Brasilia, Brazil – Exiled to the Palacio do Alvorada – the official presidential residence – until the end of her impeachment trial, suspended President Dilma Rousseff seems remarkably relaxed.
Greeting us with a broad smile, she was much more approachable than I expected given the tough image she usually portrayed throughout her presidency – before she was forced to abandon the Presidential Palace last month.
The modern palace, designed by Brazil’s iconic architect Oscar Niemeyer, is exquisite – but enormous. Rousseff lives alone with her 90-year-old mother. I suggest she has too much space.
“No, I live upstairs in a much smaller section, one of more human proportions,” she laughs.
Such a conversation would have been extremely unlikely just a few months ago. Rousseff rarely gave interviews – much less at home. But then she was not on the verge of being impeached. Now she wants the world to know her side of the story.
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“I have to say that the situation is not an easy one. But when you believe that justice is on your side, that gives you strength to withstand all the odds,” she says. “I am a victim of injustice.”
During our long conversation, it became clear her reputation for being a strong woman is not unfounded.
Her softness disappears when asked about widespread criticism that she destroyed Brazil’s economy; that she knew or should have known about massive corruption in her government; that she was stubborn and refused to take advice when things started going seriously wrong in her coalition.
She dismisses all of it, which is what struck me most: Rousseff’s refusal to publicly admit any responsibility for what has gone wrong in Brazil during her five-and-a-half year presidency.
In fact, asked what she would do differently if she is cleared in her impeachment trial, the only mistake she concedes was having chosen the wrong people to form a coalition. (Rousseff’s Vice President Michel Temer – who betrayed her – is now sitting at her desk at the Presidential Palace as interim president).
Rousseff is right about a great many things, including the need for political reform in Brazil, where there are already 29 political parties. She is also right about the fact that her adversaries want her out for political reasons, rather than because she borrowed from public banks to fill a budget deficit – as all the presidents before her have done.
But as one of Dilma Rousseff’s closest political allies – who preferred not to be named – told me, she may be her own worst enemy.
“She does not have the humility, the ability or the desire to build bridges with those whom she considers wrong, or worse yet, her adversaries. She has alienated even many of her supporters. People don’t trust that she can change.”
Rousseff told me she thinks she can still beat impeachment by convincing six senators to change their minds and vote against her removal when the time comes, especially in light of the seemingly endless corruption scandals plaguing the Interim government.
“That is not something impossible,” she says.
But the question is, can Rousseff really convince the Senate and Brazilians to give her another chance? Will she ask the Brazilian people for forgiveness, as some insiders suggest she must?
“Dilma thinks she has done nothing wrong. She is willing to fight till the end and go down in history as a political martyr, as the victim of treachery,” says Leila Gebrim, a supporter who grew up in Brasilia.
As I left the Palace, Rousseff quoted a revealing gaucho (Brazilian cowboy) proverb:
“One can never be too tired to fight – declared the sheep, as it was being surrounded by 40 wild wolves.”
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