Rousseff: the path to power

Dilma Rousseff

The story so far: Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, whom we’ve been discussing this week, was born into wealth, became a domestic guerrilla leader, spent a couple of years in prison, and then spent several more years in college.

And then – along with her husband and fellow guerilla leader, Franklin Paixão de Araújo – Rousseff went into politics, taking part in the founding of the Democratic Labour Party (Partido Democrático Trabalhista, or PDT).

Franklin Paixão de Araújo

In 1985, when a party colleague, Alceu Collares, was elected mayor of Porto Alegre, he made Rousseff city treasurer. Her successor in this job – her first as a political appointee – later said that her administration of municipal funds had been thoroughly incompetent, leaving the city’s finances in utter chaos. But never mind! Thanks to her political connections, she kept on rising. In 1989, she was appointed director-general of Porto Alegre’s city council – only to be fired almost at once because she couldn’t manage to arrive at work on time. But so what? That triumph behind her, she climbed up to the state level, with positions as the Secretary of Energy and Communication for the state of Rio Grande do Sul and as head of the same state’s Foundation of Economics and Statistics (Fundação de Economia e Estatística, or FEE).


Her really big breakthrough, however, came with the election to the Brazilian presidency of Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva, under whom Rousseff served as Minister of Energy (2003–05) and then Chief of Staff (2005–10).

During Lula’s presidency, Brazil’s economy took off. In 2010, it surpassed the U.K. to become the seventh largest economy in the world.

Lula and Obama

“Under Lula,” to quote one source, “Brazil seemed to have reached one of those moments in history when a society enters a new epoch.” Lula is a socialist, and the economic growth that occurred during his presidency is routinely attributed by his fellow socialists in the professoriate and news media to his welfare-state policies; savvier minds have concluded that the chief reason for Brazil’s economic growth under Lula was its role as a supplier of oil, iron, beef, soybeans, and other commodities to China, which became its biggest trading partner.

Lula’s presidency was, in any event, a personal triumph: he left office with approval ratings of more than 80% in public opinion polls, making him the most popular president in the country’s history.

Rousseff and Lula

When Lula finished his second term and was unable to run for a third because of term-limit laws, he selected Rousseff to succeed him. Why her? She was, after all, as one observer pointed out at the time, an “apparatchik” who’d “never before been elected to any political post and who was unknown to most of Brazil’s 192 million people.”


Some critics, noted the Telegraph suggested that Rousseff “was simply the last senior Lula crony standing since one aide after another was forced to quit in scandals over alleged slush funds, bribery or blackmail.” One Brazilian expert told the Telegraph that “Lula chose Dilma because Dilma means a third Lula term and the continuation of his populist-authoritarian project. She’s only doing so well in the polls because his government ignores all the institutional limits on power and manipulates the population through welfare programmes.” Indeed, she was so uncharismatic a figure and so uninspiring a speaker that Lula’s government, prior to the election, actually “made it illegal for television and radio broadcasters to make fun of the candidates.”

In any event, Rousseff won the election – less on of her own merits than because of the electorate’s affection for Lula.

What happened then? How did Rousseff manage to screw things up so quickly?

Tune in tomorrow.

Rousseff: a flashback

Yesterday we started looking into the administration of Brazil’s current president, Dilma Rousseff, who – in the wake of a remarkable rise toward prosperity under her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-10) – has presided over a precipitous economic decline, accompanied by profound corruption and incompetence.

Dilma Rousseff

Rousseff is a socialist, but she’s the kind of socialist upon whom the Western news media tend to look with sympathy – which is to say that she isn’t constantly denouncing capitalism and the U.S. and that she occasionally even says sensible-sounding things about free markets, free trade, and such. Yet she is what she is.  Vladimir Tismaneanu put it this way last March:“Dilma and her crowd may not be Marxists in a traditional, strictly ideological sense…but, when all is said and done, they still share, subliminally, the Marxist anti-capitalist and ‘anti-imperialist’ revolutionary delusions, expectations, and fever,” which explains “their enduring affinities with the continental far left, including Hugo Chavez’s heir, Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.”

How, you may wonder, did this woman end up being president of one of the world’s largest countries? Here’s a flashback.

Régis Debray

Born in Belo Horizonte in 1947, Rousseff is the daughter of a Communist lawyer who fled Bulgaria for France in 1929 and who later moved on to Brazil, where he became a successful businessman. Her upbringing was very privileged – house servants, a fancy boarding school. As a girl, she wanted to be a ballerina. But in 1967, after reading the work of French writer and Castroite Régis Debray, she joined a socialist organization, POLOP (Política Operária, or Workers’ Politics), and became active in COLINA (Comando de Libertação Nacional, or National Liberation Command), a militant Marxist-Leninist faction, in which she met her first husband, Cláudio Galeno de Magalhães Linhares.

As a defendant in a military court, 1970

In 1969 COLINA, which specialized in bank robberies and bombings, killed two police officers, obliging Rousseff and Galena to lay low. While underground, they were sheltered by Carlos Franklin Paixão de Araújo, head of a gang of Communist guerrillas that soon merged with COLINA and other groups to form the VAR Palmares (Vanguarda Armada Revolucionária Palmares, or Revolutionary Armed Vanguard Palmares) – of which Rousseff, after dumping Galeno and hooking up with Araújo, was put in charge.

A mug shot

As head of VAR Palmares, Rousseff reportedly organized strikes, ordered bank robberies, masterminded the theft of a politician’s safe (which contained $2.5 million), planned a kidnapping (which the would-be culprits were never able to pull off), and sequestered weapons. She became known to both supporters and the authorities as the revolutionary movement’s “Joan of Arc.”

After being arrested in 1970, Rousseff was imprisoned and tortured. While she’s repeatedly sought to minimize the importance of her role in VAR Palmares, her description of the extent of her torture has been dismissed by parties familiar with the situation as highly exaggerated. Released from jail in 1972, Rousseff returned to college to study economics. Although her official biography lists master’s and doctoral degrees, she never actually earned either.

And then she went into politics.

We’ll get around to that tomorrow.