What do a Zapotec woman from Mexico, an Afro-descendant advocate from Uruguay, and a gay rights activist from Chile have in common? Quite a lot, it turns out.
On March 27, Mexico’s Eufrosina Cruz Mendoza, Uruguay’s Edgardo Ortuño, and Chile’s Jaime Parada Hoyl – three Latin American politicians who have broken glass ceilings in their respective countries – were in New York for the launch of a new Americas Society report titled “A Seat at The Table: Five Steps to Making Latin American Politics More Diverse.” The report explores practical ways the region can increase the number of women, Afro-descendant, indigenous, and LGBT people in its legislatures.
In a conversation moderated by AQ editor-in-chief Brian Winter, the three trailblazing lawmakers discussed the report’s recommendations and found much in common despite their diverse backgrounds.
“What unites all of us is the feeling of being uncomfortable,” said Parada, a city councilman for the Providencia municipality in Santiago, Chile, who spoke about his conservative upbringing and his journey to becoming the first openly gay candidate elected to public office in Chile’s history.
Ortuño, who in 2005 became the first Afro-descendant person elected to Uruguay’s Congress, and later served as the Vice Minister of Industry, said his story was in many ways similar to Parada’s and Cruz’s.
“Our stories are ones of commitment, of rebellion, and of overcoming (obstacles),” Ortuño told the audience.
The panelists said the evening’s conversation was an example of one of the report’s key recommendations: forming diverse alliances.
“These alliances with others who have different stories, with other countries, they unite us as one,” said Cruz, who has successfully advocated for the political rights of indigenous women in Mexico as a member of the Federal Congress and the State Congress of Oaxaca. “When you’re fighting against a majority political system, you feel alone. Instead, when you construct alliances, it becomes clear that that majority isn’t certain.”
The report was written by Brazil-based journalist Andrew Downie, who interviewed politicians across the region, as well as the top academics studying political representation in Latin America.
Downie’s findings show that a blueprint for a more representative politics in Latin America is particularly timely. While some individual instances of political under-representation are so glaring that they capture public attention – such as Brazilian President Michel Temer’s initial cabinet of all white men in 2016 – the problem in the region (and, for that matter, the world) is widespread. For example, in 2016 AQ found that in no country in Latin America did the percentage of indigenous lawmakers in Congress match the percentage of indigenous people in the population as a whole. The situation for Afro-descendants isn’t much better, with only Peru having a higher percentage of Afro-descendants in Congress than the wider population. And out of hundreds of lawmakers across the region, only 15 were openly LGBT as of February of this year.
As governments across the region face economic hurdles, there may be pressure to view political inclusion as less of a priority. But for Cruz, the necessity of bringing marginalized groups into government isn’t up for debate.
“Democracy without the face of women and minorities isn’t democracy at all.”
O’Boyle is an editor for Americas Quarterly