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Latin America in 2011: Year of the female politician

By Rafael Romo, CNN Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
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Year of the female politican
  • Women continue to make leadership inroads in Latin America
  • President Dilma Rousseff likely will have a different presidential style in Brazil, expert says
  • Laura Chinchilla will enter her second year as Costa Rica's president in 2011
  • Women presidential candidates face uphill election battles in Argentina and Peru
  • Argentina
  • Brazil
  • Costa Rica
  • Peru

(CNN) -- The New Year will be big for female politicians in Latin America.

Brazil will welcome its first female president in 2011. Laura Chinchilla will enter her second year as president of Costa Rica, Alberto Fujimori's daughter has hopes of following in her father's footsteps in Peru and an incumbent head of state seeks to turn her political fortunes around in Argentina.

Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's first female president, was the former chief of staff for her popular predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Ricardo Gutierrez-Mouat, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, said Rousseff will have her plate full.

"She has a really tough act to follow because Lula was the most popular president throughout Latin America, not just in Brazil," Gutierrez-Mouat said. "In Brazil his acceptance rate was something like 80 percent after eight years, which is incredible."

Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas Program at the Atlanta-based Carter Center and a professor of political science at Georgia State University, said there will be some differences between Rousseff's government and that of her predecessor.

"I think we'll see a different style from Lula and perhaps more of a focus on the domestic agenda, including the social policy agenda, anti-poverty -- and, of course, the development of the new oil fields in Brazil will be a major portion of her presidency," McCoy said.

Rousseff is the most recent in a line of women holding power in Latin America, along with Chinchilla in Costa Rica and Chile's Michelle Bachelet (who was succeeded in 2010 by Sebastian Pinera).

A woman is expected to be a contender in Peru's April presidential elections. Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, wants to follow in her father's footsteps, but it won't be easy. She will face strong opponents with long political careers.

"The significant fact about this is that either candidate, (Luis) Castaneda, who is the former mayor of Lima, and [Alejandro] Toledo, the former president of Peru, both would win handily against Keiko in a runoff," said Gutierrez-Mouat. "She does have some not inconsiderable popular support, but not enough to propel her to the presidency."

Another Latin American woman has a chance of getting re-elected in 2011. But Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, too, will face an uphill battle in the October elections. The Carter Center's McCoy says that her "political fortunes will really depend on her performance in these next months in 2011."

"With the sudden death of her husband (former President Nestor Kirchner) two months ago -- that threw the political scenario really open in Argentina," McCoy said, "and will most likely bring out a number of competitors that may not have come out if he were still living with the possibility of running himself."

Meanwhile, one male leader in Latin America seems well-positioned to consolidate his controversial regime, while another is poised to loosen the reins of state control.

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez will be able to govern by decree for the next 18 months, thanks to a law approved recently by the National Assembly.

"His goal that he has stated is to deepen the revolution, to deepen and expand socialism, and to show the country his vision of his socialist experiment," McCoy said.

Gutierrez-Mouat took it one step further: "Chavez's game is to turn democracy against itself, so he has to play by the rules in order to win."

And in Raul Castro's Cuba, economic reforms, including the elimination of a half-million government jobs, will be implemented in 2011. McCoy said it will be a "major adjustment" as people try to find jobs in the nascent private sector. "This will not be an easy task, but it is a necessary one for Cuba to put itself on a more sound footing for the future, economically speaking,"

The balance between economic and political rule is going to be interesting to watch, said Gutierrez-Mouat. "So we would have to see next year, the year after to what extent this liberalization fits or doesn't fit the autocratic system, the political system, which is not being liberalized, Gutierrez-Mouat says.

Another country to follow in 2011 is Mexico. After a record number of violent deaths in Mexico this year, President Felipe Calderon will be under pressure to take a second look at his war against drug cartels and whether he wants to make this strategy part of his presidential legacy.