Political Implications To Determine Impact Argentine Same Sex Marriage Bill Has On Latin America

Whatever Argentine President Christina Fernandez' motives for backing the bill approved last week that legalized same-sex marriages in her country, applause is owed for this promotion of equality.

July 15 marks the date that Argentina became the first country in Latin America to afford the same rights and recognition to any human that wishes to marry. As is the case globally, this issue was not without contention on the eve of the bill's passage. This much is certain and will still be so as other Latin American countries -- much less the United States as well -- deliberate on marriage rights.

It is less clear as to what effect, if any, this will have in Latin America. While Fernandez successfully stood up to the Catholic Church leading up to the bill's passage, the church remains highly influential in the region and is capable of providing much support to equal marriage opponents. Perhaps more trying is the message that the process of gay marriage legalization in Argentina could send to other Latin American governments determining whether to take on the politically risky issue.

Advocates the world over indeed had much to celebrate last week. Flags flew and masses gathered in a celebration of equality. There was a sense of victory to be sure. That is not to say that the victory came without cost.

The Catholic Church and evangelical groups drew 60,000 to march on Congress. The 33-27 vote came at the cost of division within the governing coalition of Fernandez and her husband, former president Nestor Kirchner.

Immediate reaction from the Economist deemed the victory a short-term one and see their activism as politically motivated and accompanied by much risk.

The Kirchners' transformation into crusading gay-rights activists is fairly recent. Lawmakers repeatedly put forth the subject last year, but it received little presidential support. The politics of the issue changed once the ruling couple's Front for Victory (FPV) party lost its congressional majorities. The Kirchners were looking for a controversial bill they could force through the legislature to prove the government could still get its way, and they settled on gay marriage as the best candidate.

What this means for the Kirchners' chances of staying in power after 2011 could send either a prohibitive or encouraging message to other Latin American governments. If this is to be a true statement, then the proverbial cork may need to rest in the champagne bottle a bit longer. Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital city, remains hostile to the Kirchners while the church remains highly influential in the country's provinces that historically have backed the president and her husband. This could produce dire results for the two if this decision inspires disenchantment amongst key voters. Politicians may not be so apt to take up such a risky subject if the Kirchners' gamble hurts them in the long term.

As For The Rest Of Latin America...

Until last week, Mexico City had been the only place in Latin America where couples of the same sex had the same rights as heterosexual couples to marry and adopt children. In the aftermath of Argentina's decision, the city offered a free honeymoon to the first couple to wed in Argentina.

Home to the world's largest Catholic population, Brazil has seen numerous legislative proposals regarding civil unions -- something Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva supports -- fail.

Homosexuals are permitted to adopt children and be recognized in civil unions but not to marry in Uruguay. Colombia offer's civil guarantees but doesn't recognize gay marriage. Chile's president, Sebastian Pinera, has said that civil unions will not be equivalent to marriage but his government is drawing up proposals that would grant gay couples many of the same rights afforded to heterosexual couples.

According to a BBC Q&A that followed the Argentine decision and provided a look at the status of marriage rights in other Latin American countries, most of Central America and the Caribbean is without major legal or social initiatives regarding gay marriage or civil unions.

One day after Argentina legalized same sex marriage, Edward Ellis of wrote that Venezuela should follow in Argentina's footsteps.

...The fact that such a measure could pass in a country where 91% of the population considers itself to be catholic (sic) is an inspiration for Latin America and the rest of the world.

In Venezuela, the government still provides funding for the church while abortion remains illegal and gay rights are rarely a topic of discussion in the country's National Assembly. With National Assembly elections on deck in September, this issue may again be too risky for those looking to obtain or retain their seat in office.

However, Ellis writes that the example set by Argentina could suggest an opportunity for the Venezuelan government to score a victory against the Catholic Church that it finds itself in contention with regarding its interference with politics.

As is easy to see, the topic of same sex marriage can be as politically risky as it is advantageous. Activists in Latin America (and elsewhere) have received a signal from Buenos Aires that their voices can be heard. Incumbents and candidates in the region will likely use Argentina gauge the implications of taking on the issue.

In the meantime, it is impossible not to see this as progress.