets for female representation and 14 countries in the region now have quotas. It has worked. Women make up more than 30 percent of the legislatures in many Latin American countries (Cuba has the highest at 41 percent, though Cuba does not have quotas). See the U.N. rankings of women in politics here. In contrast, women account for less than 17 percent of the U.S. Congress, tied with Turkmenistan for 78th place in the U.N. rankings of Women in Politics: 2012.

The current female presidents in the region are all quite distinct but share some similarities. All are professionals with formal credentials and significant political experience. Rousseff (and Mexican candidate Vázquez Mota) trained as economists while Chinchilla and Kirchner are lawyers. Bachelet is a pediatrician and epidemiologist. Chinchilla, Rousseff and Bachelet served several roles in the administrations of their popular predecessors, as vice president and minister of justice, chief of staff and energy minister, and health and defense minister. Kirchner was married to her predecessor and served as First Lady.

The personal lives of these women are more varied than one might expect. While marital status and fidelity is a distracting obsession in U.S. elections, the personal lives of these female Latin American presidents may seem surprising. Bachelet and Rousseff are both single mothers. Bachelet is separated from her husband (divorce only became legal in Chile in 2004) and the father of two of her three children. Twice-married and twice-divorced Rousseff has one daughter. Chinchilla is divorced and remarried and has a son with her second husband conceived four years before their marriage. Kirchner is a widow and was married with two children to Néstor Kirchner for 35 years before his death during her first term, in 2010. The two were sometimes called the Clintons of the South.

In a reflection of the unique historical turmoil of the region, countries that rebuild after fierce internal conflicts have made larger strides integrating women into the larger democratization process. See timeline of Latin American history. Both Rousseff and Kirchner were persecuted as student activists by the right-wing military dictatorships in their countries with Rousseff tortured for her role with a militant student group. Bachelet’s father, a general in the air force was tortured by the Pinochet dictatorship and died of his wounds. Costa Rica, on the other hand, abolished the army the year before women gained the right to vote and is often regarded as the “Switzerland of Latin America.” On both ends of the spectrum of violence, some women have advanced politically.

What is the collective influence of women serving so prominently in politics? The results are likely too soon to tell, but we might speculate a bit. Some studies already point to a drop in family size—in part because of the role model effect. Women, like Rousseff, can be single mothers with small families (one daughter) and be successful, and adored by the citizens, particularly young girls. Some studies suggest young women are beginning to envision having fewer children and demanding access to reproductive health care that will afford them those choices. One thing is clear: girls see that education put each of these female executives on the path to success.

Students as political actors

Women politicians represent a new face of politics in the region, but other groups are pressing for change as well. The relatively youthful populations in Latin America—as opposed to the aging demographics in the U.S.—are creating louder and sharper demands on politicians.

In Mexico, the summer’s presidential election gave birth to a new student movement critiquing the role of the media in political corruption. “Yo Soy 132” or “I Am 132,” references a May 2012 Peña Nieto campaign event held at Iberoamericana, a private university in Mexico City, During the event, students protested the candidate loudly, embarrassing the campaign. Prominent media outlets dismissed the protestors as staged or not reflective of the University’s constituency. In response 131 students who had attended the event posted a video on YouTube posing with their ID cards. To express solidarity, people began to claim they were the 132nd student and a movement was born.

Yo Soy 132 bears intellectual connections to the Occupy Wall Street movement and student organizers in the Arab Spring. It also reflects historical connections to a deep history of student opposition and civil protests in Mexico, from the protests against limiting university access in 1968 that resulted in a government massacre of nearly 300 students at Tlatelolco to the months long occupation of Mexico City’s central plaza after the 2006 presidential election and many events in between. The organization of students and their use of social media for strong critiques of collusion between the media, politicians and election officials shows how some are unwilling to accept the exclusion of the next generation from the political process.

Disillusioned youth admonishing politicians is not limited to Mexico. Chilean student protests specifically demanding a new educational framework have flared recently. Chile has one of the lowest levels of public funding for higher education in the region and as a result, a highly unequal university system. Rich students have access to some of the region’s best schooling while the poor may attend underfunded programs with dilapidated facilitates and recurrent strikes among faculty. The choices in between are non-existent. Protests over under-funded secondary schools began under President Bachelet in 2006 but the more recent protests from 2010 to 2012, and especially in August of 2011, when students occupied nearly 100 schools and organized 200,000 protestors, have heightened the pitch. It is likely that the protestors walking out of secondary schools have now reached university age and continue to demand public intervention to equalize opportunities afforded by education.

What do organized students to the south tell us about the role of youth in U.S. politics? Several distinctions are striking. Despite waning commitments to public higher education across the U.S., and especially in the Western states, where funding has been slashed by more than half, students have made few inroads into shaping political discussions. Rather than a point of actual debate, “education” is employed as a populist term, one candidates claim to support and then dismiss without conveying real commitments. Concrete changes in the education system—like rapidly eroding public funding—have occurred largely under the radar of political discourse, with a few exceptions such as Obama and Romney’s limited exchanges over student loan financing. A strong equalizing factor in the U.S. in the twentieth century was the creation of a generation of people who had easy access to higher education. The public recognized that education was a conduit to a more prosperous life, not just a job opportunity. Such civic commitments have waned as the cost of college has risen and been shunted onto families and students.

In contrast, girls in Brazil, students in Chile, and organizers in Mexico see the future of their countries in their own, educated, young hands and are rising to demand greater attention and build their own greatest generation. It seems university students in the U.S.—and the political and social systems that impede their collective organizing—have caused students to opt out of politics rather than to arrange for changes to surmountable barriers.

If Latin America finds its way into U.S. election debates, it rarely elicits more than a mention of immigration policy. Yet, trends in the region continue to surprise and delight, giving us more refractive lenses—tinged by the past, by the pink tide, or by the rising youth—through which to view our own society.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • TS

    A gender quota for Latin America politicians? News to me. Fascinating.

  • Nadia Rojas

    In Colombia there are a student movement that is creating a new law for education in professional and up levels. They are called MANE.