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A Love Letter to Dilma Rousseff

“I once saw a photograph of Dilma Rousseff at age 22,” wrote Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the first female President of Argentina, in an article to Time magazine. “She was standing in front of a 1969 military tribunal made up of judges hiding their faces with their hands. She exudes defiance. The roles appeared to be reversed: it was Dilma who was indicting, not only the military, but an establishment complicit in the injustice of excluding the majority from power during the two-decade rule of the generals.”At 22, Rousseff’s dark hair was already rocking her classic pixie-cut. And with her thick lenses framing her eyes, she might otherwise appear to have been an unlikely heroine – if not for that same stubborn defiance being reflected in every inch of her expression, making her lovely. The photograph is a famous one. You would think the judges might seem happier at having finally caught “the Joan of Arc of the guerrilla movement,” as she was known by military prosecutors for her integral role in the armed revolutionary struggle of several groups against Brazil’s military dictatorship. Yet those judges were hiding while Rousseff held her head at an obstinate tilt, faced her indictment photo dead-on, and went to jail, where she was brutally tortured there for her devotion to the cause. “We fought and participated in a dream to build a better Brazil,” she has said. Fast forward nearly forty years, and Brazil has come a long way toward that dream, in large part because “…The woman I got to know in 2003,” writes Fernandez de Kirchner, “…possesses the same commitment as the girl in that picture.” There are countless reasons to love Dilma Rousseff, 65, and not just because she’s the first female President of the world’s sixth-largest economy, and arguably the most powerful woman in the world. Although, no lie, that is a pretty big one. Few of us could have faced the things she has and come out with those results, rather than being cowed by a dangerous regime. They forbade her from engaging in political activity after her release from prison, and expressly closed many doors to her. But we love her because she fought that opression by lying in wait for her political moment and seizing it when it came. When the dictatorship lost its grip on Brazil, she became active in one of the few opposing partisan groups, working her way up over the years to the senior levels of government. We love her because, in a political arena dominated by men, from which she had previously been barred, and with all eyes on Brazil as one of the world’s emerging great powers, she rose to Presidency and has stood her ground on her convictions and has made a commitment to gender equality which has led to a record number of women in high-profile positions of power and one-third of Brazil’s Cabinet being comprised of women. We love her because she’s done it all with the same iron-will that refused to be cowed by the judges at that military tribunal. This ladies, is what you might call “the ultimate alpha female” . Not convinced? Here are a few more reasons to love her:
She’s always the brains and fuel behind the operation “[Former President] Lula realized that she kept things moving.” – Franklin Martins, guerrilla fighter-turned-minister.

Though she has since tried to deny it, there are a number of reports from her past guerrilla days which cite her as one of the masterminds behind several revolutionary schemes conducted by the Marxist rebel groups who took on the dictatorship. She was one of the most wanted fugitives in Brazil as early as 1967 and her eventual capture three years later was seen as a triumph for the military regime. Rousseff is far from ashamed of her radical past but insists her role was mainly political and organizational.

Her radical stance has mellowed since her youth but those experiences were something that served her well later in life when she began climbing through the ranks of government and holding powerful offices. Her intelligence, managerial skills, and courage in facing difficult situations when they arose caught the attention of then-president Lula as early as 2002. Once he appointed her to be his Chief of Staff she became his protégé and her own presidential campaign started from there.

She always makes the choice to fight, rather than surrender “I voted for Dilma because she is a fighter. What we need is a fighter in the presidency to continue…Lula’s efforts.” – Estevam Sanches, pizza-parlour owner in Sao Paulo.

She did not have to entangle herself in a war against Brazil’s military regime. She could have kept her head down. Rousseff was born to a position of relative privilege in the upper-middle class of Belo Horizonte, the city in which she grew up. Her childhood dreams ranged from being a ballerina, to being a trapeze artist, and somehow guerrilla warfare didn’t make the list. She was in high school when she truly became aware that the “world was not a place for debutantes.”

The political situation in Brazil was getting worse at this time: the military’s generals seized power in a political coup and declared a reign of terror during which they suspended the civil rights of the people. It’s easier to stay out of conflict when it doesn’t directly affect you. Many would argue that it’s smarter too. But Rousseff couldn’t.

Not even when she spent three years as a political prisoner being tortured for information on the whereabouts of her fellow activists. “They gave me a lot of electrical shocks,” Rousseff has said. “I began to hemorrhage, but I withstood. I wouldn’t even tell them where I lived.” Her silence was not for nothing – at the time the “mysterious” disappearances of subversives was almost commonplace.

She paves the way for powerful women to succeed her “Given a choice between a man and a woman with the same qualifications, she prefers to hire the woman.” – Gilberto Carvalho, head of the presidential office.

Rousseff makes a point of appointing women to powerful positions within her office. Her advisory circle is, with one exception, comprised entirely of women. Previously, the political parties were always claiming they couldn’t find enough qualified women.  Now “[women] are strong in government, and we have the president to thank for that,” says Marta Suplicy, the vice president of the Senate.

She’s a Power Mom “What is important about my being President is that now all girls can aspire to be President, and it will be seen as completely normal.” – Dilma Rousseff

Rousseff was listed at number two on Forbes’ list of “The World’s Most Powerful Moms 2012”. A mother for decades and a relatively recent grandmother, she has faced her share of personal problems as well, not the least of which being her recent divorce from her husband of nearly 30 years, Carlos de Araujo. Their only child, Paula Rousseff Araujo, currently holds office in Porto Alegre as the Labor Prosecutor.

Paula could have few finer examples.

Amy Kisaka

Amy Kisaka, a graduate from the University of Toronto, is a writer for Goddess Connections’ publication Women Who Run It. She has an intense love for literature, creative writing, social media, and graphic design, and can generally be found writing about anything and everything that grabs her interest in the world around her: politics, lifestyle, film, fashion, and international culture.