Born in 1947, Dilma Rousseff grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Belo Horizonte. Her father was a Bulgarian immigrant. She joined the left-wing movement against Brazil’s military dictatorship which had seized power in 1964. In 1970 she was caught and imprisoned for three years, but although subjected to torture for her role in the underground resistance, she refused to break.
In 2002 she joined the committee responsible for the energy policy of presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and following his election as President, she became Minister of Energy. She was catapulted to political prominence when Lula’s chief of staff was forced to resign and Ms Rousseff was promoted to his post.
Standing for the presidency herself in 2010, she failed to get enough votes in the first round to win outright, but went on to beat Jose Serra of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party in the second round with more than 56% of the votes and became the first woman President of Brazil. This year she fought a hard campaign, winning by a tighter margin of 51.6% in the second round vote against Aceio Neves’ 48.4%.
After her victory, she was quick to acknowledge her mentor, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. In his eight years as President, he was seen by the population as Brazil’s great social transformer and still has huge popularity.
However, many Brazilians have opposed the government’s backing of sporting events such as the 2014 World Cup in the face of continuing high levels of inequality and poverty. In June 2013, an estimated million protesters took to the streets during the Confederations Cup, an international tournament which proceeded the World Cup. The protests were sparked by a rise in bus fares but soon escalated into nationwide unrest, encompassing a number of grievances including corruption poor security, transport and health systems. In a speech to the nation Ms Rousseff said she would address these concerns but maintained that the World Cup was not being financed at the expense of public services.
Ms. Rousseff’s supporters praise her commitment for social inclusion and her championing of Bolsa Familia, a social welfare scheme that has benefitted 36 million Brazilians. In May, she announced a 10% increase in Bolsa Familia payments, well above the inflation rate which was then 6%. Her success in the election was due in no small part to the overwhelming support from the roughly 40% of Brazilians who live in households earning less than 700 dollars a month. They are benefitting from her party’s social welfare scheme, as well as federal housing programmes, government sponsored vocational schools and an expansion of credit to the working class.
As President, she now faces the challenge of invigorating the country’s economy, whilst dealing with social and regional differences.
30th October 2014
Published: 30 October 2014