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Newsmaker: Dilma Rousseff

Brazil’s first female president faces impeachment on April 17, and whether or not she’s the victim of a political witch hunt, her career has always been mired in controversy.
Brazil's first female president is facing impeachment. Kagan McLeod for The National
Brazil's first female president is facing impeachment. Kagan McLeod for The National

No one ever said that leading your country would be a gloriously serene experience – and so it has proved for Brazil’s embattled president, Dilma Rousseff.

As her flamboyant and sports-mad nation looks ahead to hosting the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this summer, its 68-year-old head of government could very well find herself out of a job and in the political wilderness, should her many (vociferous) critics get their way.

On April 11, a 65-­member congressional committee voted 38 to 27 to recommend that Brazil’s first female president be impeached over claims that she paved the way for her 2014 re-election by massaging government accounts in order to hide a growing deficit. She denies any criminality. April 11’s vote, while largely symbolic, was seen as an indicator for the more crucial vote on impeaching Rousseff in the full lower house of Congress, on April 17.

In this country of more than 200 million people, political tensions have been running high for some time. Indeed, the committee vote occurred amid angry scenes as opponents and supporters of Rousseff waved placards and gave voice to their feelings of a president who, ­depending on political allegiance, is either guilty of outright corruption or the victim of a political witch hunt.

Now that Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla-turned-civil servant, has been felled by the 65-member committee, the serious business of her impeachment process will begin when the lower house gets its chance. There, a two-thirds majority is required to take the matter into the senate. Should Rousseff find her case brought before the senate, she could face suspension, a trial and, should she find herself on the wrong side of a decision, expulsion from the greatest ­office in the land.

The leader of the governing Workers’ Party, in truth, has not found life in the political fast lane all that easy in recent times – even before this week’s developments. For one, the Zika virus has caused great public anguish in Brazil and across Latin America. And last month, seven ministers and about 600 political appointees from Rousseff’s main coalition partner, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), left the government. A misfiring economy and allegations centring on a multi­billion-dollar corruption scandal involving the state-controlled oil company Petrobras – of which Rousseff was once chair of the board – have also conspired to place the president in the eye of the political storm. Rousseff will need to call on all her vast colourful life experience as she looks ahead to the unquestionably fierce battle that awaits her attempt to cling on to Brazil’s most powerful political calling.

The woman who today faces the fight of her presidency was born Dilma Vana Rousseff on December 14, 1947, in the city of Belo Horizonte, in south-east Brazil. She was brought up in an upper-middle-class household as the daughter of an ex-­communist lawyer and Bulgarian immigrant father and a Brazilian teacher mother. As a child, she took piano lessons and attended a French-speaking Catholic school. Yet, her aspirations to become a ballerina were quickly shelved when Brazil’s president was overthrown by a military dictatorship in 1964, and she became involved in the left-wing opposition to the ruling government.

The young rebel soon became an active militant in an illicit group seeking to rid Brazil of its military dictatorship. She assumed names such as Luiza and Estela in order to escape the eye of the authorities. With her distinctive locks and thick glasses, Rousseff climbed the notoriety ladder. Two years after marrying fellow activist Claudio Galeno Linhares in 1968, she was arrested by government forces in São Paulo. Sentenced to three years – during her trial she was dubbed the “high priestess of subversion” – Rousseff endured a life in prison that was far from passive. Jailers subjected the young militant to painful electric-shock torture for her part in opposing the right-wing government.

In 2008 she told Brazilian weekly magazine ISTOÉ, that, as a prisoner, the military police tortured her to the brink of death, but never broke her will. “They gave me electrical shocks, a lot of electrical shocks,” said Rousseff to ISTOÉ. “I began to haemorrhage, but I withstood. I wouldn’t even tell them where I lived.”

She was released at the end of 1972 on the condition that she refrain from indulging her political inclinations. With her freedom came a determination to resume her education. Swapping the sword of militancy for the pen, she spent the 1970s with her nose in academic textbooks and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1977. She also married again – after parting with Linhares – to lawyer Carlos Araujo with whom she had a daughter, Paula, in 1976.

Yet, as Brazil’s military government began to falter, Rousseff found herself pulled back into the political current – and with the return of democratic rule in the mid-1980s, she began her path to power. In 1986, she became finance secretary for Porto Alegre, but left in 1988. In 1991, she became president of the Foundation of Economics and Statistics of Rio Grande do Sul state. She resumed her government work two years later, when she assumed the position of secretary of mines, energy and communications for Rio Grande do Sul, where she gained a good political reputation. After her divorce from Araujo in 2000, she joined the Workers’ Party, co-founded by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – then on the cusp of becoming Brazil’s president. When da Silva assumed the presidency in 2003, the erstwhile underground political operator was named as minister of mines and energy and chair of oil giant Petrobras. Under da Silva’s guidance, Rousseff’s fortunes soared, and she became his chief of staff in 2005.

Da Silva oversaw the economic growth of South America’s most populous nation combined with a shrinking poverty base but, despite his popularity, he stepped down at the end of his constitutional limit. It was to Rousseff that da Silva now turned. After she resigned from at Petrobras in March 2010, she focused her attentions on securing Brazil’s top job – even undergoing plastic surgery and teeth-whitening to become more appealing. She failed to win the presidency in the first round of voting, but succeeded in the second. She was sworn in on January 1, 2011.

Rousseff took over the presidency, a battle-hardened political veteran who had even successfully beaten a diagnosis of lymphatic cancer in 2009. Despite announcing an ambitious series of domestic reforms that included job creation and the eradication of poverty, Rousseff’s government was subject to ­accusations of corruption during her first year in office, which included the resignation of five cabinet ministers.

The following year witnessed the arrest and departure of more Brazilian government officials. These developments, together with the conclusion of a political corruption trial, occurred against the backdrop of Brazil’s stuttering economy, which saw the nation’s growth rate ­plummet.

Street protests, beginning in 2013, gave voice to middle-class concerns of government corruption and Brazil’s transport, security and health systems – and Rousseff’s approval ratings dropped like a stone. Her fortunes were hardly aided by the performance of the football team, which, during Brazil’s summer hosting of the 2014 Football World Cup, successfully negotiated its way to the semi-­final only to get hammered 7-1 by eventual world champions, Germany.

In October 2014, she faced re-election. In a bitterly fought election battle, Rousseff was accused of running an unremittingly negative campaign, during which time she again failed to secure the presidency in the first round. In the second round run-off, however, she triumphed and won a second term in office.

Last year plunged Brazil into the economic doldrums as inflation shot up and the country’s currency lost a third of its value against the US dollar. An investigation launched in 2014, dubbed Operation Car Wash, has also cast a long shadow over Rousseff’s presidency. Linked to Petrobras, it has convicted some heavyweight names in Brazil, including a construction tycoon who was given 19 years’ jail time. Da Silva himself was questioned in March this year concerning Operation Car Wash – and was on the receiving end of money-­laundering charges. However, Rousseff, who was under suspicion, but was cleared of any wrongdoing in her former role as Petrobras chair, offered her old mentor the job of chief of staff – a move that her detractors say was designed to shield da Silva from prosecution.

As Brazil’s political skies darken ahead of next week’s lower-­house vote, it has emerged that more of the former left-wing freedom fighter’s coalition partners have turned on her. Yet, Rousseff, who has denounced impeachment proceedings against her as a political “coup”, and has even suggested that her vice-president, Michel Temer, is one of the ringleaders, appears in no mood to back down. But, then again, when has she ever?

weekend@thenational.ae

Updated: April 14, 2016 04:00 AM

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