Latin America’s Unconventional Pro-Choice Crusader
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Latin America’s reproduction rights debate needs more nuance and less polarization.
There’s something quixotic about Gloria Álvarez.
With photographs of the aurora borealis and rock star portraits decorating the walls of her Mexico City apartment, the political provocateur looks as though she’s just returned from Burning Man. Tossing her dyed red hair and waving her ring-studded fingers, she confirms that, “yes, I’ve always been a bit like a gypsy.”
From Reykjavík, Iceland, to Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Guatemalan native speaks at conferences about the virtues of less populism and less government. She is also the author of three books, including El Engaño Populista (The Populist’s Deception), and works for radio show Libertópolis.
For five years, Álvarez’s free market proposals have been inflaming the sphere of social politics in Latin America, where the right-wing populism of Brazil’s Trump-cheering president, Jair Bolsonaro, and the left-wing populism of paternalistic Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador have come to define the increasingly polarized landscape. There is a minimum age requirement — 40 — for Guatemalan presidential candidates, but last year, the 35-year-old Álvarez ran a mock campaign anyway. Her platform included a range of what might seem contradictory proposals: reduced state bureaucracy, a strong military, free market capitalism — and legalized abortion (though not paid for by the government). Álvarez wants to be the antidote to the populist fever taking over Latin American politics.
“The reality is, for Latin America there’s no way in hell tax money is going to go for abortion clinics, because you’re not going to convince conservatives to give money for something they don’t believe in,” Álvarez says.
“So instead of waiting for that utopia to happen, why not just liberalize and make the individual find a way … It could be an app, it could be crowdfunding, it could be foundations,” she says.
Abortion in Latin America is a big deal because sexual violence is a big deal. In 2018, there were more than 700,000 female victims of sex crimes in Mexico, 40,000 of whom were raped. But 97 percent of Latin American women of reproductive age live in countries with restrictive abortion laws. Outliers, like Uruguay and Cuba, have lesser restrictions, but in Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela and most of Mexico, the laws are highly restrictive. Argentine President Alberto Fernández has promised to send a bill to Congress that would legalize abortion, but with just 43 percent of voters in favor, it will be an uphill battle.
I understand the people who say you’re killing a life. But no one thinks of the life that gets condemned to poverty forever in unwanted conditions.
Some pro-choice advocates criticize Álvarez for doing too little to break the patterns of sexism and inequality in Latin American society. “That reproduces a pattern of social injustice,” insists Natalí Hernández Arias, a Mexican abortion activist. “The idea that the only ones who should get an abortion are the ones who can pay for it seems classist. And the ones that can’t pay for it, that the state should pay for it.”
To see how Álvarez’s proposal might play out, look to Colombia, where abortion is decriminalized but clinics are not funded by the government. Oriéntame, an abortion clinic in downtown Bogotá, relied on an anonymous donor to defray costs, but when the donor left, the clinic was forced to charge market prices that soared well above the black-market rate.
“I understand the people who say you’re killing a life,” Álvarez says. “But no one thinks of the life that gets condemned to poverty forever in unwanted conditions.” She would rather a woman have the choice to abort than have no option except an underground, unregulated and possibly unsafe clinic.
The debate over abortion rights can be chiseled down to people’s perception of what that right is. Álvarez believes it’s the right of women to make their own medical decisions. Others argue that health is a right that should be guaranteed, that unwanted pregnancies for underprivileged women equal a public health crisis — and in the face of a crisis, governments should be obligated to pay for care.
“It’s not just about subsidizing clinics,” says Arias. “It’s about guaranteeing the right to women’s health. Guaranteeing a safe abortion means avoiding the cost of complications and hospitalizations later.” Álvarez sees it differently. She thinks the state should guarantee the right to make decisions about personal health issues — but not guarantee the outcome.
Born to parents with Cuban and Hungarian roots, Álvarez grew up listening to stories about Cuba before and after Fidel Castro and learning Catholic doctrine. Later, studying international affairs at Francisco Marroquin, a university in Guatemala that teaches Austrian economics and free market thinking, her mindset began to change. In 2014, Álvarez gave a talk in Spain defending liberalism and railing against Latin American populists on the left and the right. It blew up — within three days, her speech had 1 million views on YouTube and she was inundated with interview requests.
When she takes a break from speaking engagements, Álvarez returns home, to reconnect with family and old friends. “She’s a romantic,” says Andrea Cuevas, a friend from college. “She would adopt every street dog she could.” But Cuevas is concerned for her friend as Álvarez plunges deeper into a political career. “Kidnapping used to be a real thing in Guatemalan politics,” Cuevas says. “And now my best friend has a high-profile political image.”
Still, Álvarez is undeterred when it comes to pressing for Latin America women to have greater options — and less reliance on what she believes to be dysfunctional governments. “The mentality is that people think that human beings are so horrible that if left alone, they won’t care about their fellow human beings,” she argues.
“If that is true, why is it OK if you give the money to a bureaucrat?” she asks. “In Latin America, the lesson is that when you give more money to the bureaucrat, the more he steals it and the less it goes to people in need.”
Even if her free market vision for Latin America is hard to imagine becoming a reality, Álvarez insists that the region’s history shows what happens when the state keeps abortion illegal and caves to conservative pressures: too many women getting pregnant against their will, with too few choices.