What could Obama learn from Brazil president Dilma Rousseff?

McClatchy NewspapersApril 8, 2012 

SAO PAULO, Brazil — Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff might not get a formal state visit or even Washington's attention for a full day when she meets President Barack Obama on Monday, but she brings at least one thing the U.S. leader should heed — a 77 percent approval rating and respect from critics.

Brazilian voters and observers say that is largely due to her handling of the economy, her efforts to start tackling corruption, and in showing independence in a country notoriously difficult to govern.

Sao Paulo resident Marco Ribas, 34, has taken notice. He voted for her opponent in 2010 and in 2006 the challenger to then-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. He dislikes their political party, the Workers Party, called PT in Portuguese.

But Ribas says that, "today I would vote for her" in part due to her low tolerance for corruption.

In just her first year, Rousseff sacked six ministers involved in influence-peddling allegations. And in replacing them, she butted heads with her own coalition in Congress accustomed to great influence over the executive branch's composition.

This is because she "made decisions that were technical and not political" says Ribas.

When Rousseff was elected in October 2010, some worried that the former president, known as Lula, might control her. She was the chief of staff and energy minister to the highly popular former president.

And she only became his anointed candidate after better-known politicians became tainted by corruption scandals.

Silva campaigned by her side in the 2010 election, one reason that many Brazilians voted for her.

At that time, Sao Paulo resident Rogerio de Oliveira, 37, voted for Rousseff's opponent in part because he feared she would be "manipulated by Lula and be his puppet."

Today he is impressed. "She is her own leader and has her own leadership style," he said. He might even consider voting for her.

In a recent Ibope poll, conducted last month, 77 percent of Brazilians approved of Rousseff, and 56 percent rated her government as good or excellent, even higher than Silva or his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, at the same points in their terms. The two former leaders are considered the keys to Brazil's rise.

The poll cited Rousseff's handling of unemployment, poverty and hunger as the main reasons for her approval.

Her focus on the economy in her first year has made a difference to Ribas. Last year, he left a comfortable senior manager position at Accenture where he had been for eight years to launch an internet start-up company, Sambapix.

While at the time, the European and U.S. financial crises were in full-swing, he was undaunted, saying that, "we can be pretty sure that the government will preserve the fundamentals of the economy."

While Rousseff's focus has been on the country's economy, her foreign policy is mostly a continuation of Silva's.

There are some stylistic differences — she prefers the country's diplomats to be more technically-oriented and is less tolerant of lofty but empty rhetoric about Brazil's role in the world.

And even those of her positions that continue to irk Washington and the old-school U.S. foreign policy establishment are largely in sync with Brazilians' views, and so are not seen here as unnecessarily provocative.

For example, she strongly backed the Palestinian effort last fall to be recognized as a state by the United Nations.

In Brazil this drew little criticism. Former Brazilian diplomats and the country's private media that lambasted Silva for his efforts to draw closer to Iran stayed conspicuously quiet, with several supporting Rousseff.

Following her speech to open the U.N. General Assembly last fall, the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, a fierce critic of Silva's outreach to Iran, wrote in a lead editorial that Rousseff had taken the "correct position."

She also continues to push for a greater role for developing countries, even more so now that wealthy countries are a main source of financial crises. But one key characteristic is that Rousseff does not view the United States as an adversary.

As part of Silva's administration, she became well-known to Washington. As the Brazilian head of the U.S.-Brazil CEO Forum she interacted with and won respect from officials such as Carlos Gutierrez, former president George W. Bush's Secretary of Commerce, along with Larry Summers and Gary Locke, both of whom have worked in the Obama administration.

Her concerns with the United States are mostly issues she thinks directly impact Brazil's economy.

Peter Hakim, president-emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank, and a long-time Brazil observer, said at a seminar last week in Washington that, "Lula liked to poke the U.S. in the eye. Dilma (Rousseff) will poke the U.S. in the eye only if it has some purpose. It won't be gratuitous."

Brazilian exports of manufactured and value-added products to the United States have fallen in recent years. It's a key market for a country still largely dependent on exporting commodities and where the industrial sector is taking a beating.

Rousseff also argues that low interest rates in United States as well as Europe make Brazil a dumping ground for speculative foreign capital, driving up the value of its currency.

In a recent interview with the magazine Veja, she said, "Brazil is in a situation today where we can tell wealthy countries that we don't want their money."

She added, "Brazil does not want to be seen anymore as a destination of speculative capital or only a market of consumers of products that they (wealthy nations) export. ... We want foreign investment that is productive."

Yet Brazil faces many local problems.

The country has been slow to upgrade its dilapidated infrastructure, leading to public criticism last month from FIFA, the international soccer organization in charge of the World Cup, which Brazil is to host in 2014.

Bureaucracy and high taxes remain a big deterrent to business, though Rousseff has begun to address that.

And while wages skyrocket here, they are not being accompanied by a similar increase in workers' productivity, according to many economists.

As to making Brazil more competitive and business friendly, Marco Ribas says that, "I really don't see any changes in that area."

This is one way many, including Ribas and Oliveira, will ultimately judge Rousseff.

"We are very lucky to be in the position in the world that we are today," Ribas said. "But if we don't use this moment to really change the shape of our economy, we will be this incredible disappointment and huge opportunity lost."

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