The Amazon is a mythical race of fierce female warriors famous for their bravery and male-like strength. Sixteenth century explorers gave the name Amazonas to a vast South American region after they claimed to have met women warriors.
The Palácio do Planalto is the heart of Brasilia the capital of Brazil, and where the president works. Dilma Vana Rousseff (age 66), the current president, is a woman who displayed Amazon-like attributes to win her re-election on October 26, 2014. She had a bumpy road to victory; she was reelected by only three percent, the slimmest margin ever in a Brazilian election.
Brazilians are known by their first names or nicknames, presidents included, so for both her admirers and opponents she is Dilma. Dilma is the first female President of Brazil. Before being elected president in 2010, she had never held an elected position. She was a party bureaucrat when Lula (a nickname), the president at the time plucked her from his cabinet to run as his successor. Hugely popular, Lula was barred by the Constitution from running a third time. With Lula’s endorsement Dilma was comfortably elected in spite of her lack of political savvy. For many Brazilians, Dilma was just a “seat warmer” until Lula could run again. Lula was frequently portrayed as a Svengali rather than a benevolent mentor. Whether or not she was a “straw man” or figurehead, Lula let her run for a second term. Now, rumor has it that Lula is scheming to run again in four years when Dilma steps down.
The seat warmer ploy is a time-honored tradition in Latin America. In this patriarchal society, it usually involves wives, daughters, and even mistresses. Thank God political foes have never hinted that Dilma was Lula’s mistress! Argentina has de facto institutionalized the tactic: its populist Peronist party spearheaded the spousal reelection movement, starting with Isabel Perón, President Juan Perón’s second wife. Sometimes the wife achieved greater popularity than the husband. In Nicaragua, Violetta Chamorro’s legacy is far more impressive than that of her assassinated husband. In this area, Guatemala outdid its neighbor: to be able to run, a former president’s wife tried to get around constitutional obstacles by divorcing her loving husband.
Dilma’s Worker’s Party (PT in Portuguese) had anticipated a smooth re-election campaign. But when her poll ratings started to fall, PT circled the wagons and ad nauseum hurled mudslinging campaign ads. Lula got into action too, and delivered countless toxic stump speeches to demonize Dilma’s center-right opponent Aécio (surname Neves da Cunha). During their several grueling television debates, Dilma was cut down to size by the younger and more telegenic Aécio, who proved to be a tough and articulate political animal. To her credit, Dilma survived the punishing marathon campaign and won. Her narrow victory owes as much to the social achievements of PT government as to the high rate of rejection of Aécio’s party. Dilma won because, on the one hand the majority of Brazilians were afraid of losing their social benefits, and on the other the desire for change expressed by the million protestors in June 2013 was not sufficiently politically articulated.
Dilma and Aecio
Dilma is twice a survivor. In the 1970s, she survived the military dictatorship’s jails where she was reportedly tortured and she had lymphoma cancer in 2009 which was cured in 2010. While a student she was part of an urban Marxist guerrilla group and spent many years as a fugitive in the underground. Her guerrilla experience has left a lasting mark on her personality. She admits to keeping wads of cash in the Palácio da Alvorada, the official residence of the president, and it was reported that she sleeps with her shoes on!
Like many Brazilian officials with higher political ambitions, she went through a public and drastic image makeover. It involved plastic surgery, dental treatment, a new hairstyle allegedly inspired from that of New York City designer Caroline Herrera, and a power-woman’s wardrobe. Too bad for her, Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Angela Merkel of Germany all seem to be sharing the same uninspired tailor. The makeover was intended to soften her persona born out of her years as a Marxist guerrillera. It did not quite work out: the leopard cannot change its spots so easily.
For many, Dilma is Brazilian version of the Iron Lady of the United Kingdom. For this blogger she is more Iron than Lady. She comes across as stiff, authoritarian, uncharismatic, controlling, rude, and uncaring. She is said to run her cabinet like a boot camp. She does not loosen up even when surrounded by her adoring fans. In a country renowned for its congeniality, she is seen as a loner. Dilma leaves no one indifferent. For PT sympathizers and the impoverished northerners she is an icon, the Madonna of the poor, uniquely gifted to make Brazil advance toward social justice. However, for the 51 million who did not vote for her, she is like the cartoon character Cruella de Vil, a hypocrite who protects a criminal organization.
Early in 2014, it became known that PT and its political associates had set up a juicy kickback scheme and siphoned millions of dollars out of Petrobras, the state-own energy company. Although at the beginning of Dilma’s mandate she fired several ministers for corruption, she was unable or unwilling to clean the PT’s Augean stables. Brazilian politicians are notoriously known for their political conviction deficit and rent-seeking ingenuity. Dilma became hostage of an institutionalized sleaze system. She lacks Lula’s trademark jogo de cintura, (flexibility), networking and deft political footwork, all critical attributes necessary to deal with the unruly political class. She became isolated; the Congress routinely obstructed policies sponsored by her government, and legislative gridlock ensued.
After 12 years in government, Dilma’s PT party is rotten to the core. During the campaign, she asserted being unaware of the creative bribery schemes embroiling the party and its allies. As a woman, has she been systematically marginalized by PT grandees? Kept outside the loop? Dumbness or passive corruption, either options, are damning for Dilma.
Brazil politics is a man’s world, a macho preserve, and even with Lula’s endorsement Dilma was regarded as an anomaly. There were very few women in Congress to back her up. As a matter of fact, in the course of one year, Brazil fell from the 62nd position to 71st out of 142 nations in the 2014 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, (GGG). GGG “benchmarks national gender gaps on economic, political, educational and health based criteria”. At the beginning of her first term Dilma genuinely recruited several women to join her government. At the end, most of them were let go as they were regarded as too light weight for confront the bigwigs in Congress. Brazil will continue to fall in the GGG ranking. In 2014, Dilma has even fewer women politicians to choose from. She promised political reforms but cannot get things moving unless she mollifies the many politicians who backed her up during the campaign. The horse trading game has not yet started: her 39 ministerial posts may not be enough to satisfy the yapping politicos.
In her acceptance speech, fist raised, she promised to change her ways and be a better president. One can doubt this, unless she goes through a complete managerial makeover. During the last four years she grossly mismanaged and micromanaged the economy, and now the country is in much worse shape than when Lula handed it to her. Many blame her political shortcomings on her guerrilla past. Her underground experience certainly left a mark on her personality, however this blogger believes that there are additional reasons. One is that she did not have to go through the grueling process of climbing the election ladder from local elections to the top job, which is a steep learning curve. She was handpicked to run for president, leap-frogging the intermediary steps. Furthermore, Dilma’s politics reflect that she remains a Marxist at heart. She has been unable to actualize her convictions to meet the 21st century challenges. Her role models may still be Lenin and Stalin who were not paragons of flexibility and conciliation. Both lacked jogo de cintura.
Last but not least, jogo de cintura and jeitinho politico (the political knack) do not come naturally to a woman born outside the patriarchal families who sit on top of the political heap. So far, she has displayed little skill to navigate socially and out maneuver the pack of political patres familias who make up half of the Brazilian Congress.
Her next cabinet will be made up of 39 ministers all picked up from the alpha politicians. Because she cannot run again, this blogger expects a permanent power struggle between these people as they jockey for poll position. Since Dilma lacks both female wile and Abraham Lincoln’s political genius to make a team of rivals collaborate, she will have to freshen up her guerrilla skills, and even get that old Kalashnikov out of the closet.