BRASÍLIA: Dilma Rousseff survived torture as a guerrilla opposing Brazil’s military dictatorship before rising to become president, but she has plunged from the heights to face an impeachment trial on Thursday.
The last time she faced trial is immortalized in a black and white photograph: the 22-year-old Rousseff with a defiant look on her face as she stood before a military court for belonging to a Marxist underground group.
Few would have believed during those dark days in the 1970s that the young rebel in the photograph would become Brazil’s first female president.
Even fewer would have predicted that less than halfway through her second term she would be back on trial, this time in the Senate.
Brazil’s 68-year-old “Iron Lady” is accused of illegal accounting maneuvers in which her government took unauthorized loans to cover budget holes during her tight re-election race in 2014.
True to her fiery past, Rousseff calls the impeachment a “coup.” After the Senate voted in May to hold an impeachment trial, she promised “to resist to the very end.”
“I have come up against hugely difficult situations in my life, including attacks which took me to the limit physically,” she said. “Nothing knocked me off my stride.”
Rousseff came to power in a 2010 election as the handpicked Workers’ Party candidate to succeed hugely popular Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the left-wing party’s founder.
Whether as Lula’s chief of staff or energy minister, the economist Rousseff had won a reputation for laser-like attention to detail—a talent she is said to have carried over into her own cabinet meetings.
Critics say Rousseff is not a natural politician however. Her brusque manner made her unable to wheel and deal in Brasilia as Lula had done.
But her supporters say that image is unfair.
“People always say about women in power that they’re hard, managerial. But Dilma is a person with a great sense of humor, fun, extremely caring and generous,” said Ieda Akselrud de Seixas, who was jailed with Rousseff in the 1970s.
At Lula’s prompting during her re-election campaign, Rousseff opened up publicly. She once confessed to escaping the presidential palace on the back of a friend’s Harley-Davidson and cruising through the streets of Brasilia incognito.
She is a keen bicycle rider, too, and was frequently photographed doing exercise, even at the height of the current crisis.
Rousseff also tapped into a national obsession with cosmetic surgery, getting her teeth whitened, hair redone and lifting wrinkles from her face.
The relatively fresh look was in contrast to the visible toll exacted during her battle against lymphatic cancer that was first diagnosed in 2009. At one point, she wore a wig to hide hair loss from chemotherapy.
She has since made a complete recovery, doctors say.
Twice married, Rousseff has a daughter, Paula, from a three-decade relationship with her ex-husband, fellow leftist militant Carlos de Araujo.
‘Priestess of subversion’
Born December 14, 1947 to a Brazilian mother and Bulgarian businessman father, Rousseff grew up comfortably middle-class in the southeastern city of Belo Horizonte.
She cut her political teeth as a Marxist militant opposed to the 1964-1985 dictatorship. She was sentenced to prison in 1970 on the grounds that she belonged to a group responsible for murders and bank robberies.
Her exploits during her time in the Revolutionary Armed Vanguard Palmares group remain shrouded in rumor. But most reports agree that she played more of a support role than taking part in violence.
The judge who found her guilty dubbed her the “high priestess of subversion,” journalist Ricardo Amaral wrote in a biography featuring the photo of a bespectacled Rousseff.
She spent nearly three years behind bars, during which she says she was repeatedly tortured, including with electric shocks. Rousseff was released at the end of 1972.
Petrobras: the slippery slope
As chairwoman of oil giant Petrobras from 2003 to 2010, she was at the helm of the country’s biggest corporation—a role that has come back to haunt her.
The courts are probing a massive embezzlement scheme at the company that has implicated Lula and many other senior Workers’ Party members, as well as opponents.
Rousseff herself is being investigated for alleged obstruction of justice. Unlike many of her peers, however, she has not been accused of seeking to enrich herself personally. AFP