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Brazil's Rousseff: Continuity and Tests

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
November 1, 2010

Brazil's Rousseff: Continuity and Tests - brazils-rousseff-continuity-and-tests


In a runoff election against São Paulo governor Jose Serra, Brazilian voters on Sunday elected Dilma Rousseff as their next president. Rousseff won with 56 percent of the vote to Serra's 44 percent, appearing to have taken slightly more than Serra of the 19 percent of votes that Green Party candidate Marina Silva won in the first round in early October.

When she is inaugurated on January 1, 2011, Rousseff, an energy minister and chief of staff in President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's cabinet, will be the first woman president in Brazil. In the 1970s, Rousseff spent three years in the guerrilla underground, and another three jailed and tortured. Three decades later, she takes up the presidency of a Brazil that has gone from an unstable debtor nation to a successful democracy, thriving economy, and a global player.

Rousseff's victory represents an endorsement of the signature achievements of Lula's two terms in office: job creation and government social programs that have moved nearly thirty million people into the lower-middle class. It also reflects the personal involvement of Lula--in designating his successor and transferring his popularity and track record to her. The political and electoral machinery of the PT, or Workers Party, mobilized successfully on her behalf, delivering national as well as regional and congressional seats. The PT and its allies will hold 402 out of 503 seats in the lower house and as many as 60 of 81 Senate seats.

The Rousseff presidency will likely continue the domestic and international agenda set by the Lula administration. (For more on this, read the recent Foreign Affairs article, "A New Global Player: Brazil's Far-Flung Agenda.") On the domestic front, social inclusion is front and center. Improving education--now universal but woefully inadequate in quality--reducing poverty and inequality, and improving infrastructure are at the top of the agenda. Expect the macroeconomic policies of Lula and his predecessor Fernando Henrique Cardoso to continue, as there is a solid consensus across the Brazilian political spectrum that they are responsible for Brazil's growth and stability. Financing and developing the new oil finds off the southern coast may well be among her signature tasks on the energy front. On the international stage, look for Rousseff to deepen Brazil's regional commercial dominance and diplomacy, continue if not expand Brazil's presence in Africa, and play a major role in the G20 on climate change and in other multilateral settings. Watch Brazil's relationship with the United States and China. Crafting a strategy for these two countries looms large on Brasilia's foreign policy agenda for different reasons--a distracted White House in the first case, and the centrality and competition that Beijing represents to the Brazilian economy, in the second.

Although the recent flap over Iran has left a sour taste in U.S.-Brazilian relations, there is a huge agenda of bilateral and global issues that both countries are at only the early stages of addressing. Rousseff's presidency, albeit likely to be staffed by a number of the same foreign policy actors as that of Lula, offers a chance at a fresh start. One caveat--the GOP majority in the U.S. House will give the leadership on foreign affairs to individuals who may be looking for a fight over some ideological hot buttons--and that could mean raising the temperature over Brazil's commercial and diplomatic relations with Cuba and Venezuela, or Iran and the Middle East, precisely when the administration has the chance to undertake a new approach to Brazil.

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