Claudia Sheinbaum

According to Spanish national daily newspaper, El País, in a survey about sexism in Mexico, 75% believe that the Latin American country is either ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ sexist. Offering their opinions based on perceptions, rather than any previous experience, 71% of Mexicans also feel that a woman will make the economy better, while 64% feel that women would make a better fist of fighting against corruption. Conversely, as many as 35% of those asked said the country was ‘not ready’ for a female leader.

In a country that is well aware of its sexist attitudes, Mexico has just met its paradox. At the General Election, held June 2nd 2024, Mexicans strongly confirmed the ascension of Claudia Sheinbaum to President of the United Mexican States – to give the nation its official title – the first female to hold that title. 

Dynamic looks at Claudia’s rise, and Mexico’s slow but sure social awakening.

 

Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo was born in Mexico’s eponymous capital on June 24th 1962. A politician, scientist, and academic, she is now the president-elect of Mexico; the first woman to be elevated to such a position. As a member of the left-wing National Regeneration Movement (Morena), the current ruling party, she takes office on October 1st.

 

Personal life

Born into a Mexican Jewish family, her paternal Ashkenazi grandparents emigrated from Lithuania to Mexico City in the 1920s. Her maternal Sephardic grandparents emigrated from Bulgaria in the early 1940s to escape the Holocaust. Religion was very much part of family life, growing up.

All of her immediate family are also academics. Her parents are scientists; her mother, Annie, is a biologist and professor emeritus at the Faculty of Sciences at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Her father, Carlos, was a chemical engineer. Claudia has two siblings – her older brother, Julio, is a physicist and physical oceanography researcher at the Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education at Ensenada, in Baja California, northern Mexico. Her younger sister, Adriana, is a teacher who lives in the US.

She married Carlos Imaz in 1987, with whom she has a daughter, born a year later. They separated in 2016 when she started dating Jesús María Tarriba, a financial risk analyst. They married in November 2023.

 

Education

Claudia studied physics at UNAM, where she earned an undergraduate degree in 1989. She earned a master’s degree in 1994, and a Ph.D. in 1995 in energy engineering from the same university.

She completed the work for her Ph.D. thesis between 1991 and 1994 at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. While working for the laboratory, she analysed the use of energy in the Mexican transport system and published studies on the trends in Mexican energy use.

In 1995, she joined the faculty at the Institute of Engineering at UNAM. She was a researcher there, and is a member of both the Sistema Nacional de Investigadores (National System of Researchers) and the Mexican Academy of Sciences.

In 2006, Claudia returned to UNAM after a period in government and began publishing articles in scientific journals. In 2007, she was a major contributing author to various assessment reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). She has authored over 100 articles and two books on energy, the environment, and sustainable development.

 

Early political career

Claudia immersed herself in politics from an early age. During her time as a student at UNAM, she was a member of the Consejo Estudiantil Universitario (‘University Student Council’), a group of students that would become the founding youth movement of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

Flitting her time between academia and politics, from 2000 to 2006, she served as Secretary of the Environment under future President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during his tenure as Head of Government of Mexico City. She was mayor of the Tlalpan (a borough within the capital) from 2015 to 2017. She was elected Head of Government of Mexico City in the 2018 election, where she ran a campaign that featured curbing crime and enforcing zoning laws.

 

Local government policies

As part of her administration’s education policy, the Mi Beca para Empezar (‘My Scholarship to Start’) programme was created for 1.2 million students, from preschool to secondary education, and later elevated to constitutional law in Mexico City. In addition, community centres called pilares (‘pillars’) were established in marginalised neighbourhoods.

In June 2019, Claudia announced a new six-year environmental plan, including reducing air pollution by 30%, planting 15 million trees, banning single-use plastics and promoting recycling.

In September 2019, Claudia announced a 40 billion peso (US$2 billion) investment to upgrade the Mexico City Metro over the next five years, including modernisation, re-strengthening, new trains, improving stations and stairways. She also introduced 200km of bicycle paths, six bicycle stations, 2,500 new bicycles and subsidies for public transportation.

Also that year, Claudia implemented a gender-neutral uniform policy for students in state-run schools, allowing them to wear uniforms of their choice. In 2021, she removed a statue of Christopher Columbus from Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma as part of what she referred to as a ‘decolonisation’ exercise.

Such was her work both in Mexico City and for the IPCC, in 2018, she was named one of the BBC’s 100 Women.

 

Presidential election

In June 2023, Claudia resigned from her position as Head of Government in Mexico City to seek Morena’s (the main ruling left-wing political party) presidential nomination in the 2024 election. In September 2023, she secured the party’s nomination over her closest opponent, former foreign secretary Marcelo Ebrard.

As with many, if not most, democracies, Mexico is governed by a coalition of parties. The current ruling coalition is known as the Juntos Hacemos Historia (‘Together We Make History’), a coalition encompassing Morena, the main left-wing party; the Labor Party, also known as ‘The Workers’ Party’; and the Ecologist Green Party of Mexico. In June 2024, she won the Mexican general election in a landslide, thereby continuing Morena’s power within government.

 

National sexism

Claudia has openly identified herself as a feminist; she aligns her beliefs and actions with the principles of gender equality and women’s rights. She advocates for the legalisation of abortion – an uphill legal and cultural battle she is finally winning – aligning her stance with promoting reproductive rights and autonomy for women. During her leadership in Mexico City, Claudia championed LGBT rights and, in 2022, she became the first Head of Government of Mexico City to attend the city’s Pride march.

Her open support for women and feminism is quite a belligerent statement in a country steeped in a regressive misogynistic culture. Both she and her presidential candidate rival, Xóchitl Gálvez, were on the receiving end of online trolling, abuse and sexism.

Compared with election misinformation spread about male candidates, the attacks against Gálvez and Sheinbaum often took a particularly personal nature and focussed on their gender. “A lot of direct attacks were on their weight, their height, how they dressed, the way they behaved, the way they spoke,” commented Maria Calderon, a Mexican attorney and researcher who works with the Mexico Institute in Washington DC.

“Some of the sexism can be traced back to Mexico’s ‘machismo’ culture and strong Catholic roots, and the fact that women only received the right to vote in Mexico in 1953.”

Additionally, Claudia faced slurs about her Jewish background, as well as repeated claims she was born in Hungary – a state of affairs that would have precluded her as a presidential candidate if proven true. Donald Trump tried this stunt with Barack Obama, repeatedly claiming he was a Muslim, born in Kenya. The ‘Hungary’ story was ultimately debunked as a mere conspiracy theory.

 

The future

Claudia inherits a Mexico which the OECD feels its recent growth has proven resilient, while nearshoring (outsourcing of IT resources to neighbouring countries) is bringing new opportunities, with growth supported by domestic demand on the back of a strong labour market, increased inward investment and continued dynamism in exports.

However, to harness new growth opportunities, the OECD also stated Mexico needs to boost productivity, accelerate digitalisation and improve educational outcomes and housing supply.

As Claudia steps into her new role, her unique perspective as a climate scientist is poised to challenge the hitherto traditional political paradigm. That will not be without its challenges. The political landscape in Mexico is complex. The nation faces numerous pressing issues besides climate-related disasters. That includes Mexico’s well-known issues with cartel violence and its economic instability.

Her delicate economic balancing act will not be easy to navigate; her campaign promised to increase investment in renewable energy, policies which will be at odds with the need to support – for now – the country’s state oil company. Mexico is the world’s 11th largest oil-producing country, and earnings from the industry accounted for around 20% of government revenue last year.

Solving the country’s vast sovereign debt problem while transitioning to renewables won’t come overnight. That said, given her background, Claudia will be in just the right position to make decisions on a scientific and strategic basis, primarily for Mexico’s, but also the environment’s, benefit.

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