BUENOS AIRES — Gary Hart would have had better luck running for president in Latin America, where his dalliance with a blond model would have scarcely raised an eyebrow. In fact, it may even have helped his chances.
Since the days of Simon Bolivar, sex and politics have gone together in Latin America.
Bolivar, the liberator of northern South America and a native of Caracas, set the trend. He was as successful with women as he was in defeating Spanish armies. His most cherished mistress, Manuela Saenz, was the wife of another man.
Latin American politicians today are protected from a prying press by shield laws once they win office, and a newspaper or radio or television station that even hints at a private peccadillo might be promptly shut down. But politicians' private lives are protected more by public indifference than press controls.
To be sure, Latin American leaders like to be pictured with wives and children, just as their U.S. counterparts do. But a parallel private life is more the norm than the exception--and mistresses are widely accepted.
Three-time Argentine President Juan Domingo Peron consistently flouted society's conventions both in and out of office. And he never seemed to suffer from it at the polls, even though his nation is one of Latin America's most Roman Catholic countries.
Before becoming president for the first time, Peron, then an army colonel, lived openly with a teen-ager nicknamed "Piranha." But she was forced out of Peron's apartment when a flamboyant radio actress named Eva Duarte moved in. Peron handily won presidential elections in 1946, and his involvement with Duarte before their secret marriage in 1945 was ignored by voters, who adored both figures.
After Eva died, Peron, then 58, lived with 14-year-old Nelly Rivas in the presidential mansion. He married a cabaret dancer, Maria Estela Martinez, also known as Isabel, after his overthrow in 1955. If voters were bothered, they didn't show it. Peron was elected president for a third time in 1973, with Isabel as his running mate.
Allendes Lived Apart
The late Chilean President Salvador Allende lived apart from his wife before they both moved into the presidential residence after his election in 1970.
He made no secret about his long relationship with his 46-year-old personal secretary, Mirian Contreras, a constant companion both publicly and privately. Although opposition newspapers lampooned Allende for the affair, it seemed to have little effect on his popularity. Contreras hung around long enough to be one of the last people to leave the 1885432929coup, in which Allende was killed.
Former Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo touched off his nation's rumor mills with his close relationship with the tourism minister he appointed, Rosa Luz Alegria. After leaving office in 1982, Lopez Portillo divorced his wife and was later frequently photographed with Luz in Spain.
Peru's charismatic President Alan Garcia, 36, stirs constant controversy, whether defaulting on the foreign debt or taxing the rich. But the fact that he has a 13-year-old daughter, Karla, from a previous relationship--a child not mentioned in his official biography--is of little public concern.
Garcia has three other daughters from his 11-year marriage to Argentine Pilar Nores de Garcia.
One of Peru's elder statesmen, the late leader Victor Raul Haya de la Torre, founder of Garcia's APRA party, was ridiculed by opposition publications as a homosexual. But the accusations did little to diminish his popularity among his constituents.
Newspapers in Venezuela are constrained in their reporting about political leaders by law and tradition, but the politicians make little effort to hide the truth about their personal relationships. Residents of an eastern Caracas suburb say that they always knew when one president visited his mistress because bodyguards would seal off the entire block.
Image as Family Man
Nobody in Venezuela dared publish accounts about the private life of dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez, who kept up an image in office as a family man with a wife and four daughters. It was only after his overthrow in 1958 that his escapades with show business beauties at the La Ochilla island resort were publicized.
The reports did not much concern opponents of Jimenez. They were busy worrying about the way he jailed and tortured his critics.