From former guerillas and journalists, to novela stars and models, Latin American first ladies come in all shapes, sizes and strategy emphasis, thus highlighting the multiple ways female presence and advisement have helped shaped government.
Only in recent generations have women occupied a visible role in public policy. And yet influence is nothing new. The most influential first ladies of Latin America are key examples of this paradigm.
Whether as symbols of popular appeal and social status, or mechanisms of advisement and strategies, the alliance of powerful men and women is timeless and increasingly important in the 21st century when wars are less physical and overt, but psychological and covert.
Here are some Latin American first ladies and their occasionally paradoxical roles in their men’s successful careers:
Although lacking traditional Latin American casta system influence due to historical homogeneity, major 19th century Italian and Spanish immigration filled the gap through its own male dominant traditions. However, Argentina became one of the first Latin American republics where women entered major politics nationally and internationally.
Eva “Evita” Duarte de Peron is a cultural symbol representing humble roots turned glamorous. During her lifetime, she embodied a physical metaphor of what husband – General and later President Juan Peron – could allegedly also do for the country. Evita – a former actress and radio singer – was a pathos cornerstone to Peron’s more logos and ethos-based military background, serving as a soft appeal in the face of coup detats, economic woes, opposition tensions, questionable international third party associations and corruption allegations.
A film based on the Broadway musical – Evita – starring Madonna, Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Price was released in 1996. Its music, particularly the song “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”, became iconic to Western perception of her legacy. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner even invited Madonna in 2007 to discuss political and entertainment marketing appeal mechanisms. Overall, while Evita was Peron’s first lady (although second wife), she was not the wife to assume vice presidency.
Evita’s successor as Peron’s female companion and political tool was Maria Estela “Isabel” Martinez Cartes de Peron. She dropped out of school by the fifth grade. The General met Isabel the “exotic dancer” while vacationing in Panama, possibly Isla Contadora according to several accounts. A mirror of Marcela and Temer of Brazil, Isabel and Juan were more than three decades apart. This did not stop union. Juan returned Isabel to Argentina, married her and made her first lady.
When the ailing General died, he died secure in the “knowledge” that he was leaving the country in hands of which he had “controlled”.
However, two years later under Isabel’s inexperienced leadership and heavy reliance on her late partner’s “confidants”, she was ousted by a junta-led military coup detat. Isabel fled to Spain. She is alive, but no longer publically active since 2007 when Spanish courts refused to extradite her upon Argentine courts’ accusation of her authorizing “forced disappearances of subversives”. Due to her public distancing from Evita and human rights abuse allegations, modern Peronism mentions Isabel sparsely.
Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner
Decades later, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner – an admirer of the Eva and Juan Peron dynamic, climbed to power. A Buenos Aires lawyer, she traveled to lesser known, less competitive south to join her classmate and then husband Nestor Kirchner in his unpopular political career. Combining her Buenos Aires contacts and her strategy with his existing position, Nestor rose through the ranks.
When Nestor was elected president, Cristina served as coordinator of cabinet ministers and social programs. She also served as Governor of the Buenos Aires province. When his term was complete, Nestor returned the favor and supported her candidacy through media, funding and networking. Critics claim that she followed his instructions through her first term, like “a puppet”. There are also multiple accusations of him physically abusing her.
In 2010, Nestor suddenly died on a random trip to Patagonia from a “heart attack”. He was the first president not to have an open casket funeral, nor published investigations or medical records. One ex-doctor of the couple report that there was a bullet hole in his head, a strong claim since allegedly during Nestor’s time of death, Cristina was the only one accompanying him. The topic has been blacked out by mass media, and analytical programs which have alluded to the topic have been “coincidentally” removed temporarily off air.
After Nestor, Cristina fired multiple ex-Nestor era ministers, replacing them with her personal advisers, many of whom were not on good terms with Nestor. Cristina also changed economic and marketing strategy modus operandi. However, she wore morning black clothes for two years and promoted Nestor as a generic messiah, profiting off his center-leftist allies across the region, including Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez (who personally funded her first term’s campaign), Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa.
By the end of Cristina’s health and economic crisis era second term, due to lack of prospective successors not being tried in court, she recruited ex-Nestor Vice President and then Govenor of the Buenos Aires province, Daniel Scioli, as preferred presidential candidate. Scioli lost by 3-6% against businessman Mauricio Macri.
Current first lady, Juliana Awada, is the daughter of a middle-high class Syrian family and independent businesswoman. She and President Macri met after her second marriage and his third.
They have one daughter, Antonia, who has appeared upon numerous strategic marketing ventures to demonstrate Macri’s “professional and personal life balance”. Juliana also frequently appears on local stations for interviews and ally-country diplomatic missions.
11/08/16: UPDATE: Macri has mentioned the possibility of running Awada as president during the upcoming election. The proposal would contradict Macri’s prior criticism of the Kirchner power couple’s strategy, in which Nestor supported Cristina’s run in 2007. Many analysts during that time predicted Nestor to run in 2011. He died in 2010. Cristina won a second consecutive term.
Traditional Bolivian first ladies uphold parallel roles to their regional contemporaries. They are typically 100% European descent Bolivians who oversee social events, remain refined and distant from the populous and yet publically sympathetic to them. Most importantly, they accompany their also 100% European descent men as etiquette requires. President Evo Morales’ 2007 election changed the trend…on multiple levels.
Esther Morales Ayma
Current President Evo Morales has never married, sparking conflicts with the Catholic Church, criticism regarding his out of wedlock two children from years ago and parodies of homosexuality. Therefore, his oldest sister – Esther Morales Ayma – holds the role by tradition.
Esther has appeared at Evo’s side sparsely. She has paraded at his first term’s inauguration where she arrived not in expensive foreign brand clothing, but traditional indigenous wear as the first indigenous first lady in the 90% indigenous populated republic. She has also been photographed meeting Chilean President Michele Bachelet to discuss the human rights implications of Bolivian maritime access.
Dilma Rousseff – N/A
Ex-President Dilma Rousseff had no first gentleman in office. Two divorces occurred on the basis of choosing between her country or relationships. The first marriage left an only daughter – Paula Rousseff de Araujo – born during her academic, guerilla and early political career years.
Since there was no official first gentleman, predecessor President and political mentor Luiz Igancio Lula da Silva aesthetically occupied the role, while Paula accompanied her mother at inauguration ceremonies (as photographed above).
Current President Michel Temer represents a case study hybridizing traditional roles with modern message. Marcela Tedeschi Temer is a traditional first lady and third wife of an older partner. She accompanied her uncle to the 2002 annual political convention of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), where she met Temer. They married within a year and maintain a 40 year age gap, making Temer’s youngest child 15 years older than his current wife. It perhaps also implicitly demonstrates that he is powerful enough not only to compensate, but win over a desirable figure, aka as embodied by modelesque, blonde dyed, fashionable, youthful Marcela. They have one young son – an additional demonstration of Temer’s virility.
Nevertheless, Marcela publically owns the role. Certain factions in the United States may scoff at anti-feminist Donald Trump comments, but Marcela embraces them as a cultural idol of ultimate tradition and femininity. She is educated but has never worked. She bares a tattoo of her husband’s full name on the back of her neck, below the hairline.
Overall, Marcela embodies the luxury of not having to work. She is professionally unthreatening. Therefore, due to her acceptance of this submissive role as trophy wife, she does not pose an intellectual or physical threat to Temer.
Michele Bachelet – N/A
Like other Latin American republics, customary first lady roles are common place in historical Chilean presidencies. President Michelle Bachelet, being legally separated from her spouse and father of three children – has no first gentleman in residence.
Bachelet has held two terms as President of Chile and the first President of UN Women.
Supportive wives with quiet public profiles for security and non-competitory purposes are a continuing agenda in Colombia. However, when it comes to socio-political dynamics, Colombia is famously more than meets the eye.
Maria Clemencia Rodriguez
Maria Clemencia “Tutina” Rodriguez – first lady of current President Juan Manuel Santos – and Lina Moreno de Uribe – wife of ex-President Alvaro Uribe – are both of elite families and appear at public events as the traditional interpretation of the first lady role dictates.
Typically, men here of highly publicized traditional business-political families marry other elite family members of less public, but more illicitly powerful bloodlines.
Medellin businessman Alberto Uribe wed Laura Velez, cousin of the Gaviria family, the maternal side of ex-President Cesar Gaviria and druglord Pablo Escobar, and also related to lines such as the Londono, Sanin, Ochoa, Restrepo, Vasquez, Echeverri, and Posada. This includes, somewhat distantly, the five most recent heads of state. It is as if there exists a pact between ensuring economic and political security – through overt fathers – and physical and subliminal power – through covert mothers’ side.
Anne Malherbe Gosselin is current President Rafael Correa’s wife. She was born in Belgium and the two met while he attended university there. Both studied economics and returned to his country shortly after. Their in-house language is French, Spanish as a secondary. She has opted out of First Lady etiquette traditions and taking advantage of the title to pursue alternative endeavors and focusing on being a mother and wife.
Anne has made only two public statements in the last decade. One at her husband’s 2007 inauguration. When asked about first lady duties, she answered, “all women are created equal”. The other statement was of “shame” regarding the detaining of an Ecuadorian mother and child in her home country, Belgium. She remains out of the public eye.
Correa has commented that they will return to Belgium, where the children can be close to her family and he can work as a university professor.
Former First Lady Sandra Torres de Colom run for president when her husband – ex-President Alvaro Colom – could not. The current Cuatemalan constitution bans spouses of incumbent leaders from running for the same office. Hence, the couple legally divorced yet still resided together.
A lawyer by profession, Sandra lost the election to former intelligence chief Otto Perez.
Ex-President Manuel Zelaya’s wife – Xiomara Castro de Zelaya – was placed in a similar predicament as their Guatemalan counterparts.
A Bussiness Administration undergraduate, Xiomara ran for president in place of formerly ousted spouse Manuel. She led in the polls for eight months against eight opposition candidates before falling to second place in the closing months and losing to conservative Juan Orlando Hernandez.
First Lady Angelica “La Gaviota” Rivera – wife of current President Enrique Pena Nieto – is a former novela star, singer, model and embodiment of cross-industry popular appeal and non-threatening nature. Her intimate association with Pena Nieto has helped market the once unknown, new-blood, but “new, pretty face” of an old party.
Actresses and actors in politics is no novel concept. Knowing one’s lines and apropriate part is key to public image sculpting. As such a social symbol, she raises Pena Nieto’s bar from what opposition has called “puppet”, to what supporters call popularity and masculine command.
This also means that “La Gaviota” appears to know when not to say certain lines. Her spouse is accused of killing his former wife and mother of his oldest children. Rumors of tension were reported between the pre-presidencial couple before that first wife was discovered suddenly dead in their residence. Cause of death varies dramatically and contradictorially. Like the previously elaborated Cristina-Nestor death question, investigation results were never publicized. La Gaviota and Pena Nieto united soon after.
Incumbent President Daniel Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo de Ortega, occupies a particularly active, non-traditional niche among Latin American first ladies and female political figures. Biographically, she parallels Uruguay’s Lucia Topolansky and Venezuela’s Cilia Flores. Rosario is a professional poet and linguistic professor, who became a guerilla who fought alongside her husband during the Sandinista Revolution in 1979.
The couple have no children, although Rosario has one. The adult daughter has presented an elaborately detailed accusation documenting a decade’s worth of rape allegations against her step-father. While the court case has tainted Ortega’s image, even parodied in Isla Presidencial, Ortega denied them and Rosario sided with her in-office spouse. The complaint was rejected.
Ex-First Lady Marta Linares de Martinelli represents a strategic balance between traditional supporting politician’s wife and adept business messenger. She is the business hand of exiled Martinelli, handling multi-national transactions and negotiations for an ex-head of state accused of multi-million dollar corruption scandals and privacy rights violations within his country.
Marta continues a public presence via social media, but otherwise operates under the radar. She maintains his network alive and commercial endeavors in Italy, the US, Panama and elsewhere connected as well. She also serves as an echoing mouth-piece promoting Martinelli ideals, perhaps attempting to maintain a place-holder for her husband in Panama, despite heated local opposition.
Ex-First Lady, Vivian Fernandez de Torrijos, wife of ex-President Martin Torrijos, is a practicing lawyer, bringing soft power intuitivity to their social media presence.
However, she has also has been caught in controversy, such as representing ex-President Ricardo Martinelli in legal affairs. She is known to consistently and with creative diversity mirror her husband and his father (Omar Torrijos)’s local legacy.
Following the Isabel Peron example, Ex-First Lady Mireya Moscoso met political legend Arnulfo Arias at age 16 and married at 18. Having a more than 4 decade age gap, Arnulfo pre-descended his wife. She majored in Interior Design and in 1999 became Panama’s President.
Mireya oversaw an era of economic, social and political instability.
Like Argentina but to a much less famously, Peru has also hosted multi-functional, influential first ladies.
Ex-President Alan Garcia’s wife, Pilar Nores de Garcia, is an Argentina-born, Peruvian naturalized public figure with a solid media presence and an economist by profession. As an intellectual, she continues to publish, an element which became pivotal to the re-election of her spouse. In 1990, Garcia resigned office with a 5% approval rating and 3000% inflation.
A key critic against Garcia opposition , Pilar is known as an important personal adviser, image architect and media ally of Garcia.
As oldest daughter of ex-President Alberto Fujimori, Keiko Fujimori constitutionally assumed the role of first-lady upon her parent’s divorce when the mother publically criticized Fujimorista policy.
Keiko has yet to leave the spot light, strongly upholding her father’s legacy as a positive one, as well as running for president twice, both times coming in second.
Ex-President Jose “Pepe” Mujica and his wife Lucia Topolansky have been “partners in crime” for decades. During Operation Condor, they served along one another as guerillas, torture victims and lovers. They married after years of partnership. They have no children. They live on Pepe’s flower farm with several dogs and world famous humility. Political as he is, in addition to serving as Deputy and Speaker of the House, she became the first woman to assume the Uruguayan presidency – albeit for several dozen hours when Mujica and his Vice President Danilo Astori were both absent on international diplomatic missions.
Rebellion and strength began early. The daughter of a wealthy Polish-decent family, Lucia disowned her privilege origins for a more adventurous existence. In her adolescence, she got in fights and robbed banks. Today, she is recognized as a premier lawmaker.
Ex-President Hugo Chavez’s first wife – Nancy Iriarte Colmenares de Chavez – was a “good mother and wife”. However, similar to Dilma’s situation, Nancy said that upon Chavez being jailed after his failed coup, that he had to choose between her and his country and career. He chose the latter.
Nancy divorced Chavez and assumed custody of their children. The children returned to their ultimately powerful father as adults and still live in the presidential house, forcing Maduro and Cilia to build a residence in the formerly government administrational building, Palacio Miraflores. This first wife maintains a low profile.
Chavez’s oldest daughter – Maria Gabriela Chavez de Arreaza – constitutionally occupied the first lady position for the majority of her father’s governance. She married her father’s Minister of Communicatiom, Jorge Arreaza, who moved in the Chavez family. Soon after, he was made Vice President. While neither hold executive branch positions, they still live there.
Widely known as the “favorite daughter”, Gabriela allegedly holds custody of over U$S4 billion in inheritance which is dispersed between Andoran and American bank accounts. If the proximate were true, it would make Gabriela the wealthiest individual in Venezuela, nearly doubling traditional elite family estimates, ironic for a populist head-of-state family member.
Chavez’s second wife, Marisabel Rodriguez Oropeza, is a journalist and radio announcer. When Chavez was released from prison, she publically expressed her interest in seducing him for his power. Soon after their first date, she announced her pregnancy. They married for a year and a half and had one daughter, Rosines Chavez Rodriguez. Marisabel won custody after a highly publicized battle. Rosines has since flaunted her wealth and illegal possession of US currency through social media.
Most importantly, – like most first ladies – Marisabel represented more than power drama. She embodied a pre-2002 coup detat Chavez fresh out of jail and still constructing his public leadership style and image. During a 1998 presidential Christmas campaign commercial, in attempting to appeal civilized after being known to the country as a military officer, Chavez staged himself, wife and Rosines in a luxury apartment, dressed in Western business clothes and eating a Western Christmas dinner on fine china. While his language of “family first” remained, the marketing image changed dramatically after his divorce and US-involved coup detat. Chavez never starred in a high-life styled advertisement again, instead keeping with populist, “of the people” styled image appeal.