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The Era of La Presidenta

Female presidents shatter the glass ceiling in Brazil, Argentina and Costa Rica

Unlike Rousseff and Kirchner, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, elected to office in 2010, is a centrist. She says she prefers conciliation to confrontation, but she's no pushover.

In 1995, as her nation's vice minister of public security — unwed and five months pregnant — she faced down angry union officials to end a crippling strike. She later battled drug cartels, both in the legislature and as one of former President Oscar Arias's two vice presidents.

During her campaign, Chinchilla promised to boost education spending, increase funding for law enforcement and appoint an anti-drug czar to stop drug smugglers from using Costa Rica as a transit route. She faces a possible border war with neighboring Nicaragua over that nation's dredging operation in the San Juan River, which separates the two countries. Chinchilla, 52, is a social conservative who is staunchly opposed to abortion, gay marriage and the separation of church and state. She alienated some women's groups by refusing to press for women's rights, but nevertheless won the support of most female voters.

Chinchilla's ambassador to the United States, Muni Figueres, says Chinchilla was elected by women voters and mainstreamers from all sectors of society.

"She was subtle, not confrontational about the issue [of feminism]," says Figueres, who is the daughter of former Costa Rican President José Figueres. "She would say, 'The fact that I'm here running is the message.'"

The elections of Rousseff, Kirchner and Chinchilla prompted some to call this the "Era of La Presidenta." In the past, says Figueres, who made her own unsuccessful vice presidential bid in 1990, "there was no space for women in politics. Now women candidates are welcomed, even by men." Equally important, she says, "Women are not being intimidated by the power structure anymore. In all walks of life, women are less fearful of competition and of exercising power."

Next: Making strides across the region. >>

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