Monday, 27 September 2010


The former guerrilla set to be the world's most powerful woman
Brazil looks likely to elect an extraordinary leader next weekend

By Hugh O'Shaughnessy

The world's most powerful woman will start coming into her own next
weekend. Stocky and forceful at 63, this former leader of the
resistance to a Western-backed military dictatorship (which tortured
her) is preparing to take her place as President of Brazil.

As head of state, president Dilma Rousseff would outrank Angela
Merkel, Germany's Chancellor, and Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary
of State: her enormous country of 200 million people is revelling in
its new oil wealth. Brazil's growth rate, rivalling China's, is one
that Europe and Washington can only envy.

Her widely predicted victory in next Sunday's presidential poll will
be greeted with delight by millions. It marks the final demolition of
the "national security state", an arrangement that conservative
governments in the US and Europe once regarded as their best artifice
for limiting democracy and reform. It maintained a rotten status quo
that kept a vast majority in poverty in Latin America while favouring
their rich friends.

Ms Rousseff, the daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant to Brazil and his
schoolteacher wife, has benefited from being, in effect, the prime
minister of the immensely popular President Luiz Inacio Lula da
Silva, the former union leader. But, with a record of determination
and success (which includes appearing to have conquered lymphatic
cancer), this wife, mother and grandmother will be her own woman. The
polls say she has built up an unassailable lead – of more than 50 per
cent compared with less than 30 per cent – over her nearest rival, an
uninspiring man of the centre called Jose Serra. Few doubt that she
will be installed in the Alvorada presidential palace in Brasilia in

Like President Jose Mujica of Uruguay, Brazil's neighbour, Ms
Rousseff is unashamed of a past as an urban guerrilla which included
battling the generals and spending time in jail as a political
prisoner. As a little girl growing up in the provincial city of Belo
Horizonte, she says she dreamed successively of becoming a ballerina,
a firefighter and a trapeze artist. The nuns at her school took her
class to the city's poor area to show them the vast gaps between the
middle-class minority and the vast majority of the poor. She
remembers that when a young beggar with sad eyes came to her family's
door she tore a currency note in half to share with him, not knowing
that half a banknote had no value.

Her father, Pedro, died when she was 14, but by then he had
introduced her to the novels of Zola and Dostoevski. After that, she
and her siblings had to work hard with their mother to make ends
meet. By 16 she was in POLOP (Workers' Politics), a group outside the
traditional Brazilian Communist Party that sought to bring socialism
to those who knew little about it.

The generals seized power in 1964 and decreed a reign of terror to
defend what they called "national security". She joined secretive
radical groups that saw nothing wrong with taking up arms against an
illegitimate military regime. Besides cosseting the rich and crushing
trade unions and the underclass, the generals censored the press,
forbidding editors from leaving gaps in newspapers to show where news
had been suppressed.

Ms Rousseff ended up in the clandestine VAR-Palmares (Palmares Armed
Revolutionary Vanguard). In the 1960s and 1970s, members of such
organisations seized foreign diplomats for ransom: a US ambassador
was swapped for a dozen political prisoners; a German ambassador was
exchanged for 40 militants; a Swiss envoy swapped for 70. They also
shot foreign torture experts sent to train the generals' death
squads. Though she says she never used weapons, she was eventually
rounded up and tortured by the secret police in Brazil's equivalent
to Abu Ghraib, the Tiradentes prison in Sao Paulo. She was given a
25-month sentence for "subversion" and freed after three years. Today
she openly confesses to having "wanted to change the world".

In 1973 she moved to the prosperous southern state of Rio Grande do
Sul, where her second husband, Carlos Araujo, a lawyer, was finishing
a four-year term as a political prisoner (her first marriage with a
young left-winger, Claudio Galeno, had not survived the strains of
two people being on the run in different cities). She went back to
university, started working for the state government in 1975, and had
a daughter, Paula.

In 1986, she was named finance chief of Porto Alegre, the state
capital, where her political talents began to blossom. Yet the 1990s
were bitter-sweet years for her. In 1993 she was named secretary of
energy for the state, and pulled off the coup of vastly increasing
power production, ensuring the state was spared the power cuts that
plagued the rest of the country.

She had 1,000km of new electric power lines, new dams and thermal
power stations built while persuading citizens to switch off the
lights whenever they could. Her political star started shining
brightly. But in 1994, after 24 years together, she separated from Mr
Araujo, though apparently on good terms. At the same time she was
torn between academic life and politics, but her attempt to gain a
doctorate in social sciences failed in 1998.

In 2000 she threw her lot in with Lula and his Partido dos
Trabalhadores, or Workers' Party which set its sights successfully on
combining economic growth with an attack on poverty. The two
immediately hit it off and she became his first energy minister in
2003. Two years later he made her his chief of staff and has since
backed her as his successor. She has been by his side as Brazil has
found vast new offshore oil deposits, aiding a leader whom many in
the European and US media were denouncing a decade ago as a extreme
left-wing wrecker to pull 24 million Brazilians out of poverty. Lula
stood by her in April last year as she was diagnosed with lymphatic
cancer, a condition that was declared under control a year ago.
Recent reports of financial irregularities among her staff do not
seem to have damaged her popularity.

Ms Rousseff is likely to invite President Mujica of Uruguay to her
inauguration in the New Year. President Evo Morales of Bolivia,
President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and President Fernando Lugo of
Paraguay – other successful South American leaders who have, like
her, weathered merciless campaigns of denigration in the Western
media – are also sure to be there. It will be a celebration of
political decency – and feminism.

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