HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 2 (IPS) — The woman likely to be elected president of Brazil, Latin America’s giant, either on Sunday or in an Oct. 31 runoff, is idealistic but pragmatic and has a reputation as a tough, seasoned administrator.
Dilma Rousseff, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s former chief of staff, is also a survivor of lymphatic cancer, diagnosed last year, which she faced without flinching and without slowing down.
Although she is said to lack Lula’s charm and charisma, her fight against cancer and her ability to withstand 22 continuous days of torture as a young activist during the 1964-1985 dictatorship have earned her respect and affection from the public.
The 62-year-old economist and former energy minister is also reputed to be intransigent and has had several run-ins with other members of the government of Lula, who picked her as his chosen successor.
All of the opinion polls indicate that she will be Brazil’s next president, and most say she has a strong chance of winning outright on Sunday, beating her main rival, Jose Serra of the Social Democratic Party.
Rousseff, the daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant lawyer and a Brazilian schoolteacher mother, rarely lets down her guard in public, as she did on Sept. 9, when she sketched a heart in the air with her hands after excitedly announcing that she had just become a grandmother.
She is also known for her concern for social issues, especially the situation of poor women. And although most of the members of her campaign team are women, she distances herself from feminism and provides a nuanced view of the gender perspective she incorporates in her plans.
“In Brazil, privileging women is not a gender policy, it’s a social policy,” said the candidate of the left-wing governing Workers’ Party (PT), who points out that in this country, 30 percent of households are headed by women, and 52 percent of the population is made up of women and girls, while “the rest are our sons.”
“This is not about creating a matriarchal system, but about recognizing the importance of women in the family structure,” she once said, to play down Lula’s statement that with her triumph, “Brazil will defeat machismo.”
Rousseff said Lula “is very sensitive to the issue” because “he was raised by a strong woman.”
She has not made controversial issues like the legalization of abortion or same-sex marriage key focuses of her campaign, apparently as a tactic to avoid scaring off more conservative voters.
But she has promised to build 6,000 day care centers. Although that is not a huge number in a country of 192 million people, it would put pressure on local governments to assume direct responsibility for an issue that is of key importance, especially for poor women, a growing number of whom are heads of households.
The plan for child care centers is a safe, non-controversial social program of proven effectiveness in boosting education, although universal day care coverage remains a distant dream in Brazil.
Today’s pragmatic Dilma — as she is popularly known in Brazil, just as the president is invariably referred to as Lula — is a far cry from the idealistic activist who belonged to a guerrilla group in her youth.
She and a handful of other young militants, mainly students, took up arms to defy the military regime, in a short, lopsided struggle that began in 1968. Three years later, most of the guerrillas had been exterminated.
The struggle from prison
Only hardened, determined militants like Rousseff were able to continue the struggle when prison, torture, and death were the most likely fate. During the 21-year dictatorship, at least 358 activists and guerrillas were killed, 138 of whom were victims of forced disappearance.
In 1969, when she was just 21 years old, Rousseff was the only woman among the five “commanders” of her group, the Palmares Armed Revolutionary Vanguard (VAR), named in honor of the famous 17th century Palmares “quilombo” — a term referring to communities originally established by runaway slaves.
The VAR was one of the armed militant groups in Brazil, largely inspired by Cuba’s 1959 revolution that carried out high-profile actions like the kidnapping of the U.S. and German ambassadors, to swap them for political prisoners who had been jailed and tortured.
The front-runner candidate has clarified that she did not actually take part in any armed action, in an attempt to neutralize epithets like “subversive” flung at her by the right, among other misleading depictions of her, like “anti-Christian.”
Massive slander campaign
On the internet there are thousands of web pages accusing Rousseff of murders, bank robberies and a variety of crimes — all false claims aimed at discrediting her and scaring the nearly 136 million voters who will come out to the polls on Sunday (voting is compulsory in Brazil).
After four months in the leadership of the VAR, Rousseff was captured by agents of the dictatorship — secret groups set up in 1969 to torture and kill opponents. Many consider her demanding management style a holdover from her years as an armed militant, when the slightest error could lead to arrest or death.
When she was released from prison 28 months later, she finished her economics degree, and had a daughter with her second husband, a fellow VAR militant who had also been in prison. They separated in 1996 and she is currently single.
When the dictatorship came to an end, she began her career as a public official — as finance secretary in the Porto Alegre city government and energy secretary of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, in southern Brazil. In January 2003, Lula, a former trade unionist, took office, and along with him came Rousseff.
Her success in areas traditionally dominated by men and the partnership between Lula and Dilma led the president, a master of pragmatism, to select her as the PT candidate, instead of long-time party leaders. Rousseff only joined the PT in 2001, after leaving the Democratic Labor Party (PDL), which has been both ally and opponent of Lula’s party.
The president’s choice was partly motivated by the fact that Rousseff is a woman, because the PT — and even Lula, despite his high approval ratings of around 80 percent — has always had a harder time wooing women voters.
Dilma has changed that. A poll carried out Monday finally shows her the favorite among women, but with 42 percent support — nine points lower than her backing among men.
The poll, by the Instituto Datafolha, also had bad news for Dilma: it called into doubt a first-round victory, putting her overall support at 44 percent, although another survey published two days later by Brazil’s leading polling firm, Ibope, found she had 50 percent support, against 27 percent for Serra.