Dilma Rousseff: Is Brazil's president ready for the 2014 World Cup?

She fought against dictatorship, survived torture and became Brazil’s first female president. But it may be the 2014 World Cup that defines her legacy

Matt Sandy
Friday 06 December 2013 21:45
Portrait by Lauren Crow
Portrait by Lauren Crow

With the draw for the 2014 World Cup on Friday, the world’s eyes are on Brazil as never before. And for the country’s first female president, the challenge is huge: can she oversee a successful tournament while at the same time keeping a 200-million populace happy? Especially when they have lately been so prone to outpourings of anger.

The sometimes dour bureaucrat, 65, has been in the top job since 2010, when she was elected in the slipstream of her charismatic and fabulously popular mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who had himself served two terms as president. Never mind that Dilma Rousseff had never previously held elected office. Her victory was meant to cement the Workers’ Party’s economic and social successes after a long period in the wilderness, with the World Cup as the coming-out party of the perennial “country of the future”.

That was the hope. Instead, mass protests, in June saw a million people take to the streets to demonstrate against the billions being spent on a football tournament while public services remained so poor and graft so common. Trickiest of all, even as the rallies exploded into violence, Rousseff remained silent, barring a curt two-line statement. It was easy to surmise why. The protesters’ anger was the same as that which had led her, in her youth, into a dangerous struggle with the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for two decades. It was a struggle undertaken while in hiding, under false names, and it led to her arrest and imprisonment; a struggle that led to her torture at the hands of Brazil’s military police – the same organisation using batons, tear gas and rubber bullets against demonstrators in the summer.

When Rousseff did respond to the protests, in a pre-recorded television address, she tried to strike a balance, acknowledging that “Brazil is fighting hard to become a more just country” while urging protesters not to disrupt the World Cup warm-up contest then about to take place. But even now that the protests have died down, the reputation and future of Brazil’s leader remains uncertain. After all, next year’s global tournament – its practical challenges and the threat of further protests – will be swiftly followed by presidential elections. It is a period that may well define not only Brazil’s first woman president, but its first sustained left-wing government in modern times.

Dilma, as she is popularly known, was born in 1947 in the mining state of Minas Gerais, to a Bulgarian immigrant, Pétar Russév, a poet and businessman, and his Brazilian teacher wife Dilma Jane da Silva. The middle child of three in a well-off family, she dreamed as a young girl of becoming a ballerina. But when Brazil’s military dictatorship came to power in 1964 – when she was 16 – she grew up fast, soon joining the first of several Marxist groups advocating armed struggle against the military regime. By 1969, she was one of the most wanted fugitives in Brazil and was living in hiding using the names Luiza, Wanda and Estela to avoid capture. It was in this period that she met her husband, lawyer and fellow activist Carlos Franklin Paixão de Araújo. They would later have a daughter together but eventually divorced after 30 years.

When she was finally arrested the next year, the military police subjected the short-haired, thick-spectacled 22-year-old to a campaign of torture to get her to reveal the identity of her comrades. She was left hanging from a “parrot’s perch” device while policemen tried to break her. “They gave me a lot of electrical shocks,” she later recalled. “But I withstood it.”

Her obstinacy had deep roots. Fellow activists that she knew had been “disappeared” by the regime which, while mild by South American standards, still brutally put down resistance. One military prosecutor described her as the “papess of subversion” and the “Joan of Arc of the guerillas”. In a now-famous picture from her appearance at a military tribunal, she stands, visibly unbowed, as two judges on the bench behind her cover their faces with their hands. “She exuded defiance,” wrote Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the first female president of Argentina, last year. “The woman I got to know in 2003... possesses the same commitment as the girl in that picture.”

Nor could three years in prison break Rousseff, and later in life she became a successful bureaucrat, including a long spell as Energy Secretary in Brazil’s southern-most Rio Grande do Sul state. It was from here that she was noticed by Lula, when hers was one of the few states not to resort to power rationing during Brazil’s energy crisis of 2001. As a result, she was made Minister for Mines and Energy in his first Workers’ Party government, the first time the post-dictatorship party had won the presidency.

Lula’s eight years in power, amid an economic boom, left him near untouchable politically. His social programmes for the long-ignored poorest in Brazilian society, including the Bolsa Familia – which gives a basic handout to millions of the most needy families – proved hugely popular. The result was millions more Brazilians entering the middle class – a tough act to follow when Lula anointed Rousseff, by then his much-feared chief of staff, as his successor. She had risen quickly, and her brusque and efficient style gave rise to the nickname the Iron Lady – a moniker she strongly disliked.

Upon election, Rousseff defined her priorities as abolishing extreme poverty, honouring women, protecting the weakest and governing for all. But although on paper she has had many successes – continuing and expanding the social programmes, getting more women into top government jobs and taking a tougher line on corruption – many still see the main successes as belonging to her predecessor. Indeed, while her approval ratings have waned, the man-of-the-people Lula remains a much-revered figure, regardless of the conviction of several senior figures from his regime for their parts in a vote-buying corruption scandal.

Rousseff remained popular enough, however – until the protests began in June. Thus far, despite her stuttering response and the slowing economy, she is still the favourite to win next year’s presidential election. But a shadow is hanging over her government as the World Cup approaches. The protests, sparked by a 5p rise in bus fares, may well reignite. If they do, the president will once again be caught between her people and the might of football’s world governing body, Fifa. And the outcome will be as difficult to predict as the presidential election that will follow in October.

Both will pass a verdict on Rousseff – and, to an extent, the Workers’ Party’s 12 years in power. When she took over from Lula, Dilma spoke warmly of the former president. She told him: “With you, we won. We defeated the misery, the poverty – or part of it, we defeated the subordination, the stagnation, the pessimism, the conformity and the indignity.” The question now is whether the presidency of this former guerilla warrior will merit a similarly gushing appraisal. And the answer is in the balance.

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