Irene Saez stole the hearts of Venezuelans when she won the Miss Universe pageant in 1981. But when she sought public office three years ago, many people thought it was a joke.
Few people are laughing these days. She is one of the most popular politicians in this South American nation.
In December, she was reelected mayor of the Caracas municipality of Chacao with 96% of the vote. It was the most one-sided triumph in Venezuela’s 37 years of democracy.
While this is a nation that reveres its beauty queens, showering them with presidential audiences and careers as models, newscasters and soap opera stars, Saez has not built a following on her 6-foot-1, strawberry-blond good looks.
She is praised for running an honest and efficient municipal government, a rarity in Venezuela.
Her reelection victory heightened speculation that the 34-year-old Saez is headed for higher office--perhaps mayor of Caracas, or governor of the federal district, or even president.
“She’s capable,” former President Luis Herrera Campins told the national newspaper El Universal after the municipal elections.
Saez brushes aside questions about her future. “I live in the present,” she said. But she has started her own political group, Integration, Renovation and New Hope--its Spanish acronym is IRENE.
What criticism there is tends to emphasize her well-coiffed, stylishly dressed figure. “She’s a plastic doll,” scoffed Paulo Carrillo, the lawyer who failed spectacularly in his bid to unseat her.
Historian Guillermo Moron suggests that Saez might not be up to higher office. “Being the mayor of the richest municipality in the nation is very easy,” he said.
Chacao is a district of expensive single-family homes, fancy shopping malls and parks. Other parts of Caracas, with its 5 million people, are crowded with high-rises and ringed by slums whose residents scrabble for jobs and access to water and have to arm themselves to ward off gangs.
But other analysts say Saez has shown ability.
A political independent, she focuses on pragmatism rather than ideology. She has hired top-notch administrators and listens to their advice about setting the budget and taxes and running public services such as the police and garbage collection.
At the same time, she has avoided the endemic political patronage and corruption that have undermined Venezuelans’ confidence in government.
Her constituents say Saez has improved life in Chacao, which is home to 185,000 Venezuelans and many of the capital’s diplomatic missions.
Garbage collection is better, parks have been spruced up, and new college-educated police officers are considered as competent as any in the country. In a city where people tend to lock themselves indoors after dark, Chacao is again an oasis of night life.
Shiny new patrol cars cruise shady streets. Clean-cut officers in white helmets direct traffic. People pack Altamira Plaza at all hours, with senior citizens sitting on benches under trees sparkling with lights and children roller-skating by the gushing fountain.
People call the area “Irenelandia” (Irene-land).
Most days Saez is up by 5:30 a.m., and she’s often glimpsed away from her desk--playing host to concerts and ethnic festivals, riding on the back of a motorcycle to a police ceremony, dedicating a guardhouse at a hiking path at El Avila, the mountain and national park that forms the northern border of her district.
“I’ve lived in Venezuela 50 years, and I’ve never seen anyone work like Irene,” said Dolanyi Elemer, a retired businessman.
Saez has a performer’s sense of how to win admirers. She dons Indian headdresses, swivels to salsa music, plants kisses on old men’s cheeks.
She even agreed to a toy company’s proposal last year to market a Barbie-like Irene doll. The manufacturer, Rotoplast, said it sold 20,000 of the $25 dolls in the first three weeks, but declines to release total sales figures.
Saez’s spokeswoman, Fatima Hernandez, says the mayor has not received any profit from the doll, although she might in the future. She says the mayor agreed to the deal to help Rotoplast, which had been struggling after losing a contract with the U.S. toy company Mattel Inc. Rotoplast, which once employed 800 people, has boosted its work force from 40 to 400.
Saez says her decision to enter politics was prompted by her “vocation of service” and the idea that she could use her fame to make things better in this oil-rich but impoverished nation of 22 million people. A devout Roman Catholic, she attends mass regularly and volunteers in a church group.
After being named Miss Universe at age 19, she ignored overtures from Hollywood. “It didn’t attract me, and now even less,” she said.
Instead, she earned a degree in political science at the Central University of Venezuela, one of the country’s top public universities.
Competing for the Miss Universe title was a stage, she said. “Irene Saez has always had another path.”