Brazil elected its first woman president on Sunday, October 31, when Dilma Rousseff, 62, received 56 percent of the vote in a run-off against Jose Serra, a longtime rival of her Workers’ Party. This is the second time Serra, the São Paulo state governor—home to the third-largest city in the world—haslost a presidential election. The first was a clobbering back in October 2002 by current two-term president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and now this one, by Lula’s chief of staff, Dilma.
Even a playbook that Serra’s campaigners pulled from the American right couldn’t save him. Attempts to instill fear of Dilma’s pro-abortion stance and Marxist past were not enough to send him to Brasília, the nation’s capital. Brazil’s voters mainly vote their pocketbooks, not their Catholic faith.The national news media are not overburdened by pundits spoutingdramatic “he said, she said” vitriol, especially the kindfunded by political action committees. Brazil has its independent and opinionated anti-Dilma and anti-Lula pundits, but it lacks the US-style echo chamber that would get everyday Brazilians spinning like a top.The mainstream concern of politics in Brazil is keeping the economy growing and keeping the crime in big cities like Rio de Janeiro in check.
Dilma was radicalized in the late 1960s in Minas Gerais, a large state roughly the size of Texas about an hour’s flight north of Rio. Most of her ideological positions were influenced in her late teens and early 20s by the anti-capitalist political movements of Europe—Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg.She trained in the left’s counter-military insurgency and intelligence, she has said on record, but never shot at any officials or military personnel during her time with the National Liberation Command, or Colina.
The poorer north and northeast voted for Dilma, while the richer south and big agricultural states voted for Serra, partly out of a suspicion that Lula’s party will expropriate farms from landowners and give the land to peasants. Lula never did any such thing, but perception is greater than reality. The rich, educated south has always been anti-Lula, as if he somehow embarrasses them on the world stage. It’s hard to see how that could be, when leaders around the world and from ideologies as vastly different as Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all spoken highly of Lula.
So what is it they are trying to avoid, exactly? Dilma’s side of history won. She was correctabout the oppressive military government of her youth, as history has shown us. She was never accused of any violence against the government, despite her undercover activities to oust the regime. In the process, she was arrested in 1970—caught up in the global cold war between Washington and Moscow—and was high-profile enough to be labeled the Joan of Arc of the anti-government movement. After her 1972 release from prison Dilma moved to Brazil’s south, where she and her then-husband launched a small labor party. She became treasury secretary of Rio Grande do Sul and later its energy minister.
Dilma was taken on as Lula’s energy minister in 2003 and became his right-hand woman after a scandal led chief of staff Jose Dirceu to resign.Over time, Dilma’s Marxism had moved to a Lula-esque form of pragmatic capitalism. That doesn’t make her a sellout, and it certainly doesn’tmake her someone the corporate and financial elites should fear.