The Former Guerrilla Set To Be The World's Most Powerful Woman
By Hugh O'Shaughnessy
The Independent (
September 26, 2010
The world's most powerful woman will start coming into
her own next weekend. Stocky and forceful at 63, this
former leader of the resistance to a Western-backed
military dictatorship (which tortured her) is preparing
to take her place as President of
As head of state, president Dilma Rousseff would
outrank Angela Merkel,
Hillary Clinton, the
enormous country of 200 million people is revelling in
its new oil wealth. Brazil's growth rate, rivalling
China's, is one that Europe and
Her widely predicted victory in next Sunday's
presidential poll will be greeted with delight by
millions. It marks the final demolition of the
"national security state", an arrangement that
conservative governments in the
regarded as their best artifice for limiting democracy
and reform. It maintained a rotten status quo that kept
a vast majority in poverty in
favouring their rich friends.
Ms Rousseff, the daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant to
Brazil and his schoolteacher wife, has benefited from
being, in effect, the prime minister of the immensely
popular President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former
union leader. But, with a record of determination and
success (which includes appearing to have conquered
lymphatic cancer), this wife, mother and grandmother
will be her own woman. The polls say she has built up
an unassailable lead - of more than 50 per cent
compared with less than 30 per cent - over her nearest
rival, an uninspiring man of the centre called Jose
Serra. Few doubt that she will be installed in the
Alvorada presidential palace in
Like President Jose Mujica of
neighbour, Ms Rousseff is unashamed of a past as an
urban guerrilla which included battling the generals
and spending time in jail as a political prisoner. As a
little girl growing up in the provincial city of
Horizonte, she says she dreamed successively of
becoming a ballerina, a firefighter and a trapeze
artist. The nuns at her school took her class to the
city's poor area to show them the vast gaps between the
middle-class minority and the vast majority of the
poor. She remembers that when a young beggar with sad
eyes came to her family's door she tore a currency note
in half to share with him, not knowing that half a
banknote had no value.
Her father, Pedro, died when she was 14, but by then he
had introduced her to the novels of Zola and
Dostoevski. After that, she and her siblings had to
work hard with their mother to make ends meet. By 16
she was in POLOP (Workers' Politics), a group outside
the traditional Brazilian Communist Party that sought
to bring socialism to those who knew little about it.
The generals seized power in 1964 and decreed a reign
of terror to defend what they called "national
security". She joined secretive radical groups that saw
nothing wrong with taking up arms against an
illegitimate military regime. Besides cosseting the
rich and crushing trade unions and the underclass, the
generals censored the press, forbidding editors from
leaving gaps in newspapers to show where news had been suppressed.
Ms Rousseff ended up in the clandestine VAR-Palmares
(Palmares Armed Revolutionary Vanguard). In the 1960s
and 1970s, members of such organisations seized foreign
diplomats for ransom: a
dozen political prisoners; a German ambassador was
exchanged for 40 militants; a Swiss envoy swapped for
70. They also shot foreign torture experts sent to
train the generals' death squads. Though she says she
never used weapons, she was eventually rounded up and
tortured by the secret police in
Abu Ghraib, the Tiradentes prison in
given a 25-month sentence for "subversion" and freed
after three years. Today she openly confesses to having
"wanted to change the world".
In 1973 she moved to the prosperous southern state of
Rio Grande do Sul, where her second husband, Carlos
Araujo, a lawyer, was finishing a four-year term as a
political prisoner (her first marriage with a young
left-winger, Claudio Galeno, had not survived the
strains of two people being on the run in different
cities). She went back to university, started working
for the state government in 1975, and had a daughter, Paula.
In 1986, she was named finance chief of
the state capital, where her political talents began to
blossom. Yet the 1990s were bitter-sweet years for her.
In 1993 she was named secretary of energy for the
state, and pulled off the coup of vastly increasing
power production, ensuring the state was spared the
power cuts that plagued the rest of the country.
She had 1,000km of new electric power lines, new dams
and thermal power stations built while persuading
citizens to switch off the lights whenever they could.
Her political star started shining brightly. But in
1994, after 24 years together, she separated from Mr
Araujo, though apparently on good terms. At the same
time she was torn between academic life and politics,
but her attempt to gain a doctorate in social sciences
failed in 1998.
In 2000 she threw her lot in with Lula and his Partido
dos Trabalhadores, or Workers' Party which set its
sights successfully on combining economic growth with
an attack on poverty. The two immediately hit it off
and she became his first energy minister in 2003. Two
years later he made her his chief of staff and has
since backed her as his successor. She has been by his
deposits, aiding a leader whom many in the European and
left-wing wrecker to pull 24 million Brazilians out of
poverty. Lula stood by her in April last year as she
was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, a condition that
was declared under control a year ago. Recent reports
of financial irregularities among her staff do not seem
to have damaged her popularity.
Ms Rousseff is likely to invite President Mujica of
Evo Morales of
other successful South American leaders who have, like
her, weathered merciless campaigns of denigration in
the Western media - are also sure to be there. It will
be a celebration of political decency - and feminism.
Female representation: A woman's place... is in the government
In recent years, female political representation has
undergone significant growth, with dramatic changes
occurring in unexpected corners of the globe. In some
countries women are dominating cabinets and even
parliamentary chambers. By comparison, the
behind, with only 22 per cent of seats in the Commons
currently held by women.
by 10 women. In 2009, women won 25 per cent of seats in
the lower chamber, and 47 per cent in the upper chamber.
Costa Rica In 2010, women won 39 per cent of seats in
the lower chamber.
Argentina In 2009, women won 39 per cent of seats in
the lower chamber and 47 per cent in the upper chamber.
Cuba In 2009, women won 41 per cent of seats in the
Rwanda In 2009, women won 56 per cent of seats in the
lower chamber and 35 per cent in the upper chamber.
Mozambique In 2009, women won 39 per cent of seats in
the lower chamber.
Angola In 2009, women won 38 per cent of seats in the
first time. In 2007, women won 29 per cent of seats in
the lower chamber.
Germany In 2009, the cabinet had six women and 10 men.
That year, women won 33 per cent of lower chamber
2008, women won 37 per cent of seats in the lower
Women won 40 per cent of seats in the lower chamber.
women won 23 per cent of seats in the lower chamber.
2010, women won 41 per cent of seats in the lower