The figure of the First Lady is one of the many issues that define the new governments in Latin America. Different political regimes have expressed different positions on what should be the scope of this figure, which has traditionally been occupied by the president’s wife. In some cases, sisters or daughters of the presidents have also been appointed as First Ladies. Sometimes this issue is explicitly addressed, while in other cases it is delineated over time or in the course of the exercise of power. Given the absence of specific regulations governing their performance, the options for this role are varied. The First Lady began as the president’s companion who only attended certain meetings and presidential trips and was the hostess of the government house. Later, it included her participation in some charitable works such as visiting hospitals, schools, and nursing homes. Finally, the role has become more political, and the First Ladies can promote social programs or policies and include matters on the public agenda. To this end, some have an office, budget, and staff within the institutional presidency. Some first ladies have even played a role comparable to that of the president, despite not having been formally elected to that position, generating a dual leadership without controversy.
Some administrations have sought to strengthen and expand the role of the First Lady. A recent case is that of Veronica Alcocer, wife of President Petro of Colombia, who strongly influences the government and was appointed ambassador on a special mission to represent the country in international activities. There are other cases in which they have sought to limit or eliminate the figure of the First Lady, as has happened in Ecuador (2007), Paraguay (2013), Mexico (2018), and Chile (2022). However, most of the time these changes have remained in declarations of intent, which have been diluted in the same government or reinstated in the following presidential term, since they have not been accompanied by institutional change, except for the case of Chile, which included important reforms.
Gabriel Boric and his then-partner Irina Karamanos decided to carry out a structural reform to modify the institutionality of the First Lady. In the first days of government, it was announced that this position would be redefined, after criticism for assuming the role from the opposition (for not being married) and from feminist groups of the same coalition that considered the role extemporaneous, added to a context of strong questioning of the political elite and the existing institutionality by the citizenship. At the end of 2022 and after one year of government, the Sociocultural Directorate of the Presidency was closed and its seven foundations were distributed among different ministries. This institutional innovation marked a turning point in the evolution of the role since the return of democracy in Chile and the consequent increase in the functions assumed. The permanent elimination of the existing structure brought about a long-term change in the institutional landscape.
In Argentina, the land of Eva Perón, recognized as the figure par excellence of the political impact that a First Lady can have, that role has taken on different faces since the return to democracy. Since Raúl Alfonsín’s attempt to reduce her honorific titles by requesting that she simply be called “his wife” to Cristina Fernández, who sought to present herself as the first citizen. It should be noted that Fernández had legislative experience, which, added to an electoral strategy of turnover with her husband, served as the basis for her candidacy and subsequent presidency in two consecutive terms.
These changes do not exclude the strict protocol roles played by the wives of Fernando De la Rúa and Mauricio Macri, with special mention to the latter. Juliana Awada stood out for her active, impeccable, and glamorous participation in protocol events, although without a specific dedication to social causes, except for some isolated visits to the Los Piletones dining room. The last Argentine First Lady, Fabiola Yáñez, Alberto Fernández’s partner, had a marked interest in getting involved in various social tasks and in being part of the ALMA group, which gathers some of the Latin American first ladies with a singular relationship with the Vatican. Who will attend such meetings in the new administration?
After the mark left by Eva Perón in Argentine politics, all governments have had to define the role of the president’s wife. The recently inaugurated President of Argentina, Javier Milei, has been no exception and has defined the role of his partner, the renowned artist Fátima Flórez. In his statements, Milei expressed that the most appropriate thing to do would be to cancel the appointment of Flórez as First Lady, arguing that it would not be fair to deprive the population of an exceptional artist as her current partner. However, in a newspaper interview, the artist mentioned that she has always maintained a genuine interest in charity and “doing good”, a motivation that has accompanied her throughout her life, returning to a traditional view of the expected performance for a president’s wife. As a confirmation of this statement, Flórez recently went to the soup kitchen Los Piletones, which symbolizes the epicenter of Macrista social aid and is run by Margarita Barrientos, a figure very close to the former president and a declared voter of Javier Milei.
The presence of Fátima Flórez, a popular blonde artist known for her imitations of Cristina Fernández, has raised strange comparisons with the historic Perón-Evita duo, based solely on the two women’s shared artistic past. The love affair between Flórez and Milei became public during the electoral campaign, when the presidential candidate was facing criticism for not having a partner, family, and for his close relationship with his sister and even with his dogs, whom he calls “my four-legged children” and who are immortalized on the presidential baton. The attractive Fatima Florez, in a way, sought to dispel any hint of doubt about the candidate’s masculinity. In addition, it contributes to consolidating the image of Milei as a “strong macho man with balls”, a characteristic of populist leadership, which, according to several observations, Javier Milei is approaching. This phenomenon reinforces the narrative built around his figure, highlighting symbolic aspects that connect with certain leadership patterns in political history.
Argentina is going through a period of intense economic crisis, accompanied by an attempt at cultural transformation backed by the enactment of an extensive decree of necessity and urgency (DNU) and an omnibus law, neither of which addresses the issue related to the figure of the First Lady. Although it could be argued that the country’s priorities are focused on other areas, both regulations contain numerous secondary issues, among which the discussion on the role of the president’s partner could also be included.
Although in Argentina it is still premature to determine the attributions related to the functions that the figure of the First Lady could assume, it is intriguing to reflect on the initial denial and cancellation of her role, characterized by Milei as a “tilinguería” (pretentiousness). It is relevant to point out that he had previously affirmed that his sister, Karina, a fundamental piece in the political arming that led him to the presidency and whom he calls “El Jefe” (The Boss), would be the one to occupy such a role. However, she assumed formal and regulated spaces within the Executive Branch when she took charge of the General Secretariat of the Presidency after repealing a regulation that prohibited the president’s relatives from holding government positions. Karina greatly expanded her influence in six strategic areas of the presidency, without neglecting the president’s attention. Her responsibilities range from managing Milei’s weight-loss diet to the renovations of the Presidential Quinta de Olivos. She is also the one who accompanies him to all events and trips, whether to the Argentine base in Antarctica or the United States. At some point, she became the power behind the throne, taking care of the president’s signature and his back. Karina is part of that complex and diverse female world that surrounds Milei, who has been accused of misogyny. To refute these accusations, he began appearing in public surrounded by women, some of whom hold key positions in his government.
The First Lady is a political actor who has considerable symbolism at the national and international levels. This figure can be performed in different ways since it is in a gray area without any regulation or accountability within the government. The gender disparity in the occupation of executive positions also means that the role of the companion is reserved almost exclusively for women. The cases of first gentlemen, if they can be called that way, are very rare. It is a significant advance that there is a questioning and debate about the role of the first ladies from different ideologies and for different reasons: Milei a libertarian liberal and Boric a social democrat committed to a gender perspective in his government. Hence, the changes made could influence other countries in the region and are also a signal about the role of women, both for the presidents’ partners, who seek to have autonomy and their agency without ceasing to be the couple of the president, as for women in society.