(New York Times)
SÃO PAULO, Brazil — From the moment their political paths crossed, Dilma Rousseff began solving problems for President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
In late 2002, shortly before taking office, Mr. da Silva convened an urgent meeting of experts, including Ms. Rousseff, a little-known energy secretary from a southern state. Brazil was facing blackouts and rationing in one of the worst energy crises in its history, and Mr. da Silva needed answers.
Confident and outspoken, “She arrived with a laptop and would press the little buttons all the time while telling me, ‘No, Mr. President, it’s not like that, it’s like this,’ ” Mr. da Silva recalled in a recent speech. Three hours later, he said, he was convinced he had his new Minister of Energy and Mines.
Now Ms. Rousseff, a twice-divorced grandmother, is poised to succeed her former boss as Brazil’s next president, becoming the country’s first female leader. Voters will go to the polls on Sunday for a runoff between her and José Serra, the former governor of São Paulo, with polls pointing to Ms. Rousseff winning by at least 10 points.
If elected, she will have Mr. da Silva, the most popular Brazilian president in a generation, to thank for transforming a no-nonsense bureaucrat and former student militant without elected political experience into his chosen successor.
But while Ms. Rousseff, 62, has pledged to cleave to the formula that endeared Mr. da Silva to so many, she is hardly a carbon copy and faces some monumental tasks that he has left unfinished: fixing the nation’s troubled educational record, improving dismal health and sanitation standards for millions, and turning Brazil into the kind of developed nation it envisions itself becoming.
“Dilma will not be Lula II,” said Roberto Mangabeira Unger, a former minister of strategic affairs under Mr. da Silva. “She is a different person; it’s a different moment, and it’s a different job.”
Ms. Rousseff, who in her early 20s battled a military dictatorship as a part of a militant group with Marxist-Leninist underpinnings, has already indicated that she favors giving the state greater control over the economy, especially the oil industry, potentially steering the country farther to the left than under the pragmatic approach of Mr. da Silva.
“There is this temptation that now that Brazil is performing so well that the state get more involved in these economic opportunities, like the oil sector,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a research group. “It is going to create some nervousness in some sectors that this could upset the formula that worked so well under Lula.”
Brazil’s profile on the world stage may also fall off with Ms. Rousseff at the helm, many analysts say. She cannot match his charisma and has shown little inclination to wade into the global diplomatic arenas where Mr. da Silva made a name for himself and his nation.
“Dilma isn’t interested in international prestige; she doesn’t care if she is seen as a great world leader,” said Rubens Barbosa, Brazil’s former ambassador to London and Washington. “In the first few years of her administration she is going to concentrate more on domestic and economic policy, and less on taking the lead in international relations.”
To many, her campaign became a referendum on the prosperous eight years of Mr. da Silva, who maintained economic stability and narrowed the inequality gap. In that vein, Ms. Rousseff has suggested that she will select experienced technocrats for important cabinet posts, a signal that she is not seeking to radicalize the government.
Both Ms. Rousseff and Mr. da Silva found their calling during the military dictatorship. While Mr. da Silva opposed the regime as a union leader, Ms. Rousseff took a more radical path.
She was born in the southwest to a Brazilian mother and a Bulgarian father who came here to escape persecution for ties to the Communist Party, she said. A lawyer by training, he did well in business in Brazil, giving her a comfortable middle-class upbringing replete with piano and French lessons.
In the late 1960s, she joined the armed struggle against the dictatorship, using various code names as a member of the VAR-Palmares, which robbed arms caches from army installations in Rio de Janeiro.
She has denied taking up arms herself, saying she was merely involved in organizational activities. In an interview last year, she denied involvement in the most celebrated episode local news organizations have tied to her, the 1969 robbery in Rio de Janeiro of the safe of Gov. Adhemar de Barros of São Paulo. It contained $2.5 million.
Nevertheless, one year later she was captured and imprisoned for what she called crimes of “opinion and organization,” spending almost three years behind bars where, she said, she was repeatedly tortured with electroshocks and other methods.
José Anibal, a congressman from the opposition Social Democratic Party who knew Ms. Rousseff as a student militant, described her as studious even then. “You could disagree with her, but she was a person that always thought before speaking,” Mr. Anibal said.
Along the way she fell in love and married two fellow militants, having a daughter with the second, Carlos Araújo, with whom she stayed for 30 years before divorcing in 2000. (Earlier this year, Ms. Rousseff became a grandmother.)
Once out of prison in 1972, she returned to school and graduated in 1977 with a degree in economics. She was working as state secretary of energy in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul when Mr. da Silva tapped her to take over as energy minister in 2003.
She developed a reputation for her no-nonsense, often demanding, approach, with the news media calling her the Iron Lady.
Many analysts credit her with saving Mr. da Silva’s second term. In 2005, when a vote-buying scandal involving José Dirceu, the former chief of staff, threatened to bring down the presidency, she stepped in to replace Mr. Dirceu and helped steer the government back on course, analysts said.
Mr. da Silva later entrusted her to oversee the multibillion-dollar infrastructure fund that is working to modernize the country. While chairwoman of the state oil giant, Petrobras, she also helped write the government’s new oil laws, which would give the oil giant the primary role in developing the enormous new deepwater oil fields that could be a cash cow for the nation.
While her rival, Mr. Serra, has called for private companies to be more involved, the legislation pending in Brazil’s Congress would give the state — and Ms. Rousseff’s Workers Party — more control over the fields and the distribution of billions of dollars in revenues. Ms. Rousseff favors using a large chunk of the oil revenues to enhance public education.
With term limits forcing Mr. da Silva to step down — despite recording a record 83 percent approval rating this month — he began pushing Ms. Rousseff as his successor almost two years ago. But last year her candidacy was thrown into doubt when she received a diganosis of with lymphatic cancer and underwent chemotherapy. Doctors later declared her cancer-free, and the party approved her nomination.
Just two weeks before the first round of voting last month, though, Ms. Rousseff’s successor as chief of staff, Erenice Guerra, was accused of influence peddling from inside the government. It was only the latest scandal to taint the chief of staff’s office, which was accused in 2008 of producing dossiers on the personal spending of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and of pressuring the National Civil Aviation Agency to sell the state airline, Varig, to a favored buyer. Ms. Rousseff has denied any involvement.
Mr. da Silva has praised Ms. Rousseff’s administrative credentials as more than sufficient to lead Brazil. But her lack of sway in the Workers Party could hamper her, analysts said.
Ms. Rousseff “is much more of a hostage to the party than Lula was,” said Denis Rosenfield, a political analyst at Rio Grande do Sul Federal University. The result, he said, could be that the more left-leaning arm of the party seeks to “radicalize her positions.”