En español | In some ways, the lives of Latin America's female presidents have been more fantastic than the story lines of any telenovela: imprisonment and torture, financial scandal, unwed motherhood. Though they differ in their policies and political philosophies, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina and Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica each plunged into the rough and tumble of Latin American politics at an early age and rose to lead their countries through hard work, grit, intelligence and keen political instinct.
"They are going to have a huge impact in their countries, the hemisphere and the world," says Susan Segal, president and CEO of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, New York–based groups that specialize in Latin American issues. Segal notes that they've already promoted the cause of democracy by winning fair and transparent elections in nations that have known dictatorships and military coups. They struck a decisive blow against the machismo of Latin American politics, and they lead the fight for gender equality in the Americas where even the United States — which has never elected a woman president — has much more of a glass ceiling. "People [in Latin America] want better lives for their children, so they are picking the most competent candidates," says Segal.
Dilma Rousseff, 63, who was sworn in as Brazil's first woman president on January 1, will lead a country growing in political power and economic strength. The daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant and a Brazilian school teacher, she's been a leftist guerrilla, economist, energy minister and president's chief of staff.
After Brazil's military seized power in 1964, Rousseff went underground to battle the dictatorship. She was arrested, endured 22 days of torture and served a three-year prison sentence.
But when Brazil's generals loosened their grip on the nation in the 1980s, Rousseff helped establish the Democratic Labor Party. After the party started to win elections, she held a number of bureaucratic jobs and in 2001 joined the Workers' Party, led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whom she helped win the presidency. Rousseff was later appointed Lula's minister of mines and energy, and eventually became the president's chief of staff and handpicked successor.
Lula's popularity and his political track record — he lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty — helped Rousseff's bid for the presidency, which she launched a year after battling lymphoma. But her own achievements and vision also paved the way to the executive mansion, says Segal.
Her principal goal, Rousseff says, is to fight poverty. As energy secretary, she launched the ambitious Luz para Todos (electricity for all) program aimed at extending electrical power to all Brazilians. One of her pet projects, Minha Casa, Minha Vida (my house, my life), allows poor Brazilians to buy homes. She also wants to extend her nation's network of government-funded health care clinics, with the goal of achieving universal coverage. And using revenue from a new offshore oil find, she wants to repair Brazil's crumbling infrastructure. Preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro could spur some of those repairs.