President Dilma Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla once imprisoned and tortured by Brazil’s military regime, upheld her reputation for toughness in a hard-fought campaign that won her a new term Sunday.
Rousseff, Brazil’s first woman president, won a second four-year term in a tight run-off election against business-world favorite Aecio Neves.
Rousseff, 66, is known as a no-nonsense manager with a commanding grasp of even the smallest policy details who upbraids her ministers in public when they fall short of her standards.
She showed her fighting spirit in her re-election campaign, attacking Neves aggressively and battling back from behind in the opinion polls.
An economist by training, she developed her image for tough efficiency as chief of staff to former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who picked her to succeed him after presiding over eight years of prosperity and landmark gains against poverty.
But Rousseff, who lacks the natural charisma of her predecessor and mentor, had to battle voters’ frustration over a recession, corruption scandals and poor public services to secure a second term.
Under Lula’s tutelage, she developed a warmer campaign style in the buildup to the elections.
Opening up to journalists and voters, she discussed her leisure activities — she loves “Game of Thrones” and books, saying “I can’t sleep without reading” — and even confessed to once escaping the presidential palace on the back of a friend’s Harley-Davidson, cruising through the streets of Brasilia unnoticed.
“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.
Rousseff also began alluding more frequently to her imprisonment under the military regime, a topic she once shunned.
When opponents jeered her during the opening ceremony of the World Cup in June, she responded by saying: “I have come up against hugely difficult situations in my life, including attacks which took me to the limit physically.
“Nothing knocked me out of my stride.”
– ‘Something different’ –
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 developed her political spine as a Marxist militant opposed to the 1964-1985 dictatorship.
She was arrested in January 1970 and sentenced to prison for belonging to a violent underground group responsible for murders and bank robberies.
The judge who found her guilty dubbed her the “high priestess of subversion,” journalist Ricardo Amaral wrote in a biography.
The book shows a bespectacled Rousseff aged 22 staring defiantly at her military judges.
After nearly three years behind bars, during which she said she was tortured by electric shock, Rousseff was released at the end of 1972.
She resumed her political path, helping found the Democratic Labor Party (PDT) in 1979 and eventually switching to Lula’s Workers’ Party in 2000.
When Lula took office in 2003, he named Rousseff his energy minister and then, in 2005, his cabinet chief.
“She came here with her little computer,” Lula said after appointing Rousseff to her first cabinet post in 2003. “She started to talk and I felt something different in her.”
To bring her out of his shadow and into the spotlight ahead of the 2010 campaign, Lula made sure she was by his side when he cut ribbons on big public works projects.
To smooth her somewhat lumbering image, Rousseff underwent a makeover, whitening her teeth, redoing her hair, ditching glasses for contacts and having wrinkles removed from her brow.
The effect made her look much younger than the year before, when she was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer and endured chemotherapy that forced her to cover up hair loss with a wig.
The cancer is now in complete remission, doctors say.
Twice married, Rousseff has a daughter, Paula, from a 30-year relationship with ex-husband and fellow leftist militant Carlos de Araujo.