Politics Innovator: Laura Alonso, Argentina

*Watch an Americas Quarterly Q&A interview with Laura Alonso.

It took courage and a splash of audacity for Argentine Congresswoman Laura Alonso to oppose the nationalization of Spanish oil giant Repsol’s stake in Yacimientos PetrolĢ_feros Fiscales (YPF), her country’s largest energy company. Her remarks in the CĢĮmara de Diputados (Chamber of Deputies) earlier this year earned her taunts even from fellow deputies from the ruling Peronist coalition of being “traitorous” and an “espaĢ±ola” (Spaniard).

Alonso gave as good as she got, calling officials in President Cristina FernĢĮndez de Kirchner’s government who orchestrated the takeover mistaken, corrupt and contaminated. “You can’t just wave a national flag and evoke patriotism, while at the same time you’re signing corrupt deals contrary to the rights of the people behind their backs,” she said in interviews after the speech.

Argentine diputada Laura Alonso is earning a reputation as a crusader for government transparency and gender equality. (Roey Yohai)

Such outspokenness is typical of Alonso, 39, who has become well known as a crusader for government transparency, gender rights and social justice since she was elected in 2009 on the Propuesta Republicana (Republican Proposal-PRO) ticket to represent the capital of Buenos Aires.

Promoting transparency has been Alonso’s top legislative priority. In 2010, she introduced the Ley de Transparencia, Gobierno Abierto y Acceso a La InformaciĢ_n PĢ¼blica(Transparency, Open Government and Access to  Public Information Law), which would increase government transparency and accountability by putting in place a mechanism for citizens to access public information. The bill has not yet passed. (Argentina is one of the few countries in the Western Hemisphere without a freedom of access to information law.)

In 2011, Alonso called attention to the fact that only 3 percent of national deputies had complied with rules requiring them to release financial statements for their offices and related campaign activities.

Although she admits to being more liberal on many issues than her fellow deputies in her right-of-center party, Alonso is a fierce believer in the need to move beyond traditional Argentine notions of Left and Right toward a modern, blended platform designed to actually get things done. Alonso, who was born and raised in the city of Buenos Aires, says she always expected to seek public office, but the year she spent studying at the London School of Economics accelerated her decision. “A year away from Argentina really helped put things in perspective,” she recalls, “and I realized that people can push for change at any age if they are disciplined and determined.” After returning to Buenos Aires, she served as executive director of Poder Ciudadano, the Argentine chapter of Transparency International, where she developed her track record on transparency issues.

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Women’s empowerment is another priority. She recently proposed a bill to ensure parity in the salaries of male and female workers. “In modern-day Argentina,” says Alonso, “the idea that female workers are so grossly underpaid when compared to their male counterparts is a travesty.” The solution, she adds, is a comprehensive approach that includes not only legislative action, but also social programs that empower women to demand  equal treatment in the workplace.

Alonso’s work with the U.S.-based NGO Vital Voices, which is dedicated to identifying and empowering new generations of women leaders, strongly influenced her career. She continues to collaborate with Vital Voices, working with Argentine women to build their capacity as politicians, and with La Pietra Coalition, which seeks to empower women economically. She has also received international recognition. In 2008, she was awarded the Vital Voices Global Leadership Award for her work in combating corruption and promoting good governance.

Traveling to Washington DC to accept the award, Alonso met U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton-an experience she describes as “transformational.” She adds, admiringly, “Few world leaders have done more to advance the role of women in domestic and foreign policy than Secretary Clinton.” Will she follow Clinton’s example by making a run for national office in Argentina? Alonso is silent on the subject. For now, she’s concentrating on her re-election campaign in 2013.

Cross-posted with permission from Americas Quarterly