Elisa Carrio

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (WOMENSENEWS)–As Argentina flounders through its worst economic crisis in history, a no-frills, corruption-busting female politician, Elisa Carrio, has emerged as the best hope for a country tired of being run by a “band of robbers” and desperate for change.

Carrio, a 44-year-old mother of four and leader of the opposition group Alternative for a Republic of Equals, has become the symbol of hope for many while interim president, Peronist Eduardo Duhalde, staggers from one crisis to the next, with ministers and central bank presidents falling like flies.

Since riots rocked Argentina in December, toppling two governments in only two weeks, Argentina has defaulted on its $141 billion public debt, devalued the peso by more than 70 percent and watched its economy implode. Hundreds of thousands of Argentines have lost their life savings and their jobs and nearly 4 million people have fallen under the poverty line since last October.

In six months, the protests have not eased. The angry demonstrators, who believe the corruption and incompetence of the country’s old political guard are the root cause for the country’s economic collapse, clamor daily for change. Neighborhood groups have formed in search of a new, cleaner kind of democracy.

“We are witnessing the painful birth of a different kind of Argentina,” said Carrio. “The one thing not to do when a woman is trying to give birth is close her legs. That is what the old political classes are doing by holding on to power. It means the birth is going to be very painful.”

“I am ready to be the next president if the people want me. The only thing I fear is having to dress up and have lunch with ambassadors,” said the straight-talking candidate.

Recent polls show congresswoman Carrio polling as much as 20 percent with several Peronist candidates vying for second place. Carlos Menem, who dug the country out of its last economic crisis in 1989 and led the country for the next 10 years, has begun to creep up in the polls, currently with 7 percent support, despite his corruption-tainted reputation. Voting in Argentina is obligatory, but in the recent past, voters have cast blank or spoiled votes to protest what they see as ineffective and corrupt candidates. In the election now scheduled for March of next year, more than a third of the nation indicates it intends to cast a blank or spoiled ballot.

Analysts say that Carrio has penetrated the hearts and minds of Argentina’s middle class, devastated by rising unemployment, soaring prices and a collapsing banking system that has consumed their life savings. But some question her ability to lead a nation out of ruin.

“Carrio is the symbol of protest for the middle class,” said political analyst Rosendo Fraga. “She may win the next elections, but the central question is whether she will know how to govern.”

Carrio has made her name in opposition, but her party is young and its policies for solving Argentina’s economic problems are unclear. Analysts warn that if Carrio is elected, the country will be taking an idealistic “leap into the unknown.”

From glamour queen to no-frills politician

A fervent Catholic, Carrio’s nonconformist, honest image has saved her from mobs that have hurled insults and thrown punches at politicians from all parties, accusing them of corruption and mismanagement and demanding they resign when spotted in restaurants, airports or city streets. Formerly a slim, glitzy socialite professor of law in Chaco, one of the poorest northern provinces of Argentina, Carrio went in to politics five years ago “to struggle against corruption in the name of poverty.”

The chain-smoking, cake-eating, plain-dressing lady is now known affectionately by some as Lilita and by others as “La Gorda” (the fat woman).

“I used to be thin and beautiful. Then I started eating and being happy and wearing whatever I like. I don’t paint my face or buy lots of shoes any more,” she said with a grin.

She made her name with an investigation into money laundering that brought down the former governor of the Central Bank Pedro Pou in 2001. Her image was scratched, however, when documents she tried to use against former Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo turned out to be forged.

“Politicians are afraid of me. They are afraid I might show them for what they really are. I have had threats and face constant slur campaigns. But it doesn’t put me off. My children are used to having police guarding the front door,” she said.

Now, as Argentina begs the international financial community for financial rescue, Carrio represents the progressive movement in a country which through Carlos Menem’s free market reforms in the 1990s became the world’s best example of the hazards of globalization.

“Argentina has been the guinea pig for the worst kind of capitalism,” Carrio said. She proposes total reform of all the legal and government institutions to salvage Latin America’s third largest economy, “not with or against, but without the International Monetary Fund,” she added.

Recently, Alternative for a Republic of Equals launched a petition to declare IMF delegate Anoop Singh persona non grata in Argentina, arguing, like an increasing numbers of Argentines, that more loans are not the answer to Argentina’s problems.

Carrio Intends to Raise Issues of Domestic Violence, Reproductive Health

Carrio also stands for women’s rights in a conservative society dogged by Latin American machismo. Domestic violence is one of the largest problems for women and abortion is illegal. When emergency contraception was banned earlier this year, there was little protest.

“This is a tremendously superficial society,” said sociologist Silvina Walger. “Feminism is like a bad word, especially among the young. They think it’s ungracious. Carrio ignores all that.”

Carrio, a self-declared feminist hopes to raise reproductive health and domestic violence on Argentina’s political agenda and works closely with women’s groups who have traditionally led some of the toughest struggles in Argentine history. Carrio supports and speaks out for the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who have demonstrated in front of the presidential palace for over 20 years demanding justice for their children who disappeared during the 1976-1983 dictatorship. Several regional party deputies are women who have fought to stop small farms in the vast Pampas plains from being auctioned off in recent years as the country’s four-year recession was shattering family businesses.

Despite its male-dominated politics and society, Argentina is the only Latin American country to have had a woman president. But Isabel Peron, the widow of General Juan Domingo Peron, had to flee the presidential palace in helicopter in 1976 when the country’s most brutal, seven year military regime began.

“It’s not difficult for women to get into politics here,” Carrio says, referring to a law that ensures 30 percent of Congress is female. “Perhaps what is difficult is for the men to accept you as their leader.”

Sophie Arie is a British freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires where she writes for The Observer and The Daily Telegraph (of London) and occasionally contributes to the Boston Globe. Previously Arie worked at Agence France Presse in Paris and ran a world news feature service for America Online from London.

For more information:

Elisa Carrio’s Web site
(in Spanish):

Asociacion Madres de Plaza de Mayo
(in Spanish)
Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo
(in English):

The Economist
Country briefing on Argentina
“Political forces”: