Dilma, Maria Gabriela, and the legacy issue

The election of Dilma Rousseff as Brazil’s first female President inspires mixed feelings.

On the one hand, the historic nature of her win cannot be underestimated.  In a few months, Rousseff will become one of the world’s most powerful women, leader of the eighth-largest economy in the world, its fourth-largest democracy, a country that has become crucial to its neighbor to the north.

It’s also worth noting that Rousseff follows the term-limited Lula da Silva, who chose not to change his country’s Constitution and run, as many of our hemispheric caudillos have previously done.  Instead of cashing in on his enormous and, let’s not kid ourselves, well-deserved popularity, Lula is exiting … for now.

But is this a graceful exit?  Hardly.

The fact that Lula chose to get out of the way is worth applauding, but the way Rousseff was chosen reminds us of some of our continent’s more unsavory traits.

Rousseff was tapped early on by Lula as his handpicked successor. She did not face a primary inside the Workers’ Party.  The only serious challenger from within the President’s ranks, the remarkable Marina Silva, was effectively kicked out of the party early and came in third place in the first round of voting.

While Rousseff was the clear choice of the majority of Brazilians, her selection as the country’s president has more than a whiff of a “dedazo“, the infamous procedure through which Mexico’s PRI selected its Presidents.  The way Lula personally threw himself into Rousseff’s campaign makes one wonder – is he a democrat, or just another popular caudillo? And what questions does this raise about Brazil’s institutional development?

Moreover, how can we unabashedly claim Rousseff’s victory was an advancement for gender rights in the region when she was clearly handpicked and groomed by a man?

History shows us repeatedly that Latin American politicians’ natural inclination is to focus on their “legacy.”  Whether it’s Nestor Kirchner supporting his wife so the family can hopscotch their way to indefinite re-election (until God says “Ha!”) or changing the Constitution to abolish term limits, our politicians have shown they have a problem with knowing when to leave the stage.

These are key questions for those of us who believe that Latin America cannot overcome poverty if its institutions and its democracies don’t develop as well.  Brazil’s election was not a “dedazo,” but it was also not entirely kosher either

Other countries in the hemisphere have broken free from this trend.  Say what you will about Chile’s opposition Concertación, but during their 20-year tenure, most of their presidents faced primary fights, even when they were the favorites of the establishment.  These contested primaries were healthy for Chile’s parties, and the country is better off for them.  And while Juan Manuel Santos clearly won the Colombian elections by riding the Alvaro Uribe’s coat-tails, the outgoing President did not throw himself in the campaign the way Lula did.

This brings us to Hugo Chávez.  As we know, Chávez abolished term limits so he can rule the country until nature calls.  Part of the reason he felt compelled to do this is Chávez’s own failure in constructing a democratic alternative within his own ranks.

It is clear that Chávez believes no one in his entourage, not even the most rabid of followers, can fill his shoes. This speaks volumes about the lack of quality and loyalty within the President’s ranks, as well as the degree of paranoia the man suffers from.

And yet, deep down, Chávez must now that his time, too, will come, particularly if he continues drinking coffee like it was water.  Has he thought about what will happen to his adored Revolution once the Grim Reaper comes to expropriate him?

There are few signs he has, but the few we have point to a natural successor: his daughter Maria Gabriela.  Whether it’s taking her along on state visits or hinting that he would love to hand over power to a woman, the young Chávez princess is increasingly, yet subtly, taking on a more public role.

In fact, in this extraordinary yet little-known video, Chávez practically spells out that his daughter is next at bat.

In spite of Chávez’s words, this is all highly speculative at this point. After all, it’s hard to find any public statements from the still not-ready-for-a-prime-time-cadena Maria Gabriela.

Still, there is a certain kind of logic to the idea that Chávez, who treats his country like his own fiefdom, would select his own daughter to rule after he is gone.  And didn’t Fidel keep things in the family?

The lengths our local caudillos will go to protect their “legacy” are a disservice to the continent’s democratic aspirations.  Whether it’s the manifestation of egotistical machismo, or simply caused by the need to reward your cronies with a prolonged stay in power, the sacrifice of democratic institutions for the sake of continuing to “win” runs contrary to the region’s best interests.

In the last few days, George W. Bush has come back to the public sphere.  While we’ve never been fans, it’s been refreshing to hear him say that he really does not care about his “legacy” or how historians view him.  His statements that he relishes private life and wants to play no role in politics is kind of refreshing, and it comes across as sincere.  If there is one thing Bush can’t fake, it’s disinterest.

Our Presidents could choose to exit the stage gracefully and strengthen our democracies.  They usually don’t.

Dilma Rousseff’s election is a positive development, but it has the undeniable stench of some of Latin America’s worst traits.  It will be up to her to either continue this trend or choose to institutionalize her nation’s young democracy – by simply bowing down quietly when her time comes.

24 thoughts on “Dilma, Maria Gabriela, and the legacy issue

    • I tried to find one single word and could not come up with a better one. For me ‘спутница’ can have, apart from the meaning “acompañante” in the traveling/action sense, the other connotation, specially left like that. And then the other picture (still not shown because the comment is waiting for approval) looked as if they were kissing, which may have led to choosing that very word and not something like member of the group or the like. Like Gefährtin in German.

      In any case: the other picture (you can see that by clicking there) looks a bit weird.


  1. Hi,

    I usually mostly agree with the commentary in this blog, but I find comparing President Elect Rousseff to Maria Gabriela really preposterous. Please read the NYTimes article on her:

    Among the things that made her a good choice is her education and her command of the energy sector. Lula picks her to be his Minister of Energy and Mines because she had no fear to correct him and make her point. Exactly the opposite of what is going on in Venezuela right now.

    So stop the paternalism and give credit where credit is due,


    • So: she would have won the elections if Lula had not appeared with her 50% of the time and if he had not talked about how much he wants her to be elected and if he had not forced his way in the party to get her elected firstly?

      Just because of her competences as technocrat?


    • Unless you have some extraordinary power and can predict the future, that’s pure speculation. I’m not saying it’s not true, only that you have no way to know for sure that if Lula hadn’t done what he did, she would had lost. It’s not a serious remark.

      And even if it’s true, I still find the comparison a little off. So, she was chosen as party candidate “a dedaso”. But she still had to get where she was, work for it.

      Maria Gabriela didn’t even choose to be Chavez daughter. She is just probably the closest to him, and that’s it.

      I get you point about the legacy issues in Latin America, but you are a little off this time.


    • Kepler is right, she wasn’t doing that great at the beginning basically because most people didn’t know her, Lula took her under his wing and that was it…


    • Yes, let’s complain that they voted in a technocrat and not a charismatic caudillo for a change. Endorsements happen all the time in “civilized” democracies, and they can either help or bring the candidate down. So the Brazilians decided to vote for continuity. Too bad.

      Can’t complain when it rains but also when it doesn’t rain.

      Rousseff is no “arrivista”, she had an established political career before Lula and yes she is not charismatic. If you ask me, she is probably what Brazil needs as an emergent energy powerhouse (former Energy Minister).

      I sit here wishing Venezuela had any similarities to this, but hey I can’t find them.


    • Platy,
      The post is not meant to equate Rousseff and MG Chavez. I meant to highlight the fact that charismatic Presidents in Latin America feel the need to “decide” who their voters should elect, or who gets turn at bat next.

      In fact, if you read the post carefully, you’ll notice that I don’t criticize Rousseff at all. I don’t really have an opinion on her as of yet.

      It’s more about “continuismo” and “caudillismo” – the Brazilian election is the excuse to discuss those topics.

      Hope that clarifies & thanks for the feedback.


    • Juan Cristobal,

      Thanks for the reply. Here is the phrase where the (unconscious?) paternalism cries out to me:
      “Moreover, how can we unabashedly claim Rousseff’s victory was an advancement for gender rights in the region when she was clearly handpicked and groomed by a man?”

      Every candidate (man or woman) is groomed by somebody. Given that the power is male dominated, it is likely to be a man. If you told me that she just appeared out of nowhere (or as a daughter, family member, wife as our friend MG) I’d agree with this statement. But she didn’t.

      We can’t unabashedly claim anything these days, but a technocrat being elected even in the shadow of a charismatic man it’s not a problem and seriously I wish it for ourselves. If this was our problem, we wouldn’t read your blog :-)

      I would have written the article with a contrast between the two things and not with an analogy.


  2. Something about our region’s leaders just doesn’t permit them to leave office calmly and spend their remaining days walking their dog or feeding pigeons in the park. The need for ‘protagonismo’ is just too great and there is an almost obsessive need with ensuring that the family hacienda, which in these cases means the country, is passed down almost as if it were some sort of prized possession. I would say that even though Dilma was practically chosen by dedazo, we have to remember that Brazil is still a developing nation. It really is too much to expect Lula to not ‘appoint’ his succesor. That being said, the fact that Brazil has a development strategy that doesn’t change even when a populist president is elected demonstrates that their political institutions are a lot stronger than the rest of the the region.


  3. You know JC, I did not want to write more about the Brazil thing because there is something fishy in the whole thing, in particular how a not insignificant share of Brazil business has supported quietly her election (I have friends…).

    Sometimes when insomnia strikes me I wonder if the business that supports people like Chavez or Lula are not of the kind that do not like competition, that feel threatened by globalization and who are simply creating new feudal states where knights of yore are replaced by industry and services captains that control concerns too big to be nationalized or really threatened by the state who depends too much on the tax money it gets from them.

    I agree with you, Dilma Roussef election is no advance for women. The elections of Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica or Bachelet were.


  4. JC

    Dilma was lagging behind in the poles until Lula started to energetically promote her.
    What is striking is the degree to which he was successful in doing this in spite of her being a relatively unattractive candidate.

    I think this has something to do with the LA culture of the caudillo where many people think that the’ boss’ probably knows best so they don’t have to figure things out for themselves and might even vote for someone they don’t particularly like.

    In more democratically developed cultures, the endorsement of the top authority figure does not necessarily translate in support for the candidate of his choice.


  5. I am not exactly on the same political wavelength as Lula or Rouseff, but Rouseff seems the most natural, if Lula had to pick a successor to continue policy. She has had a very long career in Brazilian politics too. None of this means that Lula had any right to endorse her so… enthusiastically. But other than this, you cannot say worse for more developed countries and similar situations.

    As for Hugo the First of Venezuela, why am I not surprised, why am I unimpressed?. Hugo has the Kims and the Castros to look up to. And, Revolutionary Socialism as a system is no better or more advanced than Feudalism for all the spit they spend about the Future. The allodium still passes from elder to younger relatives, to be used and abused.

    Hail Maria Gabriela the First, NOT! Hugo might as well end as the Man Who Would be King, rather.


  6. Prosperity comes about where there is at least basic freedom of economic enterprise, a body of “common law” that is not arbitrary but answer to needs, institutions that work predictably, and above all peace and order, internal and external. This helps in establishing foreign and domestic trade and industry.

    Some misname it capitalism, when in reality it is order and basic freedom of the markets. Capitalism is based on the universal exchange-ability of commodities, and of capital, including money; as well as the free use of instruments such as savings and loans (for interest), shares and bonds, which are based on capital.

    Liberal democracy happens to be a consequence of having together the things mentioned above, together with humanism and education. It also happens to be the most powerful underpinning and assurance ever invented by humans for the aforementioned.

    I hope you don’t mean, however, that we should go by way of the Chilean or Brazilian experience. And I hope you begin to realize that Hugo is driving us the other way, to more primitive conditions.


  7. I seriously can’t agree with this artical. In which country does a president with high approval ratings not work with the next candidate for president if the two have good relations. Did he help? Sure, he was popular at the time he stepped down. So what, a party often will carry the same ideas anyway, with a couple of changes that come with the newly elected person.

    You may hate the left due to what Chavez has done, but seriously Lula internally has been good for Brazil over all. He has kept many of the economic policies first put in place by the right, and used the growth Brazil has been experiencing to push social benefits, something I hightly believe in. I cringe when Lula supports Chavez, but if I was a Brazilean my main concern would be Brazil, and in Brazil he has been doing a lot of good from what I’ve read. Wanting it to continue, and seeing an opertunity to perhaps get much of what he has been doing right in a candidate from his party is not a bad thing.

    Also the claims that if he didn’t prop her up she wouldn’t have won is pure conjecture. Sure at the begining of the campaign she wasn’t a known candidate, and as the campaign wore on she became more recognized, but that is what campaigning does anyways. Obama was an unknown initially, and he won after getting a lot of coverage. These same people saying she wouldn’t have won if, would have said the same thing if Obama was proped up by a famous democratic ex president.


  8. Who told you that the State managed or directed investment directly in Korea and Japan?

    They did stimulate. They did intervene. They did regulate. Maybe there was a strong merchantilist/protectionist element in their policies.

    But they did not make the decisions for investors or manufacturers. There was and is private property and it was/is quite well protected. Still, entrepreneurs set up shop and decided what to produce, maybe under very favourable conditions. Not the State. Which was definitely pro-private business.

    In China, a very hobbled freedom of economic enterprise has done wonders coupled with very cheap labor. There was nothing coming out of China, until they began to allow private investment and the use of credit instruments, like those marketed there by firms of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore among others.

    That’s why I used the terms “basic”. Sorry, I should have used incomplete, inchoate, or beginnings of. Anyhow, it shows that a little freedom, like a little of eyes, is way better than none.

    And I agree with you somehow. Liberal democracy might be a consequence of economic freedom, when it becomes complete enough. Incomplete economic freedom, incomplete freedoms otherwise, hobbled, “directed” democracy.

    And I don’t know if the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the United States of America, Sweden, Switzerland in the 19th. century qualify as liberal democracies in your eyes. But they did industrialize then, being quite constitutional in their ways. Though certain things went on that we would disagree with NOW.


  9. I don’t know much about Maria Gabriela, and I don’t care. She would make a better leader than any member of the opposition, bar none. In fact, I think that the village drunk, if he wore a red shirt, would make a better leader than any member of the opposition, bar none.


  10. “Latin American politicians… have shown they have a problem with knowing when to leave the stage.”

    There is one consistent exception to this rule: Mexico. “No re-election” has been a cardinal principle there since the Revolution, and no President has dared to oppose it. The “dedazo” allowed the President to select his successor, but he himself had to go., and they all did.

    It is perhaps worth some investigation to determine how this rule became established and was maintained.


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