Don't Mess with Dilma
Margolis, Mac, Newsweek
Byline: Mac Margolis
A woman is president in booming, macho Brazil. And she's calling all the shots.
Of the many war stories that Dilma Vana Rousseff tells of her rise from revolutionary to career bureaucrat to president of Brazil, one in particular stands out. It was early in the race to succeed Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and most Brazilians were waking up to the idea of life without their hyperpopular leader, the "father of the poor." One day in a crowded airport a woman and her young daughter tentatively approached Rousseff to get a closer look at the upstart female frontrunner. "Can a woman be president?" the girl--whose name, fittingly, was Vitoria--wanted to know. "She can," Rousseff answered. With that Vitoria thanked Rousseff, raised her chin, and walked off a few inches taller.
Rousseff smiled as she recalled the episode in an interview with Newsweek at Brasilia's presidential palace. It was close to 6 p.m. and the fierce sun over the Brazilian central plateau was already dimming, but Rousseff's day was far from done. Flash floods in the south had left thousands homeless. Construction work for the soccer World Cup, which Brazil will host in 2014, was lagging. The press was still feasting on the carcass of corruption scandals and a cabinet flap that had cost her five ministers in less than nine months. And yet Rousseff, in a fuchsia jacket, black slacks, and oversize pearl drop earrings, looked unflustered as she spoke about Brazil, the world economy, poverty, and corruption. Her hair was thick and lustrous, her cheeks flush, with no trace of the grinding sessions of chemotherapy she underwent to treat a lymphoma she discovered in 2009. For nearly an hour she held forth, firing off data points and toggling easily from job creation ("We've generated 1,593,527 in the first six months") to T. S. Eliot ("Ash Wednesday" is a favorite) to how women can rewrite the rules of political engagement. "When I was little I wanted to be a ballerina or a firefighter, full stop," she said. "I don't know if it's a new world, but the world is changing. For a girl even to ask about being president is a sign of progress."
For those still in doubt, the U.N. General Assembly that convenes in New York this week is a portrait of a new world order. Hillary Clinton will be there, and so will Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, whose word may ultimately determine the fate of the stricken European Union. More remarkably, perhaps, four of the 20 women heads of state today (12 of whom are expected at the Assembly) hail from the Americas; the others are Argentina's Cristina Kirchner, Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, and Kamla Persad-Bissessar of Trinidad and Tobago. And on Sept. 21, when Rousseff takes the podium, she will be the first woman to deliver the opening address to this global sea of suits since the U.N. was founded.
Rousseff's rise jibes with Brazil's. Once a chronic underachiever, Brazil is on a roll. Last year the economy grew by 7.5 percent, twice the world average, and it will post a respectable 3 to 3.5 percent in bearish 2011. It's telling that while the richest nations are scrambling to avoid a double-dip recession, Brazil is trying to cool its scorching economy. Its currency is stable; its justice system--while flawed and plodding--functions; and its media are among the scrappiest in the hemisphere.
With the richest nations stalled and the Arab world in revolt, this booming, democratic nation is breaking its hemispheric bounds. Last week Brazil even floated the idea of joining a euro-zone bailout. "We need to study a way for emerging nations with greater firepower to help Europe," said Rousseff's finance minister, Guido Mantega, who will meet with fellow officials of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) at the annual IMF-World Bank gathering in Washington this week. "In 2008, we helped raise the IMF's funding capacity from $250 billion to $1 trillion. We can do something like this today. …