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50 People Who Matter 2011 | 21. Dilma Rousseff

Latin primer.

Succeeding the most popular Brazilian leader in history was never going to be easy, though Dilma Rousseff's victory was due in no small part to the endorsement of her immediate predecessor, Luiz Inácio da Silva (Lula). Although her victory wasn't the landslide expected, she was elected president of Brazil in October 2010 with 56 per cent of the vote, and took power in January this year.

Rousseff's background bears little resemblance to the rags-to-riches tale of her mentor. After a comfortable middle-class upbringing, she was jailed for two years in the 1970s for her involvement with Brazil's left-wing urban guerrilla movement. She was allegedly tortured during this time. However, she has since adopted a more pragmatic and capitalist approach, and her pledge to continue Lula's economic policies was a greater factor in her victory than her guerrilla past.

One of the biggest challenges for Rousseff was always going to be emerging from under Lula's wing to govern for herself. Her detractors even accuse her of merely keeping Lula's seat warm until 2014, when he will be able to run for a third term.

Yet, in her first months in power, Rousseff has begun to carve out her own style. Her victory speech highlighted the importance of a free press, assailed by Lula in his final year in government, and she has emphasised her commitment to human rights. Rousseff, commonly referred to in Brazil by her first name, has taken a step back from her government's friendship with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime in Iran. She has also expressed an interest in developing a closer dialogue with the US, in contrast to Lula's public attacks on Washington, DC. This suggests a more centrist international policy.

Running Latin America's largest economy is no easy task, and her greatest challenge is to rein in public spending - not a popular move among members of her Workers' Party or the other groups in her coalition. Even though she faces a rebellious National Congress, Rousseff believes it is necessary to continue Brazil's economic boom and maintain the speed of growth. Brazil is the world's number-one exporter of sugar, orange juice, coffee, beef and poultry, and is preparing to host two high-profile sporting events - the 2014 Fifa World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Rousseff plans to use these to experiment with innovative policies to reduce crime and violence in Brazil's biggest cities.

For years the left-wing strategy in Latin America has been to create a visible alternative to western-dominated global capitalism, and yet Rousseff seems to be bucking this trend with a more low-key, left-of-centre approach. Perhaps it reflects her confidence in her country's ascendancy.

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter