First Elected Female Head of State in Americas

First Elected Female Head of State in Americas

On this day in 1990, Violeta Chamorro unseated Daniel Ortega and became president of Nicaragua. She was the first elected female head of state in the Americas, the second in the western hemisphere, and the fifth in the world.

Born in 1929 to a wealthy family in Rivas, on the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border, Chamorro was educated in the US. Her rise to power began when she took over an anti-Somoza newspaper, La Prensa, after her husband’s assassination. The paper initially backed the Sandinistas, which she joined, then left and joined the opposition, the Contras.

In 1990, Chamorro was selected as the National Opposition Union’s candidate for the 1990 elections. The US Embassy in Nicaragua reportedly spent millions on her behalf and the White House insisted it would continue its embargo on Nicaragua if Chamorro were not elected. She was portrayed as a mother figure, a hero, and a martyr, to incumbent Ortega’s overwrought machismo and bravado. Likely due to this portrayal, US support, and Nicaraguans’ broad desire to see an end to the 11-year-long civil war, Chamorro successfully unseated Ortega and assumed presidency on 25 April 1990. She was the first and only woman in the world to defeat an incumbent president.

Perhaps Chamorro’s greatest legacy was the enduring peace reforms she instituted in her war-ravaged country. She declared an official end to the civil wars and maintained peace by reducing the size and power of the military and ending the national draft. The military demobilisation included the removal of the US-backed Contras, leaving the Sandinistas with no one to fight and effectively guaranteeing peace.

As president, Chamorro also granted unconditional amnesties of political crimes and instituted a weapons-buying program, which eradicated the threat of continuing violence. The government-purchased weapons are now encased in concrete at the Plaza de la Paz, or Peace Square, in downtown Managua. Chamorro also tried to rehabilitate Nicaragua’s economy, which had been devastated by more than a decade of civil war. She controlled hyperinflation and attempted to adopt a neoliberal model to reintegrate Nicaragua into the world market and increase foreign investment. Her economic plan wasn’t entirely successful: it resulted in a rise in unemployment and a reduction or elimination of some government spending and social programs. Nonetheless, Chamorro is remembered as a harbinger of peace and reconciliation in Nicaragua who ended a decade-long civil war and returned her country to stability.

Credit: © Bill Gentile/CORBIS
Caption: Violetta Chamorro on the campaign trail in 1990.