Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

Spain's 'Mum' minister takes critics by storm

Carme Chacon, Spain's first female defence minister, appointed controversially last week when seven months' pregnant, silenced her critics at the weekend by making a surprise 24-hour visit to meet Spanish troops in Afghanistan.

The unannounced trip was criticised by some for potentially putting her child at risk. But Ms Chacon said her pregnancy was an easy one, and told journalists during a two-hour stopover in Kuwait "that she would never put her child's future at risk". Asked if she was tired by the 10-hour flight from Madrid, she replied; "The election campaign was harder, and longer".



Last week, the Socialist Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, appointed a mostly female cabinet.



Ms Chacon said that she decided to go ahead with the trip only after taking medical advice on Friday. A gynaecologist, an anaesthetist and a paediatrician accompanied her on a journey that included a three-hour transfer in a notoriously cold Hercules transport plane.



Having made history by being the first woman to review Spain's armed forces last week, Ms Chacon repeated the operation in Herat on Saturday where she reviewed not only Spain's troops but Italian, Albanian and Slovene forces participating in peacekeeping operations in the area.



The minister wore a white smock, loose trousers and military boots, and was serious and relaxed, according to journalists who travelled with her. At no point did she affect a military air as she received salutes from the troops.



"Chacon moves on to the attack in Afghanistan," wrote the daily ABC, a conservative newspaper that a week ago had sneered at Mr Zapatero's "battalion of seamstresses".



"Chacon fulfilled her role as Defence Minister, and showed she could command the armed forces despite her circumstances," wrote the male reporter in the equally conservative El Mundo newspaper. "The soldiers said they were delighted with her; not one made any criticism.



"They stood to attention as she passed, and she responded with endless questions about their work." Ms Chacon says that she plans to visit Spanish troops stationed in Lebanon, Bosnia and Kosovo before her son is born in June.



As Spaniards learnt about Ms Chacon's trip from their Sunday papers, they could hear the new Environment Minister, Elena Espinosa, explaining on the radio – in an interview with a female journalist – exactly what emergency measures she was taking to solve Catalonia's water crisis.



Ms Espinosa had hastily convened and chaired a summit of environment ministers from all Spain's autonomous regions on Saturday, in an attempt to reconcile those who had water with those who had not. "We will not transfer water from the Ebro river," she said calmly, and added that the stampede to urbanise parched regions would be halted in favour of "more sustainable alternatives".



To this British listener the exchange seemed as unaffected and sensible as any on the BBC's Today programme. But that such controversial, technically sophisticated discussions could be conducted by authoritative women in an atmosphere of complete normality, in Spain, revealed the political significance of what has happened.



Comments by Italy's new President Silvio Berlusconi about Spain's cabinet being "too pink" and "difficult to control", coupled with photos of him aiming an imaginary gun at a female journalist, have produced incredulity and derision among Spaniards.



"This is the mentality that produces violence against women," observed one commentator, admittedly a woman, in a radio discussion yesterday. The men on the panel agreed. Probably not all Spanish men are so persuaded. But at least they know that if they harbour machista thoughts, they had better for the moment keep them to themselves.



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