Latin America & Caribbean

Dilma Rousseff: Brazil's 'Iron Lady'

Dilma Rousseff celebrates with Brazil's former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva at a news conference in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, October 26, 2014
Dilma Rousseff was quick to acknowledge her mentor and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva after her victory

Dilma Rousseff, the first woman to be elected president of Brazil, has had her share of career ups and downs.

She first came to prominence as the protege of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil's beloved former president who is better know as Lula.

But she has been unable to match his popularity - and her critics say she would not have been elected president without his support.

Despite social welfare reforms that have lifted millions out of poverty, Ms Rousseff has been lambasted for Brazil's economic woes, including the country's slide into recession.

As she won a second term in office with a narrow victory over her centre-right rival Aecio Neves, she was quick to pledge to be "a much better president than I have been until now".

Rise to power

Nicknamed "Iron Lady", Ms Rousseff's brusque manner and short temper - she is known to publicly upbraid her ministers - have earned her a formidable reputation.

She has sacked several ministers over corruption allegations and has prided herself on her administration's record of investigating corruption claims.

Ms Rousseff herself was catapulted into political prominence when Lula's chief of staff, Jose Dirceu, was forced to resign and was later convicted over an illegal scheme that used public funds to pay coalition parties for political support.

Ms Rousseff, untainted by scandal, was promoted to Mr Dirceu's post.

Ms Rousseff has been a formidable force in Brazilian politics

But recently the opposition has tried to link her to corruption allegations levelled against the state-run oil company, Petrobras.

In September, Petrobras former director alleged that members of Ms Rousseff's government had received commissions on contracts signed with the oil giant which were then used to buy congressional support.

Ms Rousseff served on the company's board of directors from 2003 to 2010 and her critics say this connection taints her anti-corruption credentials.

President Rousseff, who has not been directly implicated, insists she had no knowledge of any wrongdoing.

Football mad

Ms Rousseff's supporters praise her commitment for social inclusion and her championing of Bolsa Familia, a social welfare scheme that has benefited 36 million Brazilians.

In May, she announced a 10% increase in Bolsa Familia payments, well above the then inflation rate of 6%.

But many Brazilians opposed the government's backing of costly sporting events such as the 2014 World Cup in the face of continuing high levels of inequality and poverty.

Despite Brazilians' love of football, many saw the costs associated with hosting the World Cup as excessive

In June 2013, an estimated million protesters took to the streets during the Confederations Cup, an international football tournament which preceded the World Cup.

The protests were sparked by a rise in bus fares but escalated into nationwide unrest, encompassing a number of grievances including corruption, poor security, transport and health systems.

In a speech to the nation, Ms Rousseff said she would address these concerns but maintained that the World Cup was not being financed at the expense of public services.

Nevertheless protests continued in the run up to the World Cup with Ms Rousseff subjected to obscene chants during the tournament.

Rebel past

But Dilma Rousseff is not one to be cowed.

Born in 1947, she grew up in an upper-middle-class household in Belo Horizonte. Her father, Pedro Rousseff, was an ex-communist and Bulgarian immigrant.

Ms Rousseff was a member of Brazil's underground resistance during military rule

Though she had aspirations to be a ballerina, these were quickly abandoned in favour of joining the left-wing movement against Brazil's military dictatorship which had seized power in 1964.

In 1970 she was caught and imprisoned for three years. Subjected to torture, including electric shocks, for her role in the underground resistance, she refused to break.

During her trial, she was referred to as the "high priestess of subversion".

Surviving that ordeal, she battled with a second in 2009 when she was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer.

But nothing, it seems, could stand between her and the presidency. In 2010 she underwent a complete makeover including plastic surgery and teeth whitening to win public support.

She failed to get enough votes in the first round to win outright, but went on to beat Jose Serra of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party in the second round with more than 56%.

And this year she fought a hard campaign to win by a tighter margin, taking 51.6% of the vote to Mr Neves' 48.4%.

After a tough fight, she sounded a conciliatory note, saying the first priority in her term in office would be political reform.

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