🔮 Understanding the intersection of populism, gender and religion in Central American politics

An intricate interplay between populism, gender dynamics, and religion is shaping the Central American political landscape. Erica Guevara, Ignacio Siles and María Fernanda Salas take a closer look at recent election campaigns in the region, uncovering the role played by these intertwined factors

Fertile ground for populist politics

Recent election campaigns across Central America have experienced a notable trend: candidates are embracing more religious and gender-focused content on social media. This includes content on women’s autonomy, equality, and reproductive rights, legalisation of abortion, issues related to sexism and sexual violence, same-sex marriage, and LGBTI rights.

Yet gender-related themes are not ideal battle horses for populists during campaigns. Ideologically, candidates tend to avoid such themes because they contradict the premise of homogeneity that the populists' 'people' claims to represent. However, from a communication perspective, strategic use of gender stereotypes remains a powerful cultural resource in a region with a rich heritage of religious movements.

Consider Costa Rica’s 2022 elections. During the campaign, the two leading candidates had a deeply controversial relationship with gender issues. Rodrigo Chaves, who eventually emerged victorious, had faced sanctions for sexual harassment while in his former post as an executive at the World Bank. Evangelical preacher Fabricio Alvarado, meanwhile, was a passionate supporter of policies prohibiting abortion and same-sex marriage.

Other Central American leaders have harnessed different gender roles and religious undertones when crafting their campaigns. In El Salvador, for example, Nayib Bukele secured the presidency by taking on the role of a charismatic prince charming. In 2021, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya became the first female president of Honduras. To achieve this, she cast herself as a devoted wife making sacrifices for her husband – a former president removed from power by military coup in 2009.

Shifting gender agendas and political movements

More broadly, the Latin American landscape has witnessed a clash of agendas on gender issues. Feminist and LGBTQ+ movements are striving for equality and rights. The Catholic and Pentecostal Evangelical sectors, however, vehemently oppose these movements, claiming they undermine Christian sexual morality. Indeed, Fabricio Alvarado threatened to quit the Inter-American human rights system to avoid 'imposition' of the LGBTQ+ agenda in Costa Rica. Such views have led to a surge in anti-gender rhetoric, which often aligns with populist politics.

Conservatives position gender politics as an exclusive concern of the privileged elite, framing the struggle for gender equality as a divide between the elites and the marginalised

In this context, the discourse against 'gender ideology' has become a tool for simplifying complex societal issues. Conservatives position gender politics as an exclusive concern of the privileged elite. Amid economic crises and political disillusionment, this simplification resonates. Some populist actors thus frame the struggle for gender equality as a divide between the elites and the marginalised.

From caudillos to supermadres and hypermasculine men

Populism is deeply associated with strong male leaders. In Latin America, this has been historically linked to two different archetypes: the caudillo and the 'father of the poor'. Caudillos are leaders such as Juan Domingo Perón and Hugo Chávez, who transitioned from military to political prominence. Other politicians, by contrast, emphasise their roles as protectors and providers for the most vulnerable. Lázaro Cárdenas, known as 'Father Lázaro', is one such example.

However, in recent years, presidents like El Salvador's Bukele have embodied a more dynamic or 'kaleidoscopic' masculinity. This encompasses diverse archetypes, from athlete to military figure to preacher and, ultimately, to political messiah.

To succeed in public life, women leaders in Latin America commonly invoke motherhood and draw strategically on their caring roles. Our research notes that women candidates tend to identify as a supermadre. Throughout her campaign in Honduras, for example, Xiomara Castro argued that the country needed 'the heart of a woman'.

To succeed in public life, women leaders commonly invoke motherhood and draw strategically on their caring roles

Some women leaders cast themselves a 'macho minimiser'. These candidates soften their image through cultivated appeals to hyperfemininity. Male candidates, by contrast, appear hypermasculine to attract support. Rodrigo Chaves used harsh language, and focused on aspects of his personal life, to wield influence in Costa Rica’s election. Indeed, Chaves insisted that his rough way of speaking was a sign of his honesty as a politician.

The complex nexus of populism, gender, and religion

Religion and gender identities are woven intricately into the fabric of political leadership in Central America. The promotion of religious and anti-gender agendas, however, manifests diversely. Some candidates, such as Fabricio Alvarado, politicise Christian morality to justify their strong anti-abortion, anti-same-sex marriage stance.

Other candidates, such as Xiomara Castro, are more subtle. They underplay religious references to instil confidence in their electorate and to appear authoritative. Castro, for example, used phrases such as 'with profound faith in God and the Divine providence'. She did not, however, explicitly propose policies based on her religious beliefs.

Some candidates politicise Christian morality to justify their strong anti-abortion, anti-same-sex marriage stance

Candidates thus exploit populism to validate their religious agendas or, inversely, use religious references to validate their political project. This interplay is central to the emergence of messianic figures. Such figures appeal to a conservative electorate by subtly invoking religion without explicitly addressing religious issues. In doing so, they often play down gender policies while subtly weaving gender performances into their leadership personas.

Central American presidential candidates who have enjoyed the most recent electoral success are precisely those who have blended populist, religious, and gender-oriented references. Leaders' communication strategies have been key to making this blend possible. Strategies have included appealing to emotions, emphasising the leader's persona, sharing private aspects of one's life, antagonising other political actors, proposing to solve political problems through popular wisdom, and communicating in informal, simplistic language.

The nexus of gender and religion plays a pivotal role in shaping contemporary political narratives in Central America. It is key to understanding the complexities of populism’s discursive repertoire.

No.69 in a Loop thread on the 🔮 Future of Populism

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Erica Guevara Erica Guevara Associate Professor (Maîtresse de Conférences), UFR Culture and Communication, Center for the Study of Media, Technology and Internationalization (CEMTI), University Paris 8 Vincennes Saint-Denis More by this author
photograph of Ignacio Siles Ignacio Siles Professor of Media and Technology Studies, School of Communication, Universidad de Costa Rica More by this author
photograph of María Fernanda Salas María Fernanda Salas Research Assistant, Center for Communication Research, Universidad de Costa Rica / School of Journalism, Michigan State University More by this author

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