Monday, November 01, 2010

Presidential Election in Brazil: A Tough Lady For a Tough Act to Follow

Dilma Rousseff became the first woman to be elected president of Brazil, as standard-bearer of the Worker’s Party of outgoing President Lula, the world’s most popular democratically-elected leader (more popular than Obama). Lula, with an off-the-charts approval rating of 80 percent, tapped Dilma to be his successor. Lula is limited to two terms of office by Brazil’s constitution. Dilma won a resounding victory of 55 percent to 44 percent of the vote over her rival as 135 million Brazilians went to the polls to elect a new president.

Dilma chose armed struggle as a guerrilla leader against the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil with an iron fist from 1964 to 1985. In a strange twist of fate, Dilma took a parallel path to the presidency as did her contemporary, Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile. Both women were imprisoned and tortured by the U.S.-backed military regimes of their countries. Dilma was subjected to electric shock torture by sadists trained in the notorious military School of the Americas, a.k.a “school of the assassins” in Fort Benning, Georgia.

Mugshot of Dilma Rousseff: From captured guerrilla leader in 1972 to President-elect of Brazil in 2010.
Known as a tough administrator, trained as an economist, Dilma served Lula as his energy minister, interior minister, and chief of staff. She is a cancer survivor, and by all accounts, one tough lady. Dilma assumes the presidency of a nation on the rise — currently the 8th economy of the world, Brazil is expected to be the world’s 5th largest economy by the time it hosts the 2016 Olympic Games.

The charismatic and beloved Lula is one tough act to follow. He presided over a booming economy that lifted 10 million Brazilians out of poverty and into the middle class. Lula, a self-made man with little formal education, is a founding member of Brazil’s Worker’s Party. He began his career as a lathe operator before moving up the trade union ranks to a leadership position during the turbulent era of the U.S.-backed military regime. Several times imprisoned by the military for his union organizing activities, he later won election to Congress. Lula is credited with being one of the most influential voices compelling the military to restore direct presidential elections.

A testament to his grit and perseverance, Lula ran for president three times before finally being elected. He was resoundingly re-elected with near-record vote totals for a world democratic leader. His approval ratings, as all-round good guy and model world citizen, have been sky-high as he prepares to leave office.

Going out on a high note: President Lula and First Lady Marisa Letícia stroll the majestic 
esplanade of the Alvorada Presidential palace. Official portrait of the world's most popular leader.
Part of Lula’s popularity derives from his innately Brazilian decency. When an Iranian woman was convicted of adultery and sentenced to be stoned to death, the case became a global cause célèbre. Using his infuence with the Iranian regime, Lula offered her asylum, on the spur of the moment, when he learned of the case.

President Lula said, “I can't imagine someone being stoned, I can't imagine. That’s why I made the request. If there was condition to send her to Brazil, we would receive her with arms wide open.” Lula opposes the death penalty, saying “I don't think the state has the right to kill a person.” If she “is causing problems there,” he added, “we will welcome her here.”
Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said, formalizing the offer: “I called my Iranian colleague ... to say that the action hurt the sensibility of the Brazilian people … In that moment, actually, the news we had was more about the stoning, which was based on a highly debatable crime in our view of the world.” Amorim described Ashtiani's threatened punishment as “something that is really baffling to our culture and to the way we see the world.”

Human rights organizations around the world hailed the offer as “unprecedented” and asked Brazil to continue using its influence “to lobby for the release of 12 other women awaiting execution by stoning.” While the Iranians have rejected Brazil’s offer of asylum, the high-level spotlight placed on this as a human rights issue has caused Iran to back down from going forward with the executions.

Dilma promised to carry on Lula’s social welfare policies to eradicate “misery” once and for all, improve the nation's healthcare delivery systems, and continue the pro-growth economic policies. Thanking the press, President-elect Dilma Rousseff said:
“I don’t deny that at times some of the things that were reported left me sad. But those who, like me, fought for democracy and for the right of free opinion, risking our lives, those who, like me and so many others no longer among us, dedicated all of our youth to the right of  free expression — we were natural lovers of liberty. I said and repeat, that I prefer the noise of a free press to the silence of the dictatorships.

The task of succeeding [Lula] is difficult and challenging. But I know how to honor this legacy. I learned with him that when you govern thinking of the public interest and of the most needy, an immense force springs from the people and helps us govern, a force that carries the nation forward and helps us win the biggest challenges.”
I read somewhere about how special American democracy was. I too believe in American exceptionalism. But today, at least, American democracy takes a backseat to Brazil’s. Brazilian exceptionalism is on proud display to the world in the force and beauty and dignity of its democracy. It’s an awesome thing to see. This daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant has done good. And so has Brazil.

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