Brazil's Dilma Rousseff: Year One

Although her personal approval rating is above 70 per cent, Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's new president, has struggled to emerge from the shadow of her wildly popular predecessor, Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva.


    In one of her last official appearances of 2011, on December 22, Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president, arrived in a sweltering gymnasium in downtown Sao Paulo to give a speech to a few hundred working-class social activists.

    In her speech, she mentioned “Lula” more than 10 times.

    At one point the audience briefly broke into chants of “Lula, Lula, Lula!”

    Lula wasn’t even present.

    “Lula” is Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the wildly popular and charismatic former president of this country.

    This is the man who in 2009 told a ballroom of CEOs at a regional World Economic Forum meeting in Rio de Janeiro he was going to scrap the speech his advisors had prepared and instead gave a blistering and empassioned critique of how the rich, developed nations were resonsible for the global economic mess and it was poor all over the world paying the price.

    All the while, wiping sweat from his brows. It was classic Lula. 

    Back in Sao Paulo on December 22, after the crowd settled down chanting Lula's name, Rousseff carried on with her speech. 

    In one part, she veered into a brief but dense explanation of why Brazil is a federation. It was met with polite applause, mild cheering in parts, but not much more.

    The scene, in many ways, perfectly mirrors Rousseff’s first year in office: her promises to carry on the best economic growth in recent history under her predecessor and political mentor, Lula, while also coming out from behind the hefty legacy he cast over Brazilian political life for decades. 

    It is now clear it will take more than 365 days for Rousseff to accomplish this.

    Foreign Policy

    Lula was a globetrotting risk-taker, the height of which was marked in 2010 when Brazil teamed up with ally Turkey to broker a nuclear fuel swap deal with Iran, infuriating America at a time when the West was pushing for more sanctions.

    (Watch Al Jazeera video report: Lula hopes to broker Iran deal.)

    The deal was quickly discarded by the United States and most European powers as naive. Brazil said they were doing the right thing, for the right reasons, in the name of dialogue.

    Now things have changed: Rousseff has taken any warm relations with Iran off of the front burner and put them in the freezer, sealed tight. 

    Notably, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits Latin America in a couple weeks, he is skipping Brazil.

    “So far Dilma’s foreign policy has been much more risk averse than Lula, but it's still too soon to tell if that's because of different styles or different interests,” political analyst Joao Augusto de Castro Neves told Al Jazeera.

    If symbolism equals reality, the new truth in year one of the presidency of Rousseff narrows down to the heavy dual bookends leaning on each of Brazil’s shoulders: the United States and China.

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    Hi, old friend! Obama and Rousseff in Brasilia in March. [Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR]

    Rousseff had only been president for 78 days when President Barack Obama and Air Force One touched down in Brasilia. It was the first time ever a newly elected Brazilian president didn’t have to go to the WHite House for a first meeting with their US counterpart.

    Yes, some important work got done behind the scenes, but overall it was chiefly imagery the US telling Brazil ‘We now respect you as an equal".

    It’s no secret the US administration now rightly views Brazil as the undisputed titan of South America. In Rousseff they see a moderate behind the wheel who is more naturally sympathetic to the interests of the World Economic Forum crowd than was Lula, and they are probably right.

    But just a month after Obama left Brazil, Rousseff rushed off to China for a week.  And there is nothing symbolic about the Brazil-China relationship: it’s all business.

    In 2009 China surpassed the US as Brazil’s largest trading partner, and most economists agree that Brazilian trade with China is a major reason Brazil has mostly avoid a major economic downturn.

    To oversimplify it, as long as the price of iron ore and soy remain high, so, too, does Brazil’s economic outlook.

    Rousseff is no fool, in fact, just the opposite. She has elbowed her way to the top of the man's world of Brazilian national politics.

    She’s a trained economist and knows full well the dangers of her country becoming overly reliant on the Chinese. She went to Beijing to pressure the Chinese to, among other things, start to view Brazil as more than a commodities one-stop shop.

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    Hi, new best friend! Rousseff and Hu Jintao of China. [Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR]

    Rousseff has mostly avoided the world stage (at least compared to Lula), keeping a much lower international profile.

    The memorable exception was in September when she made history being the first women to give the opening address at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. It was a potent speech that probably didn’t get the praise it deserved. (Read english version in full here.

    Foreign affairs are not Rousseff’s strength, or natural inclination. That is a role she will grow into, and sticking her nose in messy relationships in far-away corners of the globe in which her country has no direct involvement, clearly was not on her strategic agenda in 2011. And I doubt it will be in 2012.

    Rousseff’s focus has been getting her own house in order.

    Domestic Policy

    Six months into her presidency, Rousseff launched a wildly ambitious, multi-billion dollar plan to lift 16.2 million Brazilians from extreme poverty by 2014.  It was one of a handful of social projects dealing with issues such as women's health and housing for the poor that Rousseff has championed in the last year.

    Rousseff is a woman whose strength is rolling up her sleeves, hunkering down with her iPad (where she receives her daily economic briefings every morning from the finance ministry), and managing.

    She is a natural when it comes to behind-the-scenes chief of staff-type work, and that is how she has governed as president.

    While Lula went around world selling Brazil to FIFA, the IOC, and writing fat checks for social programs in Brazil that are credited with lifting more than 30 million people into the middle class, Rousseff has spent her first year as president quietly doing the less glamorous work of trying to figure out how to divide up Brazil’s economic windfall to pay for it all.

    She’s also straddled trying to manage a natural (and expected) economic slowdown – a “soft landing” as the finance minister likes to say.

    Brazil’s economic growth shot up 7 per cent  in 2010, too high and too fast, economists said, and now it’s 3 per cent and was actually flat in late 2011. In Brazil, the target growth annually to avoid an overheating economy is between four and five per cent annually.

    For the most part, Rousseff’s domestic policy has built off Lula’s success, such as the anti hunger program I blogged about in 2009. She has also pivoted away from Lula slightly and tried to reign-in bloated government spending. Rousseff’s love of numbers and statistics is legendary in Brasilia.

    While foreign policy isn’t her natural strong suit, foreign exchange rates and government budgets are.

    Some people are predicting doom and gloom for Brazil’s overheating economy in 2012, saying this year is when "reality" will hit, and the first sign is a "sputtering" economic end to 2011.

    Cars running out of petrol sputter, a country like Brazil in 2012 does not.

    Yes, Brazil’s economy has structural problems: always closely watched inflation rates, an antiquated tax structure, policies that snuff out innovation.

    Yet, people looking at a slight downturn and predicting that the boom is over, fail to see the historical arc of where Brazil has been and where it’s going long term.


    Any domestic policy successes in the past year by the Rousseff government have been partially overshadowed by the fact Rousseff has had seven ministers resign in the span of 12 months. It’s been splashed all over the domestic and international media.

    Six of them were forced out because of allegations of playing fast and loose with ethics and public funds.

    Each month from June until October, one minister fell per month because of corruption allegations. All six have denied the allegations.

    None of the allegations circled back directly to involve the president. And only one of the fallen ministers, chief advisor Antonio Palocci, was actually a member of Rousseff’s Workers Party.

    (Minister-level jobs are given to people from differing political parties in Brazil as payback for support during the general election).

    But still, most agree it didn’t look good.

    “Six or seven ministers [forced out] in six or seven months?” Castro Neves said. “That is not an indication of a healthy administration.”

    Rousseff’s supporters say it points to her zero tolerance policy towards entrenched political corruption in Brasilia. In the old days, a president might have looked the other way in terms of corruption. Rousseff didn’t and won’t, they say.

    Whatever Rousseff is doing, it’s working. In the latest poll, her job approval ratings are at 56 per cent, the highest ever for a Brazilian president at the end of the first year in office. Her personal approval ratings stand at 72 per cent.

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    Rousseff, in Manaus, Brazil, hugging airport workers after her arrival. [Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR]


    While the substance of Rousseff’s agenda closely mirrors that of Lula on many fronts, the style doesn’t.

    As she was giving that speech in Sao Paulo just before Christmas, less than 10km away there was a huge fire in a working class neighborhood that left more than a hundred families displaced.

    Local TV stations broke into regular programming to broadcast the news with live, rolling coverage. At one point, rescuers in helicopters were plucked people off the roof of a burning building.  

    After her speech, Rousseff sent three ministers who were travelling with her to the scene of the fire clean-up efforts to asses the situation. Rousseff, however, got in her motorcade and was driven a half block to an underground parking garage and taken to a helipad to a waiting helicopter that whisked her off to the airport and back to Brasilia.

    Lula had a much different political instinct.

    In June of 2010, when floods killed dozens and left thousands homeless in the northeast Brazilian state of Alagoas, then-president Lula toured the damage from helicopter. He was so moved by what he saw below, he ordered the pilot to land in the middle of the muddy disaster zone, breaking all safety and security protocol.

    (Watch Al Jazeera story from the floods here)

    When the chopper touched down, Lula jumped out, and walked over to dazed people half covered in mud trying to salvage any belongings from their homes. He started hugging people. It wasn’t a show. Few cameras were around because it was not planned.

    Scenes like that endeared Lula to so many people in Brazil – especially the working class – who still view him as an authentic, one-of-a-kind leader.

    “No women in the history of this country will ever give birth to another man like Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva,” one working-class street vendor in Sao Paulo told Al Jazeera last year.

    And that is why, partly at least, even today Rousseff mentions his name ... a lot.

    For Dilma Rousseff, the second year of her presidency will be trying to peek out just a bit from that Lula shadow and define her presidency solely on her terms.

    Then, sooner or later, people might start chanting her name rather than his.



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