Sunday, January 9, 2011

From Guerilla to First Female President: Why Dilma Rousseff Matters

[I wrote this article for publication in our independent press this week. I thought I'd share it here too.]

On January 1, 2011, Mrs. Dilma Rousseff, aged 63, was inaugurated as the President of Brazil after receiving the presidential sash from the outgoing President, Mr. Lula da Silva. Being the 36th President in line, Mrs. Rousseff made history by being the country’s first female president. 

Dilma Rousseff is a fighter, and when I say a fighter, I mean it in every sense of the word. Rousseff did not only triumph over lymphoma, a serious form of cancer in 2009, but during the 1960s and 70s, she was a guerilla involved in the armed struggle against Brazil’s military dictatorship. She was imprisoned in January 1970 and served for almost three years. During her time in jail, Rousseff suffered repeated torture that included electric abuse, and following her trial, her political rights were suspended for eighteen years.

Upon her release, Rousseff went on to obtain a degree in economics. When she became involved with national politics from the 1980s onwards, she developed a reputation for being an exceptional economist and administrator. Her forte, however, was to work around energy issues: first as the State Secretary of Energy, and then as the Minister of Energy, Rousseff refused to privatize the production and distribution of energy by reiterating that energy is a common and public good. She strengthened public infrastructure while keeping environmental issues in mind. Indeed, Brazil is currently the largest producer of biofuel and Rousseff has always encouraged sustainable development by giving priority to the use of biomass, wind and solar energy and assuring the preservation of natural reserves and forests. During her appointment as Minister of Energy, Rousseff was also involved in overseeing the functioning of Petrobas, Brazil’s public oil company. In June 2005, Rousseff became Brazil’s Chief of the Presidential Staff.

Dilma Rousseff succeeds Mr. Lula da Silva as President of Brazil. Lula da Silva (popularly known as Lula) leaves office after an eight-year run that saw him become the most popular Brazilian president in the country’s history. A former trade unionist, he was the first presidential nominee to win for the Workers’ Party in Brazil, and the first working-class leader of Brazil. During his two terms, some 20 million Brazilians were lifted out of poverty, and Brazil’s minimum wage increased by more than half. What is of further interest, however, and going by the saying that “behind every successful man, there is a woman,” Dilma Rousseff has been Lula’s right-hand woman for years, and she was also Lula’s handpicked successor. In her inaugural speech, Rousseff paid tribute to Lula and repeated her pledge to eradicate chronic poverty from Brazil: “the task of succeeding President Lula is challenging. I will know how to honor this legacy... I will fight for the necessary changes in education, in health and security, and, above all, I will fight to end poverty and misery.” 

The social program put forward by Lula’s government to eradicate poverty—program that will be carried forward by President Rousseff—has been efficient in numerous ways. If Brazil’s level of economic inequality is dropping at a faster rate than almost any other country, and if between 2003 and 2009, the income of poor Brazilians has grown seven times as much as the income of the rich Brazilians, and if the line of poverty in Brazil has fallen from 22 percent to 7 percent of the population, it is, amongst many other factors, thanks to a program called Bolsa Familia (Family Grant). The generic term for the program is “conditional cash transfers” and it involves giving regular payments to poor families if they can meet certain requirements. While the requirements themselves may vary, they generally include keeping children in school, going for regular medical checkups, or having parents attending workshops on disease prevention and nutrition. The payments almost always go to women, trusting that they are more likely to spend the money on their families than men.

Bolsa Familia in Brazil covers about 50 million Brazilians, almost a quarter of the country. While a monthly stipend of roughly 13 US dollars is given to poor families for each child aged 15 or younger who is attending school, families can get additional payments of roughly 19 US dollars a month for each child aged 16-17 still in school. Families who live in extreme poverty get a basic benefit of roughly 40 US dollars without any conditions. While these stipends double the income of Brazilian families living in extreme poverty, they also help reducing economic inequality while increasing the overall quality of health and education within these families. 

Coming to head Brazil as President while having been a torture victim herself, Rousseff also represents roughly 20,000 Brazilians who were also tortured during the dictatorship. While other countries such as Uruguay, Chile and Argentina have confronted their past (Argentina presently has about 400 trials going on), Brazil has in no way acknowledged this part of its traumatic history, and in many ways, President Rousseff brings to light all those victims. During her inauguration ceremony, Rousseff was accompanied by eleven other women with whom she had been imprisoned in the 1970s. 

In terms of foreign policy, Rousseff has a few challenges facing her. Brazil is one of the few countries that almost-always held ground in steering an independent course outside the policies of the United States on a host of issues—particularly on war, armament and energy. Brazil is also one of the few countries in the world that recognizes Palestine as a state and even has a Palestinian Embassy in Brasilia. All these represent challenges that Rousseff will now have to live up to.

In a world where the sphere of politics and decision-making is still largely dominated by men, and where, on a global scale, women still comprise less than 20 percent of parliamentary positions, a woman is now heading one of the largest economies in the world, the largest in Latin America. Dilma Rousseff is a fighter, a survivor and a heroine facing a new decade locally and globally. She represents hope for the future, for a green revolution, for social and economic equalities, and for fairer policy making. In many ways, President Dilma Rousseff represents a victory not only for Brazil, but for the world, which is why Dilma Rousseff matters. 

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