There’s a lot of excitement these days about Hillary Clinton and whether she’ll run for president. But another high-flying woman has already ascended to the top office in a major country. No, we’re not talking about Angela Merkel. We mean the former rebel and torture victim Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s iconoclastic first female president.
Rousseff, 65, raised eyebrows this week when she canceled her upcoming October state visit to the White House, after documents leaked by Edward Snowden caused in uproar in Brazil over alleged NSA spying on Rousseff and Brazil’s state oil company. Not only that, Rousseff demanded an apology from both Obama and the U.S. Her strong reaction to what she labeled “industrial espionage” may have surprised some people, but not anyone who has observed her over the years.
When Hillary was … stealing everyone’s hearts at her Wellesley commencement address, Dilma was orchestrating the theft of $2.5 million from a government official in Rio.
That’s because, while Rousseff and Clinton are close in age, not to mention proximate on Forbes’ Most Powerful Women list, Dilma and Hillary have led very different lives. The biography of the well-coiffed, 5-foot-7-inch economist reads a bit more radically than the former secretary of state’s. In college, for example, Hillary joined Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign. Around that time, Dilma, the daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant, joined a Marxist guerrilla band that robbed banks, stole cars and tried to overthrow Brazil’s military dictatorship.
In the summer of ’69, when Hillary was featured in Life magazine for stealing everyone’s hearts at her Wellesley commencement address, Dilma was orchestrating the theft of $2.5 million from a government official in Rio. And while Hillary was undergoing the rigors of Yale Law School in 1970, Dilma was tortured and shocked with car wiring for 22 days by military police.
At about the same time that Hill and Bill started dating, Dilma and her second husband, Carlos (who had cheated on her with an actress), reconciled during conjugal visits while they were both imprisoned in São Paulo. Before Hillary had even left for Arkansas, Dilma had served three years in prison, lost 20 pounds, acquired a thyroid condition and had her political rights suspended for 18 years.
Like Hillary, though, Dilma has been a dedicated public servant, serving as energy minister in the 1990s and eventually as President Lula da Silva’s chief of staff for five years before running for president in 2010. And she has undergone some Hillaryesque attempts to soften her image, from changing her hairstyle and donning contact lenses to getting minor plastic surgery (this is Brazil, after all). Now Her Excellency lives in the presidential palace with her mother and aunt, and she runs a cabinet that’s more than one-third women (Dilma’s inner circle is said to include just one man).
Going for the full Brazilian in the future may mean a number of things (and involve far less hot wax).
As president of Brazil’s 201 million people, the Forbes No. 2 Power Woman in the world finds herself perched atop the world’s sixth-largest economy, which had a GDP of $2.435 trillion in 2012. And, thanks to Dilma, Lula, and the innovation that has been unleashed over the last decade, Brazil is just getting larger in its significance. Indeed, going for the full Brazilian in the future may mean a number of things (and involve far less hot wax).
The full Brazilian could mean adopting cars that run on sugar. In 2012-13, Brazil produced around 6.1 billion gallons of ethanol from sugar to power the millions of “flex cars” that can run on either sugar or gas and that make up about 90 percent of all new cars sold in the country.
Or it could signify landfill-powered renewable energy. Brazil’s Landfill-Gas-to-Energy Project collects millions of tons of methane emissions from decomposing waste, which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gas, and converts it to a renewable fuel that can power gas engines. Seriously.
Or it could mean paying parents to send their children to school or take them to the doctor.
But it doesn’t stop there. Earlier this year, as the U.S. Supreme Court weighed the fate of affirmative action in America, Brazil implemented the Law of Quotas, an aggressive admissions policy supported and signed off on by Rousseff. It requires the nation’s 59 federal universities to admit at least half of their students from Brazil’s more economically deprived public schools.
My generation fought a lot so that the voice of the streets could be heard.
— Dilma Rousseff
Even with these advances, Brazilians continue to push their president for further reforms. Massive protests erupted in June, starting over increased bus fares and escalating to large-scale social unrest over the money Brazil was spending on preparations for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics being hosted by Rio de Janeiro. Rousseff, who said she was “proud” of the protesters, quickly responded with a slate of proposed reforms, including steeper penalties for corruption, a new public transport program and the channeling of oil revenues into education reform. Nonetheless, by mid-July, her approval rating had dipped from 71 to 45 percent.
For the moment, the streets of Rio are calm. But Rousseff, who faces re-election after next year’s World Cup, knows better than most the passions of the Brazilian people and their hunger for a better life.
“My generation fought a lot so that the voice of the streets could be heard,” Rousseff said during a speech in June. “Many were persecuted, tortured, and many died for this. The voice of the street must be heard and respected.”
And, after all Rousseff has been through, you have to think that she’s not just saying that as a skilled politician or crisis manager. She really believes it.
Why you should care
When she’s not snubbing President Obama, Brazil’s Madam President is overseeing the world’s fifth most populous country and one of the most volatile democracies.