GUATEMALA CITY — In a country where machismo is still the rule, Sandra Torres doesn't cut the demure figure of past first ladies. She doesn't host social events or boost charities.
What she does do is give orders, lots of them.
Torres oversees President Alvaro Colom's well-endowed state program of social assistance, which involves anti-poverty handouts to hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans. She oversees the work of several Cabinet members.
Now there's talk that Torres will try to succeed her husband in the presidency in elections late next year. The talk has raised a flurry of heated debate.
"She's a person who generates a lot of passions," acknowledged Fernando Barillas, a spokesman for the ruling National Union of Hope party, which Colom and Torres founded.
Torres hasn't openly declared her candidacy, but if she does, she'll follow in well-trod footsteps around the hemisphere. Even today, two other active first ladies — in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic — are pondering the presidencies of their countries, and in Peru, the first daughter of jailed former President Alberto Fujimori is a front-runner in the presidential race. They're part of a rising tide of female leaders who've changed the political makeup of the region.
Argentina and Costa Rica have female presidents. Argentina has a history of wives succeeding presidents in power, and President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is no exception. Her husband, Nestor Kirchner, ran the country from 2003 to 2007. Their combined rule is sometimes called "Kirchnerismo."
Cristina, as Argentines generally call her, is no Isabel Peron, however, the former nightclub dancer who was elected to lead Argentina on President Juan Peron's death in 1974.
"She's an experienced, talented, established politician in her own right. She served many years in the Senate," said Steve Levitsky, a scholar on Latin American politics at Harvard. He added that the Kirchners work closely together, and may hope to alternate in power. "The plan was to try to get three or four terms in office."
Many Latin countries, such as Guatemala, bar re-election, meaning that incumbents sometimes seek like-minded individuals, including wives and relatives, to sustain their policies.
In the past half-century, Guatemalan voters have never kept an incumbent president's party in power, making a possible bid by Torres a long shot.
Torres' supporters suggest that she's more decisive than her husband is, a characteristic that he's been criticized for lacking, weakening his popularity.
"She is very capable in negotiations and qualified in strategic planning," said Ovidio Monzon, a legislator who was a classmate of the first lady's at Rafael Landivar University, where they earned master's degrees in public policy.
Torres' possible candidacy would face a barrier: Guatemala's Constitution bars relatives of a sitting president from running. Two decades ago, the Constitutional Court barred the wife of then-President Vinicio Cerezo from running.
"In Guatemala, whoever is in power interprets the law," said Gustavo Berganza, a newspaper columnist and sociologist.
Torres, a divorced mother of four, married Colom in 2002, several years after they formed the party that now governs the country.
After he came to office in 2008, Colom tapped Torres as the commissioner of social cohesion, which oversees programs that offer assistance to some 470,000 poor rural residents, the biggest of which, My Family Progresses, gives monthly stipends of about $37.50 to recipients.
Critics accuse Torres of bankrolling a potential campaign through money siphoned from the assistance programs. Leftist legislator Nineth Montenegro sued to demand the release of the names of the aid recipients, but Torres has resisted complying, despite a court ruling. She's also refused to appear before Congress, decrying any investigation as a witch hunt.
Torres isn't alone in her ambitions. Farther to the south, the wife of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Rosario Murillo, has watched polling results carefully to see whether she's electable. Ortega, a leader of the 1979 Sandinista Revolution who returned to power in elections in 2006, faces legal barriers to running again, and his wife's possible candidacy could be his Plan B.
Like the Kirchners in Argentina, Ortega has wrapped his wife in the mantle of leadership, describing her as the effective prime minister.
"Government propaganda speaks of 'Daniel and Rosario' as a single political entity, a leadership that is above the (Sandinista Front) or any of the historic leaders of the revolution," said Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a onetime Sandinista newspaper editor who's highly critical of Ortega.
In Peru, one of the two front-runners for the presidency is 35-year-old Keiko Fujimori, the eldest daughter of the former president who ruled for a decade until his ouster in 2000. During much of his term, the then-divorced Fujimori took his daughter on trips and introduced her as "first lady."
Keiko Fujimori, who holds a master of business administration degree from Columbia University, oozes confidence. "I have a very high probability of being the next president of Peru," she told Lima's El Comercio newspaper June 23.
"Many people believe that if she won, she would turn around and pardon (her father) and call new elections. When people vote for Keiko . . . it's a vote to get Fujimori out of prison," Levitsky said.
Fujimori, who brought stability to Peru, sits in a Lima prison serving a 25-year sentence for ordering death squad massacres during his early years in office.
In the Dominican Republic, posters have gone up touting first lady Margarita Cedeno as a 2012 candidate to succeed her husband, Leonel Fernandez, who's finishing a second term and is barred from another.
Those who are pressing her candidacy have adopted the slogan, "With her, we continue with him."
The matter of former first ladies seeking the presidency is hardly limited to Latin America, as Hillary Clinton showed with her 2008 U.S. campaign. Experts caution that the trend also shouldn't obscure the rise of talented female politicians around the hemisphere.
In Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, the chief of staff to popular President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is a leading candidate to succeed him in elections in October, and is widely credited for her own merits. If she wins, she'd lead the most populous country in the Western Hemisphere after the United States.
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