Rousseff Names ‘Amazons’ to Mend Ties With Brazil Allies

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Photographer: Evaristo SA/AFP/Getty Images

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who promised in her campaign to fight discrimination against women, promoted last week two women to key political posts as she seeks to mend relations with her congressional allies in the wake of a scandal that toppled her closest aide.

Rousseff, who was elected Brazil’s first woman president last year, named June 10 Fisheries Minister Ideli Salvatti to become institutional affair minister in charge of relations with Congress. Earlier in the week she named Senator Gleisi Hoffmann her cabinet chief, replacing Antonio Palocci, who resigned amid allegations he used his position to enrich himself.

Rousseff is looking to surround herself with “aggressive” negotiators like herself to discipline an unruly coalition in Congress, Merval Pereira, a columnist for O Globo newspaper in Rio de Janeiro, wrote June 10. He called the new appointees, who will be tasked with helping her government recover from the Palocci scandal and advance its legislative agenda, the Workers’ Party’s “amazons” in reference to the race of female warriors in Greek mythology.

“It shouldn’t cause surprise the fact that women are appointed to powerful, decision-making positions,” Iriny Lopes, Brazil’s special secretariat for women’s policies, said in an e-mailed interview. “Women also have the competence to take over key positions and this is in line with the message of the president’s inauguration speech: yes, women can.”

At the swearing-in ceremony for the new appointees, Rousseff said it’s time for her ministers and political allies to “roll up our sleeves” and accomplish the government’s agenda.

Unruly Coalition

Rousseff, 63, failed to rally support in Congress behind Palocci after Folha de S. Paulo newspaper reported three weeks ago that he made 20 million reais ($12 million) last year as a financial consultant while managing her campaign. The opposition and members of her party, known as the PT, were pressing for a congressional probe of his surge in income to see whether he was selling access to the government.

The fall of Palocci highlighted the president’s vulnerability to political pressure from members of her coalition, said Christopher Garman, a director for Latin America at Eurasia Group, a Washington-based political risk group.

“It exposed the extent to which the government’s congressional base had accumulated tremendous discontent with Rousseff,” Garman said in a telephone interview from Washington. “Rousseff’s appointment of Gleisi and Ideli sends a clear message that while she was forced to give up her top political adviser, she won’t bow to Congress’s demands easily.”

Approval Rating

Rousseff’s approval rating rose following the resignation of her chief of staff, Folha de S.Paulo reported, citing a Datafolha poll.

The poll, published yesterday by the Sao Paulo-based newspaper, shows that 49 percent of the 2,188 people interviewed consider Rousseff’s administration good or excellent, up from 47 percent in March. The poll, taken June 9-10, has a two percentage point margin of error, Folha said.

Rousseff dedicated her victory last year to Brazilian women, and since taking office in January has named 10 of them to 38 cabinet-level posts. That’s double the five female ministers her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, named during his eight years in power.

“I want to state my first commitment after the elections: to honor Brazil’s women so that today’s unprecedented result becomes a normal event,” Rousseff said in her victory speech after being elected Oct. 31. “I would very much like that parents look into their daughters’ eyes and say, yes women can.”

Unlike Palocci, who served as Lula’s finance minister from 2003 to 2006 and was a close friend of the former president, Rousseff’s appointees are newcomers to the presidential inner circle.

Hoffmann, Salvatti

Hoffmann, 45, was a first-time Senator from the southern state of Parana and better known as the wife to Paulo Bernardo, who was transferred from budget minister to communications minister when Lula handed power to Rousseff.

As Cabinet chief, Hoffmann will supervise marquee government programs to reduce poverty, coordinate work among ministries and help Brazil prepare to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.

“Hoffmann has nothing to do with Lula. Her loyalty is completely to Dilma,” said Senator Pedro Simon, from the PMDB, the biggest member of Rousseff’s coalition in Congress.

Salvatti, who will replace Luiz Sergio Oliveira, previously served as a lower house lawmaker and then senator from Santa Catarina state in Brazil’s south. After losing a gubernatorial bid in her home state last year, the 59-year-old was named fisheries minister by Rousseff.

Coalition Parties

In her new role, Salvatti will be in charge of coordinating Rousseff’s relations with members of Congress, where the PT lacks a majority and requires the support of the PMDB and other coalition parties to pass legislation.

“Dilma is forming a female soccer team, with her on top of a winning and competent group of players,” said Jilmar Tatto, a deputy leader in the lower house for the PT. “She’s Pele with a skirt,” said Tatto, referring to the Brazilian soccer legend.

While neither of Rousseff’s new aides is a “shrinking violet,” they need to be tough to overcome Brazilians’ prejudice against powerful women in politics, said Rafael Cortez, a political analyst at Sao Paulo-based Tendencias Consultoria.

“All successful women in politics carry this reputation,” said Cortez in a phone interview. “Politics in Brazil is still mainly dominated by men, and full of prejudice, so women need to impose their will and be tough in negotiations.”

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