Dilma Rousseff: left-wing guerrilla to president-elect of Brazil

Middle-class student Dilma Rousseff joined a Marxist resistance group after Brazil suffered a military coup in 1964. Now she looks set to become Brazil's first female president.

Barring a political cataclysm, Brazilians look set to elect their first female president this weekend: a former urban guerrilla leader turned civil servant, who has never run for public office before. Clearly, Dilma Rousseff a once-ardent Marxist-Leninist is no ordinary politician, says The Independent on Sunday. Supporters claim the elevation of this "stocky and forceful" grandmother is "a celebration of political decency and feminism". The less charitable see it as a leap in the dark.

Rousseff is the hand-picked successor of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who enjoys a stratospheric 80% approval rating in Brazil (see below), notes The Economist. And as one blogger observes: "Lula would win these elections even if he picked a lamp post as a candidate." Some ordinary Brazilians are under the illusion that Rousseff, 63, is Lula's wife. She likes to portray herself as "the mother of all Brazilians". Lula sees her as "his incarnation and guarantee of continuity".

Yet with her record of determination and success (including apparently conquering lymphatic cancer), Rousseff is no patsy, says the FT. A former chief of staff to Lula, she's been central in driving forward Brazil's energy policy and was, until recently, chair of the state-owned oil giant Petrobras. The latter's record-beating $67bn fund-raising last week has done her kudos no harm at all. She may lack Lula's charisma, but she's sharply intelligent and doesn't suffer fools. The best advice for anyone meeting Dilma, notes one interviewer, is "speak quickly".

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Rousseff tends to downplay her activist youth, but it is "critical to understanding her rise", says Reuters. The daughter of a well-to-do Bulgarian immigrant, she was radicalised while at university shortly after the generals seized power in 1964, joining a network of urban resistance groups whose activities included robbing banks, setting off bombs, and kidnapping and occasionally killing political figures. Her ex-husband and fellow dissident, Carlos Araujo, claims Rousseff (codenamed 'Stella') was a co-ordinator, and never directly involved in the violence. But she certainly paid for it. Eventually picked up by the military police, she served three years in jail and was regularly tortured.

That experience sealed her pragmatic streak: she realised armed struggle would never topple the military regime. On her release in 1973, she resumed her studies in economics, immersed herself in literature (she favours Proust, Zola and Dostoevsky), and raised a daughter. But with the return of democracy in 1985, her old links with the resistance movement came good. She won her first government job, managing energy in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. A fearsomely efficient administrator, her rise thereafter was rapid. In 2000, she threw in her lot with Lula and his Workers' Party, becoming his first energy minister in 2003. But beneath the razzle-dazzle of the election campaign, there are qualms. Has Rousseff really got what it takes to continue Brazil's rapid ascent? For the moment, the jury remains out.

Will Rousseff be tough enough?

The expression "riche comme un Argentin" was popular in Paris a century ago when Argentina was one of the world's ten wealthiest countries. Today, the phrase could be reworked to "as rich as a Brazilian", says the FT. Last week's Petrobras bonanza was "more than just one big deal". It was a sign of how Brazil is now dazzling global finance. For years, "Lula" was a dirty word at Brazils's main Bovespa stock exchange in Sao Paulo, says The Guardian. Times have changed and the president knows it. "Ten years ago, I was known as "the capitalist-eater," says Lula, with evident relish; now Brazil is hosting the largest capitalisation "in the history of man".

Lula has "not quite achieved the global renown and secular sainthood of Nelson Mandela", says Gideon Rachman in the FT. But, in Brazil, he's not far off. This election is "a celebration of the past as much as a signpost of the future". Critics are quick to point out that it was his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who laid the foundations for economic reform. "One of Lula's biggest economic contributions was simply not to mess things up." The same sort of talk is now being directed at Rousseff. The real question is whether she has the gumption to push through the tough structural and employment reforms that are vital if Brazil is to sustain its 7% annual growth, says Reuters. Some doubt it. Yet the biggest constraint on Rousseff's power may come from within, says The Economist. She joined the Workers' Party comparatively recently, and didn't rise through the ranks "her candidacy was imposed upon it by Lula". That could be a recipe for dissent. Indeed, some are already talking up "the ministries and goodies" they expect in return for their support. With a weaker leader than its predecessor, Brazil's next government "may look stronger on paper than it is in practice".