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Her master's voice
Nov 12th 2009 | SÃO PAULO
From The Economist print edition

Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s preferred successor, is a more interesting politician than she appears to be. But would she be different from her boss?

WHEN Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, identified Dilma Rousseff, his chief-of-staff, as his preferred successor in the top job, the collective response of people who follow such things was a puzzled frown, as if perhaps there had been a misprint in the newspaper. Ms Rousseff had proved herself an able administrator. But if she had the natural political gifts required for electoral success in the world’s fourth-largest democracy they had been well hidden. Her campaigns for local office in Rio Grande do Sul, her political home, were unsuccessful. Her sentences go on for a long time and contain lots of subclauses. But she has one thing that nobody else in Brazilian politics has got: Lula’s unqualified backing. Given that the president’s approval ratings are still north of 80% as he enters the final year of his second term, this is worth a lot.
Despite their difference in manner, Ms Rousseff has become Lula’s political shadow. Her duties include the government’s “Growth Acceleration Programme”, which aims to mobilise investment of $301 billion in infrastructure between 2007 and 2010. So the two constantly traverse the country opening roads and the like, or even just announcing that they might be built.
Their views are impossible to tell apart. Her answers to questions about Brazil’s future tend to begin with the words, “President Lula’s government has…” before going on to list recent achievements. Her concern with keeping inflation low, her faith in the government’s wisdom to plan and “induce” economic activity, and her refusal to criticise undemocratic actions by other governments in the region, especially that of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, are identical to the president’s. So it is slightly surprising that she only switched her political allegiance to the Workers’ Party, a vehicle built around Lula, nearly two decades after it was founded.
Though it has been smothered recently, Ms Rousseff in fact has an interesting political identity of her own. Born to a Bulgarian immigrant father and a teacher in Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais, her childhood was much more comfortable than Lula’s. But she became a middle-class radical, involving herself in the far-left resistance to the military governments that ruled Brazil for two decades from 1964. Quite what she did is the subject of some mythmaking. But it seems that she helped to plan a celebrated robbery in which a gang stole $2.4m from the safe of Adhemar de Barros, a former governor of São Paulo (who rejoiced in the tag “he steals but gets things done”).
Her punishment was real enough. She suffered torture by electric shock for 22 days and was jailed for almost three years. Ms Rousseff does not talk about this much, and her language when discussing the military government is surprisingly detached. She talks about how “possibilities shrink” and “life becomes impoverished for everyone” under a dictatorship.
With democracy restored, Ms Rousseff (who has been married and separated twice) settled down to a career in public administration. Her success as state energy secretary in Rio Grande do Sul at a time of electricity shortages brought her to Lula’s attention. As his first energy minister, she gained a reputation with businessmen as a tough, but fair, negotiator. She was promoted to chief-of-staff when the incumbent was felled by a vote-buying scandal, in 2005. Lula appears to credit Ms Rousseff with getting his government back on its feet again after it nearly fell apart.
Like Lula, Ms Rousseff’s political views have mellowed. “You can’t be fundamentalist about anything,” she says while discussing the government’s wish that equipment used to extract oil from new offshore fields should be made in Brazil. “We respect contracts—we are part of the West,” she adds, explaining that she would honour the terms on which foreign oil firms currently operate in Brazil. She describes herself now as a “Brazilian democratic socialist”. She wants to reform the state to make it more effective but not smaller.
Asked whether a technocrat like her can be elected president, she replies “I think so.” Her task before the election next October is contradictory. She needs to stick close enough to Lula to benefit from the heat he radiates, while distancing herself enough to convince voters that she is her own woman. The opinion polls have Ms Rousseff lagging the opposition’s José Serra by between 15 and 20 points. Neither of them has officially declared their candidacy yet, and the campaign will start in earnest only in April. The question that Ms Rousseff will have to ponder is whether seamless continuity is indeed the path to the presidency.

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