Former guerrilla Dilma Rousseff poised to be Brazil’s first woman president

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She’s a former Marxist guerrilla who was jailed and tortured during her country’s long military dictatorship. Now she is poised to be elected the first woman president of the economic powerhouse of Brazil. Dilma Rousseff, 62, is the chosen successor of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is barred from running for a third term and is leaving office with a sky-high approval rating.

Brazilians vote on Sunday and a poll released Thursday suggests Rousseff could avoid a runoff with her top opponent, centrist Jose Serra, and win the presidency outright as the candidate of Lula da Silva’s Workers Party.

Rousseff faces her opponents for a final televised debate Thursday night, where she will continue to cast herself as the torch-bearer of Lula’s popular policies.

Born in Belo Horizonte, capital of Minas Gerais state, Rousseff is the daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant and a teacher. After the military coup of 1964, Rousseff joined one of many underground student resistance groups at the time, where she handled weapons and coordinated resistance activities with comrades under the nom de guerre ‘Stella.’ But she was eventually arrested, imprisoned and tortured. After the regime ended in 1985, Rousseff finished academic work in economics and became a state’s energy secretary, then federal energy secretary under Lula, and then his chief of staff.


The candidate, twice married and twice divorced, and a cancer survivor, worked largely outside the spotlight under her mentor Lula. The current president is credited with igniting Brazil’s economy and capturing both the next World Cup and Summer Olympics for Brazil. Some 20 million Brazilians have been lifted out of poverty during Lula’s presidency with his government’s successful combination of social welfare and free-market programs, Reuters notes.

Brazil, a robust oil producer, is Latin America’s largest economy and the eighth-largest in the world.

If she wins, Rousseff would join a growing roster of women leaders in Latin America. Among them are Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, current and first-elected woman president of Argentina (Isabel Peron served briefly in the 1970s after the death in office of her husband Juan Peron), and Michelle Bachelet, the single-mother pediatrician who survived torture and exile during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and then served as Chile’s first woman president between 2006 and March of this year.

Bachelet left office with high popularity and was recently named head of a new United Nations agency, U.N. Women. In May, Costa Rica welcomed its first woman president, Laura Chinchilla.

Rousseff’s momentum has waned somewhat in the final stretch of the campaign due to a scandal surrounding the chief of staff who replaced her, but polls still show a strong leaning among voters who seek the continuity Rousseff represents.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City