Brazil’s Rousseff: from insurgent to impeachment

August 31, 2016 9:07 pm
Suspended Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff gestures during her testimony in her impeachment trial at the National Congress in Brasilia © AFP/File / Evaristo Sa

, Brasília, Brazil, Aug 31 – Dilma Rousseff survived torture as a guerrilla opposing Brazil’s military dictatorship before rising to become president, but plunged from the heights to end up fired in an impeachment trial Wednesday.

The last time she faced trial is immortalized in a classic black and white photograph from 1970. Rousseff, then 22, sits with a defiant look on her face as a military court judges her for belonging to a Marxist underground group.

Few would have imagined at the time that the young rebel in jeans and t-shirt would become Brazil’s first female president. Or that later she would be back on trial, this time in the Senate, sternly looking her accusers in the eye.

Brazil’s 68-year-old “Iron Lady” stood accused of breaking accounting laws by letting her government take unauthorized loans to fill holes in the budget during her re-election race in 2014.

True to her fiery past, Rousseff called the impeachment a “coup.”

During mostly measured testimony at her trial, she briefly faltered and looked close to tears while recalling her suffering as a young leftist guerrilla and during a later battle with cancer.

“Twice I have seen the face of death close up,” she said. “When I was tortured for days on end, subjected to abuses that make us doubt humanity and the meaning of life itself, and when a serious and extremely painful illness could have cut short my life,” she said.

“Today I fear only for the death of democracy, for which many of us here in this chamber fought.”

– ‘Sense of humor’ –

Rousseff came to power in a 2010 election as the handpicked Workers’ Party candidate to succeed the hugely popular Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the left-wing party’s founder.

Whether as Lula’s chief of staff or energy minister, the economist Rousseff had won a reputation for laser-like attention to detail — a talent she is said to have carried over into her own cabinet meetings.

Profile of Brazil’s impeached president Dilma Rousseff © AFP / Gustavo Izús, Anella Reta

Critics however say Rousseff is not a natural politician. Her brusque manner made her unable to wheel and deal in Brasilia as Lula had done.

But her supporters say that image is unfair.

“People always say about women in power that they’re hard, managerial. But Dilma is a person with a great sense of humor, fun, extremely caring and generous,” said Ieda Akselrud de Seixas, who was jailed with Rousseff in the 1970s.

At Lula’s prompting during her re-election campaign, Rousseff opened up publicly. She once confessed to escaping the presidential palace on the back of a friend’s Harley-Davidson and cruising through the streets of Brasilia incognito.

She is a keen bicycle rider, too, and was frequently photographed doing exercise, even at the height of the current crisis.

Rousseff also tapped into a national obsession with cosmetic surgery, having wrinkles lifted from her face. She also had her teeth whitened and her hair redone.

The relatively fresh look was in contrast to the visible toll exacted during her battle against lymphatic cancer that was first diagnosed in 2009. At one point, she wore a wig to hide hair loss from chemotherapy.

She has since made a complete recovery, doctors say.

Twice married, Rousseff has a daughter, Paula, from a three-decade relationship with her ex-husband, fellow leftist militant Carlos de Araujo.

– ‘Priestess of subversion’ –

Born December 14, 1947 to a Brazilian mother and Bulgarian businessman father, Rousseff grew up comfortably middle-class in the southeastern city of Belo Horizonte.

She cut her political teeth as a Marxist militant opposed to the 1964-1985 dictatorship. She was sentenced to prison in 1970 on the grounds that she belonged to a group responsible for murders and bank robberies.

Her exploits during her time in the Revolutionary Armed Vanguard Palmares group remain shrouded in rumor. But most reports agree that she played more of a support role than taking part in violence.

The judge who found her guilty dubbed her the “high priestess of subversion,” journalist Ricardo Amaral wrote in a biography featuring the iconic photo of Rousseff.

She spent nearly three years behind bars, during which she says she was repeatedly tortured, including with electric shocks. Rousseff was released at the end of 1972.

– Petrobras: the slippery slope –

As chairwoman of oil giant Petrobras from 2003 to 2010, she was at the helm of the country’s biggest corporation — a role that has come back to haunt her.

The courts are probing a massive embezzlement scheme at the company that has implicated Lula and many other senior Workers’ Party members, as well as opponents.

Rousseff herself is being investigated for alleged obstruction of justice. Unlike many of her peers, however, she has not been accused of seeking to enrich herself personally.


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