Nadine and the Power Elite

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 ​“The President denies that he co-governs with his wife”, is today´s provocative headline in El Comercio. Humala´s comments are in reference to the annual Encuesta de Poder (Power Survey) published this week by the polling firm Apoyo, which places First Lady Nadine Heredia second only to her husband in the list of Peru´s most powerful people, a fact which has caused much noise in the national media.   Why is this so?
The Encuesta, published annually since 1981, is not a public opinion poll.  It is a questionnaire sent to a select group of opinion leaders, or what Apoyo refers to as “strategic minorities” – including politicians, technocrats, journalists, intellectuals, business leaders, heads of universities and NGOs, and subscribers to Apoyo publications (first DEBATE, now Perú Económico).  Although the total number of questionnaires sent is undisclosed, around 250 replies are received each year.  I should confess that I am among the fortunate who sometimes (but not always) receive the survey, and sometimes (but not this year), respond. The 2012 invitation went like this:

“Dear Sirs: Cynthia Sandborn (sic):
In Perú Económico we consider you to be part of a reduced group of opinion leaders, whose reading of national events is sharper than that of the common citizen. Therefore we invite you to answer our Encuesta de Poder. This should take just 15 minutes of your time. … “.

These sharper-than-average people are asked to list up to ten Peruvians who, “due to their position, capacity or personal prestige”, have the most power in this country. While initially Apoyo defined power for them, as the capacity to influence the course of national events in a significant manner, since 1995 respondents have been left to define the concept for themselves. The questionnaire also asks about power in various professions, including business, religion, the military, law and the media.  Since 2008, the poll has added the arts, sports, show business, and the Web.  This year “intellectuals” were eliminated and “chefs” were introduced, a fact that did not go unnoticed amongcritics, although Mario Vargas Llosa remains in the Top Ten.

What the survey shows us, therefore, is what a small segment of the national elite – perhaps more older men, probably more center-right — thinks about power.  And surprise!  After the President, they think power is largely held by… people like themselves.  Or they want it to be that way, judging by who respondants say should have more power (ex: PPK).   Sometimes this elite perception mirrors that of the broader citizenry (El Presidente is everybody´s #1 choice), and sometimes it is way off (as in 2010, when Humala was not even remotely considered).   It also took them awhile to realize the power being constructed by the Shining Path in the 1980s, and they quickly forgot about it once the movement´s leader, Abimael Guzmán, was jailed.

This year´s survey has received more public attention, because for the first time a woman is in the #2 spot.   This is not the first time that First Ladies appear on the list – the wives of presidents Belaunde and Toledo were also in the Top Ten during their husbands´ first year.  And there have been other women on the list.  Nine, to be precise.  In 31 years. Three first ladies and six politicians, three of them Fujimoristas.  Pathetic, really.

Yet Nadine´s power is seen differently, and bothers more of these folks.   Center-right politician Lourdes Flores even suggested that Humala read El Varon Domado (The Dominated Male) by Esther Vilar, a 1971 tract which argues that “men are trained and conditioned by women, similar to Pavlov´s dogs, to become their slaves.  As compensation for their labors, men are periodically rewarded with a vagina”.    Heady stuff!   Interestingly, in the same survey 78% of the respondents approve of the Humala administration, in which Nadine is allegedly the Dominatrix.   The President says that criticism of her pure machismo.  Is he right?

Although I did not send back the questionnaire this year, the editors of Perúeconómico kindly asked me for an opinion on Nadine, before her much criticized role in a rescue operation ​involving childen and the Shining Path.   The following is a rough translation:

The Power of Nadine

The power of Nadine Heredia has been evident since the presidential campaign, in which she successfully played three roles: central figure in a young model family, co-founder of the Nationalist Party, and strategic advisor to the candidate.  At the outset of this government she already figured third in the Power Survey, and this year she moved to second place. Although I think it is exaggerated to say that she co-governs, she does wield power in a different and greater way than other first ladies of Peru.

Where does her power lie?  First of all, she is the trusted anchor in the changing entourage of a president who was little prepared for the turbulence of democratic politics.  Her influence also lies in her professional skills, in communications and the social sciences, and her charisma and ability to deal with media, which contrast with the communicational limitations of Ollanta Humala.  Her high public approval level (62% according to the latest poll) offsets the more volatile ratings of her husband, and the affection she generates among the poor is an important asset for a government whose main objective is social inclusion.

Is it right that she exercises so much power?   Conservatives say no, that she should dedicate herself to social teas and charitable works.   Indeed, with similar arguments former President Alan Garcia dissolved the office of First Lady in 2006, and his (former) wife played the role of the traditional, self-sacrificing spouse who worked with the poor but didn´t interfere in public policy.  Yet such roles are getting harder to sustain.  Today it is common that both members of a couple have professional aspirations, and in politics it is common that they join the same party and share the same vision for their country.   Like it or not, when a candidate (male or female) has a partner, voters assess them both as possible representatives of the Nation.

So when one is elected to the highest office, what should the other do?   If he/she works in the private sector, there could be conflicts of interest or security issues. If he/she accepts a purely decorative role, it leads to frustration.   Another First Lady known for her political protagonism, Hillary Clinton, famously said “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life”.   Although harshly criticized for that remark, Hillary played key roles in education and health policy reform efforts in her husband´s administrations, then went on to be a presidential candidate and Secretary of State.

In Latin America, the Kirchners embodied the Power Couple, but there are other examples.  In Uruguay, Lucía Topolansky shared party militancy with her husband, José Mujica, and became the top-voted senator in the last election.  In the Dominican Republic, lawyer and former first lady Margarita Cedeños was just elected Vice President.  In Guyana, Janet (Rosenberg) Jagan went from union organizer to First Lady to Prime Minister and President.   In El Salvador, lawyer and human rights activist Vanda Pignato, who helped build the Workers Party in her native Brasil, is both First Lady and Secretary of Social Inclusion.

Hence although the traditional figure of First Lady is sadly out-dated, perhaps it is best not to eliminate it all together, but modernize it.  Establish it as part of the Executive, with gender neutrality, clearly defined tasks, and a transparent budget, according to the skills and priorities of each Administration.

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