Dilma Rousseff: In Lula’s Shadow

Dilma Rousseff: In Lula’s Shadow

The first female president of Brazil will likely build on her predecessor’s legacy.


When the confetti was still falling after her victory at the polls on October 31, Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president-elect, said, "I want to state my first commitment after the elections: to honor Brazil’s women so that today’s unprecedented result becomes a normal event and may be repeated and enlarged in companies, civil institutions and representative entities of our entire society."

In a country where women have typically played a limited role in politics, the election of a woman to Brazil’s highest office signals a major break from the past. But Rousseff’s term will likely be marked by continuity with her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula, a member of the Workers’ Party (PT), is leaving office with 87 percent support in the polls. An economist, PT bureaucrat, chief of staff under Lula and former guerrilla in the anti-dictatorship movements of the 1960s and ’70s, Rousseff was handpicked by Lula to follow his lead as president. When she is sworn in on January 1, she will inherit Lula’s popular legacy and will be further empowered by the fact that her party and allied parties won a majority of seats in the Senate and Congress. Not even Lula counted on this much support.

Considering the major economic and social gains Brazilians have enjoyed since Lula took office in 2003, the popularity of the PT candidate in the recent election was not a surprise. During Lula’s two terms as president, 20 million Brazilians rose out of poverty, and the minimum wage was raised by more than half. These advances were enabled by the country’s economic growth, spurred on in part by major exports to China; but they were also a result of Lula’s political will to promote social programs. In her victory speech, Rousseff pledged to extend these popular programs—at one point she vowed to eradicate poverty entirely. "We must not rest while there are Brazilians going hungry," she said.

Among the initiatives likely to expand is the Zero Hunger program, developed by Lula, which provides direct vitamin and food subsidies alongside projects to generate employment through infrastructure projects in electricity and irrigation. The Family Grant program is another success story: the program, which gives stipends to poor families that earn less than 120 Brazilian reais per month (about $71 US) has touched the lives of some 12.4 million families. In order to receive funding, families are required to send their children to school, where they have to attend at least 85 percent of classes, go through healthcare exams and receive vaccinations. More recently, Rousseff helped develop the My House, My Life program, which provides subsidies for home ownership.

Rousseff’s early cabinet appointments suggest that continuity will be the name of the game on issues of health and social development. She tapped Lula aide Tereza Campello to manage the Family Grant program as minister of social development, and Alexandre Padilha, a Lula adviser, will take over as health minister. The size and impact of these initiatives will likely increase in the coming years with help from new state oil revenues. Rousseff was the chairwoman of the state-run oil company, Petrobras, and she helped draft legislation that will give the state a key role in the exploration and extraction of oil reserves recently discovered off the coast of the country. Some of the funds generated for the government from this resource will be directed specifically to healthcare and education programs.

While expanding positive social programs, Rousseff is also expected to continue Lula’s less progressive politics in the area of land reform and agriculture. His powerful support for agribusiness, particularly soy and corn, over small farms and landless farmers has been one of his biggest failures as president. Thanks to Lula’s encouragement, multinational agro-industrial corporations—including Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and Syngenta—have expanded their operations throughout the country, increasing their ties with large landowners and Brazilian politicians. As political scientist Miguel Carter notes, "From 2003 to 2007, state support for the rural elite was seven times larger than that offered to the nation’s family farmers, even though the latter represent 87 percent of Brazil’s rural labor force and produce the bulk of food consumed by its inhabitants." The result of this imbalance is an endless sea of soy plantations, massive cattle ranches and poisonous industrial farms that displace poor Brazilian families and cut down ever larger swaths of rainforest while enriching a handful of global elites.

Although this trend has empowered certain aspects of the Brazilian economy, it has destroyed the countryside and displaced farmers at an unprecedented rate. In the face of Lula’s policies, Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) continued occupying unused land and settling it. Over the past twenty-five years, the MST has expropriated 35 million acres of land, settling some 370,000 landless families.

The MST supported Rousseff during her campaign, taking into account that the right-wing candidate José Serra would have been catastrophic for the movement and its allies. This is consistent with the movement’s continued backing of Lula during elections, despite the president’s slow progress with land reform; the analysis of the MST leadership is that a relative ally in the government is better than an outright enemy. MST leader João Pedro Stedile explained this position to a Reuters reporter: "A worker in the face of a reactionary boss does not mobilize," he said. "With Dilma, our social base realizes that it is worthwhile to mobilize, that we can move forward, doing more [land] occupations and [labor] strikes." Hopefully, the MST will find an ally in the Rousseff presidency. In any event, the movement will likely continue with its direct-action tactics to build a better world for its members regardless of who resides in the presidential palace.

Rousseff is also expected to build on the epic gains Lula made in establishing Brazil as a regional power and helping to lead the region toward independence from the United States. He helped strengthen regional economic and diplomatic blocs such as Mercosur and the Union of South American Nations, championed resistance against President George W. Bush’s push for a Free Trade Area of the Americas, denounced the coup against Honduran President José Manuel Zelaya, and supported Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador during right-wing destabilization efforts in those countries. Rousseff has appointed Antonio Patriota, a close colleague of former minister Celso Amorim, as the minister of foreign relations; Patriota is likely to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps.

On the international front, Rousseff’s administration will bring increased clout to negotiations over climate and global trade. In late January, just weeks after Rousseff takes office, Brazil will attend the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The global spotlight will be on Brazil when Rio de Janeiro hosts the 2014 World Cup as well. Already, preparations for the event have served as an excuse for increased police repression and displacement in the city’s favelas.

As the world looks to Rousseff for signals about her governing style and policy plans, the focus may be on areas where she distinguishes herself by breaking with the past—particularly with regard to women’s rights. As Rousseff told reporters after her victory, "Equal opportunity between men and women is an essential principle of democracy." Yet the first female president of the region’s largest nation and economy must operate within the same economic, environmental and political constraints as her mentor and predecessor. Rousseff is unlikely to step out from under Lula’s shadow for some time.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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