The fall of Brazil’s first female president was a misogynist sham

Dilma Rousseff, April 15, 2016
Dilma Rousseff, April 15, 2016

Let’s get the preamble out of the way: the impeachment process against Brazil’s first female President, Dilma Rousseff, was political theater intended to cover up the incompetence of the conservative opposition. Accused of budget fraud by the opposition, many political analysts argue that Rousseff’s impeachment was a sham, aimed at preventing the Worker’s Party from winning the election a fifth time. I would add that it was a misogynist sham that laid bare the deep prejudice women face both in and out of politics.

Brazilian professor Igor Fuser dismissed the alleged pretenses of the impeachment, explaining:

“Dilma is not accused of stealing a single penny… Rousseff simply put money from the Caixa Economica Federal in some social programs to adjust the budget then returned the money the following year — considered a routine process by all levels of government.”

Fuser adds, “There was no personal benefit and not even her worst enemies have managed to accuse her of any sort of corruption.”

The official stance taken by the Chamber of Deputies was that, by transferring money from one state institution to another (and returning it the next year), the President had committed a breach in budget law. It’s a strange accusation given that presidents not only in Brazil’s past but around the world do this often… Noam Chomsky explains, “She’s being charged with manipulations in the budget, which are pretty standard in many countries — taking from one pocket and putting it into another.”

In Rousseff’s case, though, the act was treated as a clear indicator of her political wickedness. Ironically, many of those who accused her are themselves under investigation for all manner of things, ranging from bribes to attempted murder. No matter, she was to be deposed.

Rousseff is actually the lone politician in high-level politics in Brazil who has never been personally implicated in corruption. Out of the 594 members of Congress, 352 face accusations of criminal wrongdoing, and of the 65 members of Congress who investigated the impeachment process, 37 (more than half) were being investigated themselves for corruption. By getting rid of the President, their own investigations become null, according to Fuser.

Nonetheless, Rousseff’s enemies in the opposition and Congress (led by the center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) apparently loathe her so much they are willing to forgo the will of over 54 million people in order to oust her. Fuser calls this impeachment process a coup:

“The president can only be separated from power if it is demonstrated that she has committed a crime — the crime never happened, so much so that until now her name has never been featured in any of the investigations of corruption. Because there is no trace of suspicion against her.”

The fear, according to Brazilian Marxist economist Alfredo Saad Filho, was that Rousseff’s 2010 win meant the fourth consecutive election of a President affiliated with the center-left PT (Workers’ Party). This was bad news for the opposition, in part because it suggested that PT founder Luís Inácio Lula da Silva — the most popular leader in Brazilian history — could return in 2018, meaning that the Conservative opposition could be out of federal office for a generation. They immediately rejected Rousseff’s victory. While no credible complaints could be made, the Conservatives resolved to overthrow Rousseff by any means necessary.

A political coup in the most powerful country in Latin America and the Caribbean deserves deep contemplation from the standpoint of international relations. However, while economics and politics may be at the center of the coup, the process was also undeniably marked by sexism.

An Al Jazeera headline asks, “Did Dilma Rousseff’s ‘arrogance’ precede her fall?” But what, exactly, makes  Rousseff “arrogant?” The fact that she didn’t hesitate to oust eight of her own ministers after they became embroiled in corruption scandals? One anonymous “ally” claims, “She was stubborn to a fault. She was harsh and often arrogant.” Rousseff’s former Justice Minister and Attorney, Jose Eduardo Cardozo, said, “Being a bad president, in a presidential system, this is not an impeachable offense.” He added, “But apparently, it was, if not according to the Constitution, at least in practice.” These comments leave the reader with an impression that the political and economic kerfuffle outlined above is not the crux of the impeachment, but rather that it was a result of Dilma’s faulty leadership. The implication is that maybe this woman was just really bad at her job…

We know that men and women are judged differently in performance reviews. Kieran Snyder calls this “the abrasiveness trap,” explaining that criticism of men in the workplace tends to be constructive while the feedback women receive is often both negative and personal. And what is politics if not an endless stream of performance reviews? When it was time to pass judgement on Dilma, as she is known in Brazil, the trend stayed true: Most media were quick to boil down this political scheme as simply the result of female incompetence.

Saturday Night Live turned her into a literal (and xenophobic) joke during an episode that aired on May 21st. The Dilma that SNL’s US audience laughed at had nothing in common with the real one. Whereas Dilma is stoic and composed — almost preternaturally calm considering the circumstances — SNL turned her into a mix of all the stereotypes too many people have about people from Latin America. They mocked her name and its Portuguese pronunciation (“It’s like your tongue is mad at the rest of your mouth”). She (inexplicably) had a Cuban cigar in one hand and a caipirinha on the other. She was presented as shameless, sexualized, and lazy — an utter charlatan who couldn’t care less that her country’s democracy was falling apart. When fake Dilma is asked if she is upset by instability in her country, she responds, “For me is no problem. I go to the beach, I make relax. I drink caipirinha and enjoy feijoada.”

My blood boiled when I saw the way that the US media was portraying and representing not only a remarkable woman, but the crumbling of democracy in one of the strongest pillars in Latin America. “This is how they laugh at us — this is how we become their punching bag,” I thought.

The Guardian got in on the joke, as Jonathan Watts argued that Dilma’s stubbornness and secrecy made her “ill-equipped to stop the trouble that was brewing”…As if someone with the right kind of personality could have stopped this massive neoliberal coup. In the same piece she is also described as awkward, inflexible, a terrible communicator, “bereft of charm,” and a little bit stupid, too. Watts doesn’t say “stupid” outright, but quotes Apolo Lisboa, former comrade of Dilma, saying, “She does not understand the new world that has rapidly emerged as a result of globalization and technological development.” Somehow, a woman who has been involved in high-stakes political activism since her teens and became president after studying economics in Grad School just doesn’t really understand how globalization works! Brian Winter at the Financial Review also thinks Dilma may just be dumb. Winter names “her inability to understand the gravity of the problem she was in” as a cause for her downfall. He also helpfully takes the time to remind the reader of Dilma’s alleged plastic surgery and rumours that she had to have a makeover before her first election. Winter’s analysis was also featured in The Independent, where he points to “her blustery arrogance” and the fact that (according to him) “she had no friends in Congress or elsewhere.”

Winter asks, “Why did she do it? Why did Rousseff stand by as her government fell apart?”

He answers himself:

“The answer probably lies in the simplest, most damning criticism of Rousseff: she just wasn’t that good. Mediocre to the end and overwhelmed by a position she was never qualified to hold, she consistently failed to ask the right questions of her aides or her party.”

If there is a performance review that falls into “the abrasiveness trap” more perfectly, I’ve yet to see it.

It wasn’t only the foreign media who jumped on board with this sexist treatment, of course. As the impeachment process gathered steam, the opposition members of Congress incessantly taunted Dilma by chanting “Tchau, querida!” — an insult that loosely translates to “Goodbye, darling!” — something that carries a decidedly sexist connotation coming from the overwhelmingly male Congress and directed at their first female president.

A porn video was released based on the impeachment process, too. The image previewing the video shows a woman wearing a barely there red ensemble (the colour of Dilma’s Worker’s Party), displaying her butt and crotch to the camera. The man standing next to her with a wad of money coming out of his pockets remains, unsurprisingly, fully clothed in a suit.

Congressman Jean Willis, who specializes in gender and sexuality issues, says the men in Congress have no respect for Dilma, specifically because she is a woman. “They can’t admit that a woman has power,” Willis explains. He says it’s not uncommon to hear fellow Congressmen say outright, “Dilma Rousseff is incompetent because she is a woman.” People asking for her impeachment deny having any gender prejudice because she’s already made history as the first female president in Brazil. Yes, what more could she want? To govern for her entire term like male Presidents, perhaps?

Brazilian magazine IstoE went so far as to portray Dilma as being utterly deranged. Under the headline, “The Nervous Explosions Of The President,” Dilma is presented as emotionally unhinged — a woman who “loses control and [is] completely out of her senses.” Sérgio Pardellas and Débora Bergamasco write, “Dilma breaks furniture at the Palace, yells at subordinates, insults authorities, attacks [them] and loses the emotional temperament to lead the country.”

When Dilma read this, she countered:

“They say the following: women under pressure must be hysteric, nervous, and unbalanced. They can’t stand the fact that I’m neither nervous, hysteric, nor unbalanced.”

During the impeachment process, Dilma’s detractors mocked her face and body. They printed countless stickers featuring a vile, pornographic image of Dilma — legs spread — to be pasted over the gasoline entry point of cars. Imagine knowing that countless cars are driving around with that sticker of you… She was dehumanized thoroughly.

Why such hatred? Dilma answers bluntly in an interview with The New York Times, saying, “I really disturb the parasites, and I’ll keep on disturbing them.” On a separate occasion she told the same newspaper, “They think that because I am a woman, I must be fragile. But I am not. That has not been my life story.”

Dilma Rousseff's mugshot
Dilma Rousseff’s mugshot, 1969.

Indeed, her life story is extraordinary. This is a woman who became politically active early on, working as a Marxist militant, advocating for radical change during a time of repression in Brazil at only 16 years old. Dilma says of her guerrilla activism:

“We fought and participated in a dream to build a better Brazil, we learned a lot. We did a lot of nonsense, but that is not what characterizes us. What characterizes us is to have dared to want a better country.”

She was imprisoned at 22 and tortured for three years by the authoritarian military regime. Under interrogation, she was subjected to electric shocks and sessions of “pau de arara” (suspension from a rod by the hands and feet), “something people can’t take for too long,” Dilma says. Her jaw was dislocated, which she says still causes her problems. Military men threatened her regularly with the possibility of disfiguring her and she was subjected to mock-firing squads. Former female prisoners have said that rape was also common during the regime.

Dilma is a woman who was described in her youth as the “Guerrilla Joan of Arc,” “the she-pope of subversion,” a “political criminal,” a “female figure of sadly notable aspect,” and “the priestess of subversion.”

The last time Dilma Rousseff spoke to Congress as President before being formally deposed she said, “I may have many defects, but cowardice is not one of them.” And therein lies her most intransigent fault: patriarchy hates brave women.

If Dilma must be blamed personally, when history asks what took down Brazilian’s first female president, I hope they say it was her bravery.

Raquel Rosario Sanchez

Raquel Rosario Sanchez is a writer from the Dominican Republic. Her utmost priority in her work and as a feminist is to end violence against girls and women. Her work has appeared in several print and digital publications both in English and Spanish, including: Feminist Current, El Grillo, La Replica, Tribuna Feminista, El Caribe and La Marea. You can follow her @8rosariosanchez where she rambles about feminism, politics, and poetry.