What does it mean to live a life at the heart of history? For 50 years of Brazilian history, Dilma Rousseff lived, acted and influenced the course of her country like no other woman, and after those 50 years, Brazil tossed her aside.
In the late 1960s, during the era of Brazil’s military dictatorship, Dilma Rousseff was a revolutionary, a member of the National Liberation Command. Captured, tortured and imprisoned in 1970 for three years, Dilma turned to more conventional political means to achieve a more conventional left-wing end, which turned out to be the election of Luis Inacio da Silva, President Lula, for whom she became chief-of-staff. And in 2010, his successor.
Lula was a gifted politician, full of personal charm and larger-scale charisma and committed to a vision of uplift, bringing millions of Brazilians out of poverty to something close to middle-class life, and bringing Brazil to the top of the second-tier of industrialized economies. He was also gifted by great timing. His presidency coincided with a boom in commodities prices and the revenues from Brazil’s products financed those uplifting social programs.
His successor’s timing and luck was the underside of that coin. During Dilma Rousseff’s years in office, commodity prices crashed, taking state revenues down with them. The Brazilian economy tanked, with, as usual, the greatest pain being felt from the bottom up. At the same time, a talented and driven prosecuting judge was taking down elite politicians and business and industry leaders for what seemed to be endless corruption.
President Dilma Rousseff paid the price. She was impeached in the midst of her second term. But the “crimes” she was charged with had less to do with her overthrow than her history, her so-called terrorist youth, her association with Lula, accused of bribe-taking corruption of the sort never alleged against Rousseff, and her presence as “the woman at the heart of history” when it seemed Brazil’s history was defined by enormous and persistent lies and thefts.
That she was a woman who charmed — who bothered to try to charm— almost no one was unspoken, but undoubtedly weighed against her.
Peter Prengaman was for four years the Associated Press Bureau Chief for Brazil. Most recently, he was moved to Arizona and became AP’s News Director for the Western United States. He is the co-author with Mauricio Savarese of Dilma’s Downfall: The Impeachment of Brazil’s First Woman President and the Pathway to Power for Jair Bolsonaro’s Far-right.
In 19 years at the AP, Peter Prengaman has been a reporter, video journalist and editor on many big stories, including the uprising that ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, the Arab Spring in Egypt and most recently, the Zika virus spreading across Latin America.
Prengaman was part of teams that received the Polk Award and Grantham Prize for environmental reporting during the Gulf oil spill and the APME Multimedia Award for a major economic interactive project called the AP Economic Stress Index. He received an Edward R. Murrow award for video stories on unemployed people suffering through the worst economic crisis in the United States in decades. He also received the Atlanta Press Club Award of Excellence for video and print stories during the Haiti earthquake and trapped miners in Chile in 2010.