Brazil’s Rousseff: from insurgent to impeachment

by Sebastian Smith Dilma Rousseff survived torture as a guerrilla opposing Brazil's military dictatorship and rose to become president, but on Thursday her remarkable ascent went into the tailspin of impeachment.

Few would have believed during those dark days in the 1970s, when Rousseff belonged to a violent Marxist underground group, that she would become Brazil’s first female president.

Even fewer would guess that less than a year into her second term, she would be at the center of a political earthquake, ending with her suspension by the Senate for an impeachment trial.

Brazil’s 68-year-old “Iron Lady” is accused of illegal accounting maneuvers in which her government took unauthorized loans to cover budget holes during her tight re-election in 2014.

True to her fiery past, Rousseff calls the impeachment a coup and promises “to resist to the very end.”

But the collapse of her ruling coalition and open war with her vice president Michel Temer, who now takes over, has left Rousseff isolated and considered unlikely to survive the trial.

Although many analysts agree that the seriousness of the charges against her is debatable, a tide of public anger over prolonged recession, corruption and the government’s inability to deal with Congress could sweep her away.

Rousseff will now experience the humiliation of having to leave the presidential palace and hand over power to Temer.

But as Rousseff herself has pointed out, torture steeled her for tough times.

“I have come up against hugely difficult situations in my life, including attacks which took me to the limit physically,” she said. “Nothing knocked me off my stride.”

– Bicycle president –

Rousseff came to power in a 2010 election as the handpicked Workers’ Party candidate to succeed hugely popular Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the left-wing party’s founder.

Whether as Lula’s chief of staff or energy minister, she won a reputation for laser-like attention to detail — a talent she is said to have carried over into her own cabinet meetings.

“She came here with her little computer,” Lula said after appointing Rousseff to her first cabinet post. “She started to talk and I felt something different in her.”

The flip side is that Rousseff is not seen as a natural politician, with little common touch and a brusque manner that did not go down well when it came to wheeling and dealing in Brasilia.

But supporters say that the leader commonly referred to as just Dilma is good company.

“People always say about women in power that they’re hard, managerial. But Dilma is a person with a great sense of humor, fun, extremely caring and generous,” said Ieda Akselrud de Seixas, who was jailed with Rousseff in the 1970s.

At Lula’s prompting during her re-election campaign, Rousseff opened up, once confessing to escaping the presidential palace on the back of a friend’s Harley-Davidson and cruising through the streets of Brasilia incognito. She is a keen bicycle rider, too, and was frequently photographed taking exercise, even at the height of the current crisis.

Rousseff also tapped into a national obsession with cosmetic surgery, getting her teeth whitened, hair redone and lifting wrinkles from her face.

The relatively fresh look was in contrast to the visible toll exacted during her successful battle against lymphatic cancer that was first diagnosed in 2009. At one point, she wore a wig to hide hair loss from chemotherapy.

She has since made a complete recovery, doctors say.

Twice married, Rousseff has a daughter, Paula, from a three-decade relationship with her ex-husband, fellow leftist militant Carlos de Araujo.

– ‘Subversion’ –

Born December 14, 1947 to a Brazilian mother and Bulgarian businessman father, Rousseff grew up comfortably middle-class in the southeastern city of Belo Horizonte.

She cut her political teeth as a Marxist militant opposed to the 1964-1985 dictatorship and was arrested in January 1970 and sentenced to prison on grounds she belonged to a group responsible for murders and bank robberies.

Rousseff’s exploits during her time in the Revolutionary Armed Vanguard Palmares group remain shrouded in rumor. But most reports agree that she played more of a support role than taking part in violence.

The judge who found her guilty dubbed her the “high priestess of subversion,” journalist Ricardo Amaral wrote in a biography. A photo in the book shows a bespectacled Rousseff aged just 22 staring defiantly at the court.

After nearly three years behind bars, during which she says she was subjected to repeated bouts of torture, including electric shocks, Rousseff was released at the end of 1972.

– Petrobras: the slippery slope –

She helped found the Democratic Labor Party (PDT) in 1979 and eventually switched to Lula’s Workers’ Party in 2000. From there, she made rapid progress into the country’s upper echelons.

When Lula was first elected president in 2003, he named Rousseff his energy minister and then, in 2005, his cabinet chief.

As chairwoman of oil giant Petrobras from 2003 to 2010, Rousseff was at the helm of the country’s biggest corporation — a record that has come back to haunt her with the revelation of a massive embezzlement scheme at the company.

Lula and many other senior Workers’ Party members, as well as opponents, have been probed or in some cases already prosecuted over allegations of money laundering, embezzlement and bribe taking.

Rousseff herself is being investigated for alleged obstruction of justice. Unlike many of her peers, however, she has not been accused of seeking to enrich herself personally.


© 1994-2016 Agence France-Presse


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