The Fight to Elevate Women Inside Brazil’s Government
Brazil trails many of its neighbors in trying to tackle gender parity. Advocates are pushing Lula to change that.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: Brazilian women demand more female appointees in the Lula administration, Uruguay mourns an iconic architect, and a new U.S. intelligence report closes the case on Havana syndrome—kind of.
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Counting, Naming, and Shaming
Brazil, like many Latin American countries, saw loud street protests on March 8 to mark International Women’s Day. But one of the day’s most consequential developments was more subdued: a ceremony in the capital, Brasília, where left-wing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and other officials announced more than 25 new measures designed to support Brazilian women. They included the creation of additional shelters for victims of domestic violence and the introduction of a bill in Brazil’s National Congress that would instate financial penalties for companies committing gender-based wage discrimination.
The equal pay bill was a campaign promise—not of Lula’s but of his centrist competitor, Simone Tebet, who came in third place in the first round of last October’s presidential election. Tebet, now Lula’s minister of planning and budget, agreed to back him in the runoff if he supported her equal pay bill, among other conditions.
The bill’s path to Congress is emblematic of how women’s rights initiatives have advanced in the early days of the Lula administration: through cross-party coordination and vocal advocacy by activists and high-ranking female officials.
In January, when Tebet said she struggled to find qualified Black women to staff her ministry, for example, Racial Equality Minister Anielle Franco—a member of Lula’s Workers’ Party—sent Tebet a list of suggested candidates. Now, a Black woman leads the planning ministry’s research institute for the first time.
Meanwhile, diplomat Irene Vida Gala—head of the Association of Women Diplomats of Brazil (AMDB)—met with federal lawmakers and ministers in Brasília last week to promote her group’s campaign to get more women promoted to senior foreign ministry positions. AMDB was officially established in January following years of informal efforts to boost women within the foreign service; some of the group’s members had participated in a hashtag campaign on Twitter immediately after Lula’s election, calling for him to appoint Brazil’s first female foreign minister.
Although Lula chose a man as foreign minister, Vida Gala told Foreign Policy that “I do not have the smallest doubt” that AMDB’s public campaigning has already yielded results. Brazil now has its first female vice minister of foreign affairs and first female ambassador to Washington. A record 3 of 10 foreign ministry secretariats are also led by women. “Still, there is far more to go,” Vida Gala added.
Campaigning by AMDB and other groups reflects the failure of past efforts to increase the number of Brazilian women serving in government. Brazil, like many countries in Latin America, has a quota that requires a minimum threshold of female congressional candidates in each election, but at 30 percent, it is low for the region. (In Argentina, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, and Peru, the threshold is 50 percent.) And no such quota exists for federal appointees. In effect, Vida Gala said, “there is an informal quota for the jobs to go to men.”
An update to the candidate quota law that would also require 30 percent of elected congressional seats be filled by women was passed by Brazil’s Federal Senate in 2021 but never moved forward in the Chamber of Deputies; a bill requiring 40 percent of senior federal appointees to be women was introduced in the Senate in 2018 but also stalled. The share of women in Brazil’s Congress rose from 15 percent to around 18 percent in last October’s elections, but it still ranks among the lowest in the region in terms of female congressional representation.
Outside Congress, groups such as AMDB and a volunteer movement called Women in the Budget hope that they can secure more female federal appointees with a strategy that includes monitoring, naming, and shaming. The latter group was founded last year by federal employees and public administration experts after several 2022 presidential candidates—Lula included—shied away from committing to appointing 50 percent women as ministers during the campaign. (Tebet committed to parity; Lula said he would choose ministers based on “who has the ability.”)
In response, Women in the Budget compiled a list that included more than 200 women qualified for open government positions and publicized it during the presidential transition. They also helped Franco recommend candidates to Tebet when she was staffing her ministry.
Though Brazil has seen similar initiatives in the past, organizing via social media allowed Women in the Budget’s push to reach a new scale, spokespeople Heloísa Bernardo and Eduarda Motta told Foreign Policy.
Like AMDB, Women in the Budget has regularly published statistics on the gender breakdown of new appointees. Their numbers show progress: in 2015, only 37.4 percent of intermediate-level federal appointees were women and 62.6 percent of them were men. But as of Feb. 16, the Lula government had given 39.9 percent of open intermediate-level positions to women and 37.6 percent of them to men while 22.5 remained vacant, according to research by Women in the Budget’s Vanessa de Oliveira.
While the pressure campaign appears to be slowly working, Vida Gala said it’s not an official, lasting affirmative action policy. That’s what AMDB has called for in Brazil’s foreign service. “We’re diplomats. We’re ready to sit down and negotiate something” directly with Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira, Vida Gala said. Until then, she won’t be quiet about the fact that, by her count, men hold 90 percent of highest-visibility posts in Brazil’s foreign service—what Vida Gala calls “grand slam” positions.
Lula has signaled support for gender parity requirements in recent days, issuing a federal guideline on March 6 that said all committees advising the president’s office should have gender parity. Advocates hope more are on the way.
Tuesday, March 21, to Wednesday, March 22: The United Nations Human Rights Council discusses Venezuela.
Friday, March 24: The U.N. Human Rights Council shares the outcome of its Universal Periodic Review of Ecuador and Brazil.
Friday, March 24, to Saturday, March 25: Latin American leaders meet with leaders from Spain and Portugal in the Dominican Republic.
What We’re Following
Americans abducted in Mexico. The abduction of four Americans in Matamoros, Mexico, last Friday prompted a multi-agency search by Mexican and U.S. law enforcement officials that located the victims in record time and set off a frenzy of commentary in both countries.
Two of the Americans were found dead and two were found alive. Mexican investigators are reportedly looking into whether mistaken identity, miscommunication, or a drug-related motive could be behind the crime; the New York Times reported that one possibility is that the armed gunmen told the Americans’ car to stop but it sped up instead. One person in the group had reportedly planned to undergo cosmetic surgery in Matamoros.
Tamaulipas state, home to Matamoros, had a homicide rate lower than Mexico’s average in 2021—but cartels and smugglers are still active. While some U.S. commentators said the incident should prompt tougher U.S. measures against Mexican cartels, Mexicans called out the contrast between their government’s rapid and effective efforts to find the missing Americans and the perceived lack of similar efforts to locate the approximately 25,000 Mexicans who were registered as missing or disappeared between 2018 and mid-2021 alone.
Boric’s tax bill troubles. A bill that was a key pillar of Chilean President Gabriel Boric’s economic agenda was unexpectedly rejected in Chile’s lower house of its National Congress on Wednesday. It would have created Chile’s first wealth tax to fund increased social spending; Boric’s finance minister had said in recent days that he expected the bill to pass.
The political blow comes as Chile’s second attempt at redrafting its constitution officially began this week, with a committee of academic and legal experts meeting to start their framework for the new document. Like the failed tax bill, the revised drafting process also reflects limits on Boric’s political ambitions. After a progressive draft constitution that Boric supported failed to pass a national referendum last year, the new drafting committee was designed to allow for fewer radical changes to the legal code to appease centrists and conservatives.
Mourning an iconic architect. Rafael Viñoly, who died last week, was born in Uruguay in 1944 and studied architecture in Buenos Aires before leaving Argentina during its military dictatorship. He went on to design large office buildings on city skylines around the world, including one London structure known as the “Walkie Talkie” for its resemblance to the radio device.
Viñoly often said his architecture aimed to be nondescript—although the Walkie Talkie certainly is not. In a 2019 interview with Uruguayan newspaper El País, he said, “we do not have a recognizable style.”
Viñoly also designed the University of Buenos Aires building that houses the departments of math, computer sciences, and environmental sciences, Terminal 2 of Mexico’s Guadalajara airport, and Uruguay’s circular Laguna Garzón Bridge. A viral YouTube video called it the bridge most often filmed from the air in the country.
Question of the Week
Of the 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, how many currently have a female head of government?
They include Peru’s President Dina Boluarte, Honduras’s President Xiomara Castro, and Barbados’s Prime Minister Mia Mottley.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• China’s Ukraine Peace Plan Is Actually About Taiwan by Craig Singleton
• Why China Is Not a Superpower by Jo Inge Bekkevold
• Putin Has Assembled an Axis of Autocrats Against Ukraine by Justin Daniels
In Focus: The U.S. Report on Havana Syndrome
A multi-agency U.S. intelligence review of the health incidents often referred to as “Havana syndrome,” which was first revealed to Washington Post reporters last week, may not be the definitive verdict on the cause of the phenomenon, but it is the most comprehensive so far.
Since 2016, U.S. diplomats and military and intelligence officers around the world have experienced mysterious health problems, such as headaches, nausea, and disorientation. The symptoms were first reported in Havana, and many initially speculated they could have been the result of a targeted energy weapon used by the Cuban government or one of its allies. China, Russia, and the United States have all developed devices that harness targeted energy, the Institute for Biodefense Research’s James Giordano, who was part of the team of experts who investigated the initial incidents, told Politico.
Now, seven U.S. intelligence agencies have reviewed evidence of Havana syndrome, and five of them concluded it was “very unlikely” a foreign adversary was responsible for the symptoms. One agency concluded it was “unlikely,” and another abstained from a conclusion. (The Washington Post report did not name the agencies in question.)
The case on Havana syndrome is not completely closed within the U.S. government, however, as the U.S. Defense Department is continuing to investigate it. Independent panels have also endorsed the hypothesis of a foreign attack over the years, and some victims said they were dissatisfied with the conclusions of the review.
Speculation about the origins of the phenomenon worsened U.S.-Cuba relations during the Trump administration. In Havana’s telling, it was not so much U.S. diplomats’ medical symptoms as it was the White House’s response to them that frayed ties between the two countries.
Though Cuba denied responsibility for energy attacks and launched its own probes into U.S. diplomats’ mysterious illnesses when they were first reported, Washington soon closed its embassy in Havana. Cuban officials said the closure made it harder for Cubans to legally travel to the United States and prompted them to migrate through irregular pathways instead.
“The U.S. government leveraged [Havana syndrome] to derail bilateral relations … and discredit Cuba,” Cuban Vice Foreign Minister Carlos Fernández de Cossio told Reuters.
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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