South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
For a woman who has just endured a gruelling six-month political trial resulting in her impeachment and ousting, former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff looks remarkably relaxed.
The first female president of Latin America’s largest country strolls into a hotel suite in the southern city of Porto Alegre dressed in one of her cuStomary power suits, joking and waxing lyrical about her recently acquired passion – cycling.
“The best thing a human being can do is cycle,” the 68-year-old Rousseff says, explaining how she rides her mountain bike early each morning along the river in Porto Alegre. She moved back to the city where she started her political career after her impeachment in August to be close to her daughter and two grandchildren. “You can go for a walk… but a bicycle gives you a much greater feeling of freedom.”
The serious side of Dilma (as Brazilians call her) – a former Marxist guerrilla who won office in 2010 with the support of what was then one of the world’s most successful labour movements, Brazil’s Workers’ Party, the PT – is never far away, however.
She displays angry indignation, for instance, at any mention of the government that has replaced her, led by her former vice-president and political nemesis, President Michel Temer.
“It’s a government of rich old white men, or at least those who want to be rich,” she says, hinting at a long list of corruption allegations against those in Temer’s ruling coalition.
Rousseff must still be shell-shocked at her reversal of fortune – a reversal that has matched that of her nation, which has gone from emerging market economic miracle to disappointment in the space of a few years.
Suspended in May, she was finally wrenched from power in August after the senate found her guilty of a series of arcane fiscal manoeuvres used to pump up the economy and disguise the worsening state of the budget deficit.
While she argues that previous presidents used the same budgetary tricks, her government was the first since before the second world war to have its accounts rejected by the public finances watchdog, the TCU. In the end, the impeachment was a political trial – the real reason she lost power was her falling popularity amid a growing recession and a corruption probe at the state-owned oil company Petrobras.
It is a stark contrast to her position six years ago, when she enjoyed poll ratings that would have been the envy of any world leader. She was the woman who finally broke the glass ceiling in Brazilian politics, who set herself up as a champion of minorities and the poor through programmes such as “Sem Miséria” (End Misery) – sending social workers to hunt down the destitute and ensure their enrolment in welfare schemes.
“I think the traditional Brazilian oligarchy was upset by this small [redistribution of wealth],” Rousseff says. “After centuries of exclusion, this was a very small effort at inclusion. It was not fantastic; there needs to be much more than what we did.”
Rousseff’s public image is of an ill-humoured, somewhat gaffe-prone leader. But in person she can be informal and friendly. She is famous for her liberal use of the word “querido” – literally, “dear”, in conversation.
More a nerdy technocrat than a natural politician, she is never happier than when discussing the intimate details of the federal budget, backed by PowerPoint.
Another defining quality is her dogmatism, which showed at an early age. Born in 1947 in the mining town of Belo Horizonte in Brazil’s south-east to a Brazilian teacher and a Bulgarian communist lawyer, she began fighting the country’s former military dictatorship aged just 16. She met lawyer Carlos Franklin Paixão de Araújo, her now ex-husband and father of her only child, before she was imprisoned for three years by the military in 1970. She was tortured, an experience that led her to remind her opponents during the impeachment that she knew how to tough anything out.
Then followed a series of bureaucratic positions in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul and, later, ministerial posts in the government of her predecessor and mentor, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Her election as president in 2010 was the first time she had won public office.
Lula da Silva bequeathed an economy growing at an average of about 4 per cent a year. Rousseff handed over to Temer this year an economy that was contracting at nearly the same rate, in what is being billed as Brazil’s worst recession in more than a century.
Private-sector economists lay the blame squarely at her feet. Although Brazil was hit by the commodities slump, her interventionist economic policies – such as trying to control fuel and energy prices – undermined business confidence, they say.
But anyone hoping for a mea culpa will be disappointed. The global financial crisis was behind the economy’s woes, she says, while congress froze her attempts to introduce reforms including tax increases to arrest an explosion in the budget deficit.
She sees a proposed reform by Temer to freeze budget spending for up to 20 years as madness. “During a recession, an austerity policy is suicide,” she says. “In the short term, you have to increase public investment.”
She calls her impeachment a “coup”. So why did she not barricade herself into Brasília’s presidential palace, one of the masterpieces of the architect Oscar Niemeyer, in a statement of resistance as the younger guerrilla Rousseff might have done? The former president replies that the current struggle is different. Everywhere, “neoliberalism” is gnawing away at the foundations of democracy. The best way to meet this threat is to use democratic institutions, such as when she appeared in the senate during the impeachment to face her antagonists.
“Why couldn’t I give in to the temptation to tie myself to one of the beautiful Niemeyer columns in the palace? Because in this phase, the best weapon is criticism, talk, dialogue, debate. Truth is the oxygen of democracy.”
People who have worked with her say that unlike many Brazilian politicians, she is not personally corrupt. But her Achilles heel is undoubtedly Petrobras, according to her critics. Rousseff presided over the oil company from 2003 to 2010 as company chairman and minister of energy. A sweeping corruption investigation into the company, known as “Lava Jato” or “Car Wash”, revealed that some Petrobras executives conspired with former PT-led ruling coalition politicians and contractors to extract billions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks from the company, much of it during her time on the board.
Rousseff has not been accused of any crime and insists she never suspected anything – in spite of a congressional inquiry into corruption at the company in 2009, when she was still chairman, and the enormously inflated costs of the company’s projects.
“A corruption process is done in the shadows, with the perpetrators making sure to cover their tracks,” she insists. She adds that if not for reforms that she introduced to combat corruption, such as those strengthening the plea-bargain process, the Lava Jato investigation might never have happened.
What about the future? “I don’t plan to stand for any more elected positions but I will continue to be politically active,” she says. She is a member of the council of the Fundação Perseu Abramo, a think-tank linked to the PT, and plans to travel overseas to inform other countries of the “retrocession” imposed by the Temer government.
For women, she had wanted to leave a legacy of a successful presidency, not an impeachment, she says. “In any case, I will leave as a legacy to women my trajectory. I say that we [women] are not people who give up, who bend under adversity.”
Women always face some level of discrimination, even in “the most civilised societies”, she says. Rousseff was frequently charged with being an iron lady, reportedly so “tough” that she made ministers in her cabinet cry when they did not do their homework.
“When you are a woman in authority, they say you are hard, dry and insensitive, while a man in the same position is strong, firm and charming,” she says. She jokes that the most frustrating thing was that she was painted as the ogre, while the men in Brazilian politics were left smelling of roses.
“One day, after tiring of hearing how tough I was, I said [sarcastically] that yes, that’s right, I am a hard woman surrounded by sweet men; all of them just so sweet.”
Joe Leahy is the FT’s Brazil bureau chief. Additional reporting by Carina Rossi in São Paulo