Dilma Rousseff and Brazil: signs of change

The first months of Brazil's new president show both Dilma Rousseff and Brazilian democracy in a fresh light, says Arthur Ituassu.

The first four months of any new president will give some indication of the degree of continuity and change in relation to his or her predecessor. The experience of Brazil in 2011 was always going to be a notable test of the balance-sheet of the two elements, in that the inauguration of Dilma Rousseff on 1 January embodied both. The very fact that she is Brazil’s first woman to become head of state means that she symbolises change in her very person; yet the fact that she had been the trusted ally and favoured successor of the popular figure who  held the office from 2002-10, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, means that she also represents a degree of continuity.

But here is a surprise, for the new president in this early period of her four-year term has seemed to transcend both these categories and to begin to establish a distinct political persona. This has been a gradual process. A single event that took place just before she passed the symbolic 100-day period in office in the second week of April conveys something of it.

The event was a shotgun massacre at a school in Realengo, a modest neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, in which ten girls and two boys (all 13-15 years old) were killed and twelve more wounded, some seriously. The perpetrator was a 23-year-old former pupil called Wellington Menezes de Oliveira who had entered the school armed with two guns filled with more than thirty bullets.

Brazil is a country used to episodes of armed violence, often related to urban-gang wars, but this targeting of children was unique and especially shocking. Dilma Rousseff expressed the nation’s grief on the same day, 7 April, when delivering a scheduled speech to business leaders - by shedding tears. She also announced three days of official mourning, whose end coincided with her first 100 days as the country’s president.

Her reaction to the tragedy was direct and personal. In one sense it raised an echo of her mentor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose sincerity, simplicity, openness and spontaneity in the presidency make him the most charismatic Brazilian leader in the country since the fall of the military regime in the mid-1980s. Yet in another her display of emotion had a very different character from the political dynamism of her predecessor, and helped mark Dilma’s distinctiveness in the Brazilian public’s mind.

Dilma differs too from Brazil’s two earlier presidents, Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002) and Fernando Collor de Mello (1990-92). Of these, Cardoso is far the more respected figure: an urbane intellectual with an international profile who oversaw the economic reforms of the Real plan which ended Brazil’s severe hyperinflation, By contrast, Collor began his term as the first directly elected president of the “new republic” era and ended it by being impeached by congress over major corruption scandals.

The ingredients of change

The substance of Dilma Rousseff’s presidency has yet to be defined, but in four ways she seems different from these recent occupants of Oscar Niemeyer's Palácio do Planalto in Brasília.

First, a distinct quality observed by many Brazilian political analysts, is that she is very discreet. For the first time in two decades, the country has a president who does not seek the media glare or popular attention - and in particular appears to have no “self-mythologising” ambitions. Collor, Cardoso and Lula alike wanted to change Brazil in so radical a way that the outcome would give them a shining place in Brazilian history. Dilma is modest by comparison: suddenly, the country has a president who wakes up early, works very hard, is very demanding with her team and very serious with her duties. Brazilians have as their head of state a person who seems to embody their country's current needs and stage of development.

Second, Dilma is not - as some had suspected she would be - a puppet of Lula. This is already notable in a shift - immediate, and necessary - in Brazil’s foreign-policy stance. At a United Nations debate in March 2011, the Brazilian delegation voted in favour of an investigation into possible human-rights abuses committed in Iran against opponents of the Islamic regime. For ten years, the country’s diplomats had abstained or voted against any inquiry.

Third, Dilma’s style in day-by-day politics is a refreshing departure. Lula’s conducted politics as if he was permanently on campaign, and was more than once criticised for confusing his role as  president with that of leader of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party / PT), and permanent candidate - even when he was not actually running. Dilma has already been saluted for her refraining from involvement in political disputes and for her cordial respect towards opponents. This was evident in her deference to Fernando Henrique Cardoso during Barack Obama’s visit to Brazil in March 2011.

Fourth, Dilma is tough and quick in responding to problems within her team and administration - again a contrast with Lula’s temporising approach. A dispute within the culture ministry, for example, was handled by preventing one of those involved from assuming his post; and new controls on government spending were imposed, following abuses during the pre-election period.

The first four months of Dilma Rousseff’s presidency suggest that she has her own style, ideas and way of governing. In this last sense, she could be seen as representing Brazil's new political maturity. 

About the author

Arthur Ituassu is a leading Brazilian scholar of social and political science. He is professor in the department of social communication at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio de Janeiro, and researcher at the Centro de Estudos Avançados em Democracia Digital (Centre for Advanced Studies in Digital Democracy and E-government (CEADD) in Salvador, Bahia. His website is here

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Arthur Ituassu is professor in the department of social communication at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio de Janeiro. His website is here

Among Arthur Ituassu's articles in openDemocracy:

"Brazil: never the same again" (4 October 2005)

"Violence in Brazil: all are targets, all are guilty" (17 May 2006)

"Brazil at the crossroads" (15 August 2006)

"The green and yellow phoenix" (29 September 2006)

Brazil, let's talk" (4 October 2006)

"Welcome to politics, Brazil" (1 November 2006)

Brazil: the moral challenge” (18 April 2007)

Tropa de Elite: Brazil’s dark sensation” (2 November 2007)

“Under one roof: a Brazilian in Goa” (13 March 2008)

China's Olympics: a view from Brazil” (11 August 2008)

Brazil: democracy as balance” (15 November 2008)

Mr Lula in Washington…and politics in Brazil” (16 March 2009)

The price of democracy in Brazil” (21 May 2009)

Brazil, the United States and Chile: military ghosts” (21 August 2009)

Brazil's new political identity” (2 November 2009)

"Brazil after Lula: left vs left" (23 March 2010)

"Brazil: democracy vs poverty" (29 July 2010)

"Brazil's big election: Dilma vs José" (14 September 2010)

"Brazil's prospect: consensus vs division" (19 October 2010)

"After the party: Dilma and Brazil" (22 November 2010)