Dilma Rousseff: Her own woman

Will Brazil’s first female president bring change, or is she just ‘Lula in a skirt’?
Her own woman
Eugenio Savio/AP

This time last year, many Brazilians didn’t even know her name. But on Jan. 1, she will be sworn in as Brazil’s first female president. Already, Dilma Rousseff, former chief of staff to populist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil’s Workers Party, ranks 16th on Forbes’ “Powerful People 2010” list, the third most powerful woman behind Angela Merkel and India’s Sonia Gandhi.

Rousseff, known as a tough, pragmatic and demanding civil servant, is poised to inherit one of the world’s fastest-growing economies—an emerging market and global player alongside Russia, India and China. Her handling of a massive oil discovery—some 50 billion barrels beneath the ocean floor—could potentially send Brazil hurtling into developed country status. Rousseff has indicated that she plans to create millions of jobs, continue to improve the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and schools, and maintain her predecessor’s wildly popular social welfare programs and market-friendly policies.

It was in “joking around” with Lula that Rousseff, 62, first warmed to the idea of throwing her hat in the ring. Around that time, a handful of more obvious candidates—the former finance minister and a former cabinet chief—resigned following corruption scandals. Despite never having run for office in her life, the shrewd technocrat left her job as chief of staff and launched a Lula-backed campaign, which hinged almost exclusively on the message that she would continue his work. Her public appearances almost always featured Lula himself, smiling, waving, and giving speeches in her honour. That the outgoing president enjoys rock star status with an astonishing 80 per cent approval rating was a boon to her flash PR effort.

But her campaign was not without its challenges. One event that nearly derailed it was her stance on abortion. In the world’s largest Catholic country, with more than 130 million practising, it was an unpopular move when Rousseff said in a TV interview, “You can’t pretend that there aren’t thousands, even millions of women . . . who turn to abortion [each year].” The statement left her open to criticism by religious groups and churches, and soon voters were demanding a definitive stance. This prompted both Rousseff and her rival, São Paulo Gov. José Serra, to announce they opposed changing Brazil’s abortion ban, neutralizing the potentially polarizing election issue.

While Rousseff didn’t stress women’s issues in her campaign, she’s a natural-born feminist whose revolutionary spirit traces back to her youth as a Marxist rebel. In the 1970s, she joined a leftist armed resistance group and, under the alias “Stella,” acted as coordinator for various cells. (She never picked up a gun herself.) She was captured and imprisoned for three years, and subjected to torture by electric shock. Her mug shot shows a proud young woman in a flannel shirt, with unkempt hair and Buddy Holly glasses—a “hippie” who more closely resembled a young Allen Ginsberg than a budding civil servant. Upon her release in 1973, she re-enrolled in the economics program at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, and never looked back. In Brazil, her revolutionary cred has translated to political capital. “I gave Dilma her first [government] job because of her courage in the armed fight,” Alceu Collares, former governor of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, told Reuters.

As president, she’s pledged to make gender equality a priority. Indeed, her first post-election commitment is to “honour Brazilian women” so their advancement in companies and public institutions becomes the norm. She said she wants parents to be able to tell their daughters, “Yes, a woman can.”

In South America, it seems, a woman already can. Rousseff is the third female to be elected president in South America in recent years, alongside Chile’s Michele Bachelet and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. While Bachelet has since become executive director of UN Women, Fernández leads Argentina with a business-as-usual approach despite the recent death of her husband and political partner, former president Néstor Kirchner.

The challenges Rousseff faces are big ones: potential economic stagnation due to high government spending and disorganized tax policies, abysmal education standards, and widespread poverty, despite Lula’s significant cash transfers to the poor in recent years. She will also oversee Brazil as it angles for the new seat on the UN Security Council, and hosts the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

The phrase “Lula in a skirt” has surfaced more than a few times in analysis of the Brazilian election. But insiders disagree. “Dilma will not be Lula II,” Roberto Mangabeira Unger, minister of strategic affairs under Lula, told the New York Times. “She is a different person; it’s a different moment, and it’s a different job.”

And while Rousseff lacks Lula’s charisma, she has emerged as a surprisingly relatable figure. Twice divorced, she maintains amicable relations with her ex-husband and former partner in crime Carlos Araújo (a Dilma sticker adorns the rear window of his car). A cancer survivor, she underwent chemotherapy to treat lymphoma last April. It’s clear to anyone that she’s a determined fighter who now, more than anything, just wants to get back to work.