From guerrilla to granny: meet Brazil’s first female president

2010-11-01 08:37

Brasilia, Brazil – Dilma Rousseff, a 62-year-old grandmother who was jailed in the 1970s for guerrilla activities, was elected Brazil’s first female president, succeeding her mentor and outgoing leftist leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Rousseff beat her rival, former Sao Paulo state governor Jose Serra, in a runoff with 56% of the vote, according to an official tally of 98% of ballots.

The career civil servant, who served as Lula’s cabinet chief before leaving in April to contest the election, will take charge of Latin America’s biggest economy on January 1.

Lula (65) is required to step down, having completed the maximum two consecutive terms permitted by law.

He has not said what he plans to do. He is retiring with a popularity rating above 80% and a high global profile.

Speculation is swirling that he might accept an international post, or stand by as an informal advisor to Rousseff as she runs the country, though he has downplayed those scenarios.

“There is no possibility of an ex-president participating in a government,” Lula said when he voted on Sao Paulo’s outskirts, where he started out as a factory metalworker and union leader.

Rousseff will have “to form a government in her image. I only hope that she does more than I did,” he said.

Rousseff has none of Lula’s charisma or negotiating skills.

But she does have a such a reputation for fierce determination that Brazil’s media have nicknamed her the “Iron Lady,” in the mould of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Who is Rousseff?

She developed her political spine when she started out as an active militant opposed to the 1964-1985 military dictatorship that ruled Brazil.

She was arrested in January 1970 and sentenced to prison for belonging to a violent underground group responsible for murders and bank robberies.

After nearly three years behind bars, during which she said she was tortured by electric shocks, she was released at the end of 1972. She continued her political path and eventually joined Lula’s Workers Party in 1986.

In 2000, she divorced her second husband. Their daughter, Paula, made them grandparents in September this year.

After Lula became president in 2002, he named Rousseff his energy minister and then, in 2005, his cabinet chief – a post analagous to prime minister.

Rousseff has vowed to maintain Lula’s policies, which over the past eight years have brought prosperity and financial stability to Brazil, and lifted 29 million people out of poverty.

Her biggest immediate challenges will be preparing the country to host the 2014 Football World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, both awarded under Lula’s deft lobbying.

She will also have to steer Brazil through tricky economic waters.

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