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Global Journalist: The election of Laura Chinchilla, Costa Rica's first woman president, brings discussion

Friday, February 12, 2010 | 12:36 p.m. CST; updated 10:12 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: A woman was elected president of Costa Rica last week, and another was denied the presidency of Ukraine where she had been prime minister for five years. Women leaders of nations are not new. In the last part of the 20th century, there were women heads of government and state like Golda Meir in Israel, Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, Indira Gandhi in India and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. In the U.S. Congress, 76 members of the House of Representatives and 17 senators are women. President Obama has appointed seven women to his Cabinet, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. So does the landslide election of Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica on Feb. 7 or the defeat of Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko for the presidency of her country mean anything as far as the growing number of leadership positions by women is concerned?

Sarah Rarick, gender analyst, TheCostaRicaNews.com; San Jose, Costa Rica: Obviously, the fact that Laura Chinchilla is the first woman to occupy this political position in Costa Rica is extremely significant for women. Whether Laura Chinchilla as president will be a stepping-stone toward gender equality in Costa Rica depends on factors other than Chinchilla simply being a woman; it depends on her political action.

Loory: Chinchilla is something to the right of center. She is conservative. How is this going to go down in your country?

Eduardo Ulibarri, professor of journalism at the University of Costa Rica and chairman of the Institute of Press and Freedom of Expression; San Jose, Costa Rica: I would not define Chinchilla as a conservative; she is a centrist. Her political party coincides with what we would call a liberal economic position, giving the market more role in the economy. I think her election responds not only to the fact that she is a woman, but also the fact that she represents change inside continuity. She is from the same political party in power now.

Loory: It is being said that Chinchilla will be a puppet of Oscar Arias, the president she is replacing. She was his vice-president. Is there any truth to that?

Rarick: There is truth to that. Her political agenda is extremely conservative in that it is a continuity of Oscar Arias’ policy, which is very aligned with the Roman Catholic Church. She’s made no clear, concrete proposals for programs or legislation that are designed to eliminate conditions that generate and reproduce gender disparities. She has been very vocal about distancing herself from the feminist and women’s movements here in Costa Rica. Many here would argue that these reservations toward the feminist movement negate the history and the struggle for women’s rights in Costa Rica that have created the conditions that would even permit a woman to aspire to be the president of the republic.

Loory: In the Ukraine there is going to be a radical change because Yulia Tymoshenko, who was the Ukrainian prime minister who came to power in the Orange Revolution, has now been defeated by the person that the Orange Revolution defeated in 2004. What does this portend for Ukraine?

Vitaliy Moroz, Head of New Media, Internews Ukraine; Kiev, Ukraine: The development of Ukraine won’t depend on either Tymoshenko or Viktor Yanukovich, the winner of the election. Both Tymoshenko and Yanukovich have been in politics since the late '90s. The outcome of elections doesn’t mean that Tymoshenko has no future. Tymoshenko will be a very strong oppositional leader, and voters voted against her because she was responsible for the weak economic situation in the Ukraine. I expect in five years the situation could turn back, and Tymoshenko could become the new president of Ukraine.

Loory: Might Yanukovich lean more toward Moscow? I think at one point during the campaign he said he wanted to restore Russian as the national language of Ukraine. Is that correct?

Fred Weir, correspondent, Christian Science Monitor; Moscow: Yanukovich has often promised to give Russian official language status. The Ukraine Constitution says that there is one state language, and that is Ukrainian. However, in the eastern Ukraine, the vast majority of people speak Russian as a first language, and one in three Ukrainians call it their native language. That eastern part of the Ukraine was part of the Russian empire and Soviet Union for over 300 years. They tend to take their cultural and political cues from Moscow. It doesn’t mean that they want to secede and become part of Russia, but they have this geopolitical affinity to Russia. The western Ukraine was never part of any Russian-dominated state until 1939 when Stalin dragged them into the Soviet Union. That creates a really profound split in the Ukraine and why every Ukrainian election is so close between someone orange and someone blue, like Yanukovich.

Loory: In 2004, there was a lot of dispute over the fact that Vladimir Putin, then the president of Russia, had intervened in the Ukrainian election campaign. This time around, the Russian government have kept hands off. What is the implication of that?

Megan Stack, bureau chief, Los Angeles Times; Moscow: There was a perception last time around that Russia was too heavily invested in Viktor Yanukovich. This time there was much more of a sense that Russia was trying to stay out of overtly tampering with Ukrainian politics. Both candidates had friendly relations with Moscow. There is a longstanding perception that Yanukovich is very close to Moscow, so this wasn’t an election where Moscow was going to lose.

Loory: Back in Costa Rica, is macho dead?

Rarick: Macho is definitely not dead. The majority of violence towards women is domestic violence in the private sphere, but when the security debate only addresses violence in the public sphere, then you’re leaving out half the population. That to me is very evident that machismo is prevalent here. When we talk about gender equality, we need to involve all policies. It needs to be part of the economy, security, health care — all of these need to be addressed with a gender focus. We can’t assume that just because a woman is occupying a political position, she is going to be interested in women’s issues.

Ulibarri: Machismo is a fact of culture in Costa Rica as well as in many other countries. I think that the evolution from machismo to a more balanced perception of the role of women in society is going at a higher speed in public life here in Costa Rica than in private life. The problem of violence inside the families against women is a major problem here in Costa Rica. In the business and private sectors, the possibility of women advancing in positions is diminished in relation with men. I think the public discourse and rhetoric is very much in favor of gender equality, but the process of making advances for women in Costa Rica is very long.

Loory: The last time I remember a woman in any position of power in Russia was in the 1960s or the early 1970s when a woman was the minister of culture there and a member of the Politburo. Why is it that in Russia women are not making any headway?

Stack: There is still a lot of sexism here, and I think there is an acceptance of society as it is. There is not a particularly strong women’s rights movement within Russia. Russia is not a country where women’s rights are respected very much at all.

Loory: Was Tymoshenko, like many female leaders around the world, more in tune with the same policies that men would be following?

Moroz: Tymoshenko is said to be the strongest "male" politician in the Ukraine. She is very energetic, and she behaves like a man in politics. She will appeal to gender issues, but she is not outspoken because the Ukraine faces a lot of economical and other challenges.

Loory: German Chancellor Angela Merkel is dealing with the same kinds of issues that a man in her job would deal with, but she has brought some women into power — at least one who is very attuned to women’s issues. Is that something unusual for a woman in Merkel’s position?

Rarick: I wouldn’t say that it is unusual, but sometimes it can be more difficult. Often there is a political necessity for women, especially female politicians, to maintain that distance because women’s issues are considered to be divisive or volatile for voters. There tends to be a silence as a political strategy.

Loory: In preparing for this program, I came across an article in Foreign Policy Magazine written by Reihan Salam from Brooklyn, New York. The article was about the death of macho. He ended his article saying “we have no precedent for a world after the death of macho, but we can expect the transition to be wrenching, uneven and possibly very violent.”

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Melissa Ulbricht, Tim Wall and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.


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