The Amazing Story of Dilma Rousseff - Brazil's Bulgarian President

Special Report |Author: Ivan Dikov | January 9, 2011, Sunday // 22:10|  views

Dilma Rousseff, the 36th President of Brazil. Photo by EPA/BGNES

Dilma Vana Rousseff, a Brazilian politician of Bulgarian origin, has been inaugurated as the new President of Brazil, overshadowing Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel for the title of most powerful woman in the world.

Rousseff's father, Petar Rusev, also known as Pedro Rousseff, was a Bulgarian leftist who emigrated to France in 1929, and from there to Latin America in 1944. How is Dilma's rise to prominence going to affect both Bulgaria and Brazil?

Running on a 'Lula Ticket'

On October 31, 2010, the 62-year-old Rousseff of the Workers' Party defeated Social-Democratic Party candidate Jose Serra in the second round of Brazil's Presidential Elections. Rousseff grabbed hold of the Brazilian Presidency with 55.4% of the votes in the runoff vs. 44.6% for Serra (after winning 46.6% vs. 33% in the first round).

Dilma has thus become the first woman to be President of Brazil, the fifth largest country and the eighth largest economy in the world. She won the presidential elections primarily thanks to the votes of the poorer and middle classes, and the overwhelmingly strong promotion by outgoing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Rousseff, who had never held an elected office before, has herself acknowledged this fact. The two Lula Cabinets, in which she took part, lifted 21 million people out of poverty and created 15 million jobs since 2003.

"Initially, Jose Serra, the opposition candidate, led the race until about July 2010 because he was better known by the Brazilian public. He was a very popular, successful man, minister of health, governor of the state of Sao Paulo, mayor of Sao Paulo. Dilma Rousseff at that time was chief of staff for the president but she had not been a very well known person nationally. Once people started to identify her as President Lula's candidate, she started going up in the polls. She ran as the candidate for continuity. Brazilians want continuity," explains Professor Paulo Sotero, Director of the Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC.

He points out that major issues that Dilma faced during the campaign – her stand on abortion and allegations of corruption by other members of the Lula Cabinet – did not really hold her back.

"Jose Serra had a very long track-record of public service, as senator, minister, mayor and governor. He also ran against Lula in 2002. That is why he was leading the polls until the first months of 2010. Dilma Rousseff, in turn, was relatively unknown, a technocrat from Lula's administration. Dilma's lead was a direct function of Lula's popularity. She was offered a cabinet post in Lula's administration (Energy) as a result of Lula's coalition with smaller left-wing parties. As a candidate, she learned a lot along the way, but greatly benefited from Lula's direct help," says in turn Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, a US-based Brazilian political analyst, CAC Political Consultancy.

"I think that the Lula government was somehow lucky to benefit from a long-running process of transformation of the Brazilian economic situation since the early 1980s. I wouldn't speak of a Lula phenomenon outside this big picture," comments economist Andr? Urani, Executive Director of the Institute for Studies on Work and Society in Rio de Janeiro.

All three analysts are highly critical of the quality of debate in Brazil's election campaign in the fall of 2010, which they think has failed to meet expectations about the country's needs.

"None of the final candidates - neither Dilma, nor Serra represented a new agenda. Both have somehow been shaped by the ideas of development that have prevailed in the second half of the last century," thinks Urani.

"Overall, the election was very poor when it came to the debates on ideas and issues," says Neves in turn.

This however, does not make the fact of Dilma's election less impressive – especially as far as Bulgarians' views of her rise are concerned.

Dilma's supporters shown cheering during Brazil's presidential campaign in the fall of 2010. EPA/BGNES

From "Joan of Arc of Subversion" to President

Dilma Vana Rousseff was born on December 14, 1947, in Belo Horizonte, in the family of Bulgarian immigrant Petar Rusev (1900-1962), aka Pedro Rousseff, a lawyer and construction entrepreneur, and Dilma Jane Silva, a school teacher whose parents were ranchers. Her sister Zana Lucia died in 1977 at the age of 26. Dilma's brother Igor Rousseff is a lawyer.

Dilma's life was deeply affected by the military regime which ruled Brazil from 1964 till 1985, after the 1964 coup d'etat against the democratically elected government of left-wing President Joao Goulart.

Dilma's Bulgarian father, Petar Rusev, died in 1962 when she was 15. Over the next couple of decades she participated in organized resistance of leftist and Marxist groups. In 1968, she married her first husband Cl?udio Galeno Linhares, a brother in arms. She studied economics at the Minas Gerais Federal University Economics School, where she met her second husband Carlos Franklin Paixao de Araujo, a leftist lawyer.

Dilma emerged as a leading figure in VAR Palmares, a political-military organization of Marxist-Leninist partisan orientation. The attorney who prosecuted the organization called her "Joan of Arc of subversion."

Dilma Rousseff in her 1970 police mugshot, when she led a revolutionary group. Photo by The Independent


She was the mastermind of a robbery of USD 2.5 M from a former governor of S?o Paulo to be used for funding leftist resistance activities. However, she was captured in January 1970, and was tortured for 22 days, and kept in prison for 3 years. She was released in 1972, when she moved to Porto Alegre.

In 1977, Dilma graduated with a degree in economics from the Rio Grande do Sul Federal University. In March 1976, she gave birth to her only child, daughter Paula Rousseff Araujo. In 1990, she became part of the government of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, rising to Secretary of Energy and Communication in 1993, serving on and off in the state government in the 1990s.

In 2003, Brazil's President Lula surprisingly chose Dilma for Minister of Energy. She became most famous for implementing a program called "Electricity for All" designed to bring electric power to households of Brazil's underdeveloped and remote regions, and was later picked to be his Chief of Staff.

In 2009, she suffered from cancer in the lymphatic system, from which she recovered. On September 9, 2010, Paula Rousseff de Araujo, her only daughter, gave birth to Dilma's first grandchild, a boy named Gabriel Rousseff Covolo.

Dilma has become the first female head of government in the history of Brazil, and the first de facto female head of state since the death of Maria I, Queen of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves in 1816.

While this woman seems to be on her way of yet facing even greater challenges in her life – in her capacity as president of one of the most important countries globally, one can't help but noticing that her fate so far has been quite remarkable. And so is the fate of her Bulgarian family.

Dilma Rousseff's family in the 1950s: (L-R) Brother Igor Rousseff, mother Dilma, Dilma Vana (standing), Zana (front), and father Petar Rousseff. Photo from Wikipedia

Dilma Rousseff's "Bulgarianness" and Bulgarian Origins

Dilma Vana Rousseff's father, Petar Stefanov Rusev (known in Brazil as Pedro Rousseff) was born in 1900 in Gabrovo in Central Bulgaria. He moved to Sofia to study law but later began trading in textiles. In 1929, he left his wife Evdokiya Yankova in her last month of pregnancy, and went to France. His wife and son Lyuben-Kamen Rusev, did not hear from him for 18 years.

His departure from Bulgaria remains shrouded in mystery; while his Bulgarian son Lyuben-Kamen claimed his father left because his business went bankrupt, Petar Rusev most likely departed from Bulgaria for political reasons as he was connected with the leftist and communist movement in Bulgaria in 1920s.

After a right-wing coup in 1923, the political situation in Bulgaria in the 1920s was especially tense, with the government persecuting the communists and other leftists in the so called "White Terror", while the communists responded with sabotages and armed rebellions (most notably in 1923) in the so called "Red Terror", which culminated in 1925 in the largest terrorist attack in Bulgarian history, the blowing-up of the St. Nedelya Cathedral that killed 134 people. Even though the late 1920s are today seen as a time of relative political calm in Bulgaria politically, the landscape was hardly safe for anybody of far-left orientation so leaving the country as a political ?migr? might have made much sense.

Petar Rusev lived in France for 15 years, heading to Argentina in 1944, and shortly after that to Brazil.

One important fact about Petar Rusev is that he was very close with Nobel Prize-nominated Bulgarian poetess Elisaveta Bagryana (1893-1991), who he met in France in the 1930s.

Bagryana, a Bulgarian literary icon regardless the political regime and the greatest Bulgarian poetess of all time, dedicated several poems to him in her "Brazilian Cycle" (written in 1960-1963).

She visited Rousseff's mansion in Brazil in 1960 meeting his wife and kids, including the 13-year-old Dilma Vana, right after she attended the meeting of the International PEN club in Rio de Janeiro.

(L-R) Poetess Elisaveta Bagryana, the young Dilma Vana Rousseff, and her mother Dilma in their home in Belo Horizonte in 1960. This photo was given in the 1970s to Bulgarian diplomat Rumen Stoyanov by Dilma Rousseff's mother


For a non-Bulgarian it might be hard to understand what it meant to be close with Bagryana – in the popular culture of the 21st century it would probably equal being best friends with a dozen of the top Hollywood actresses; it is probably safe to say that Bagryana's weight in Bulgarian literature and society was greater than the importance of all poetesses in the English-language literature combined.

The exact nature of the relationship between Bagryana and Petar Rusev remains unclear; it might have well been more than just friendship. In any case, friendship or more than friendship, Petar Rusev must have been a rather intriguing and talented person to have deserved to be on such close terms with the greatest Bulgarian poetess of all time.

Dilma's Bulgarian half-brother Lyuben-Kamen Rousseff (1930-2008) never met his father and his Brazilian siblings. He did make a career in Bulgaria as an engineer constructing large water dams.

However, he had constant problems with the Bulgarian Communist regime having participated briefly in an opposition formation in 1947. The "opposition formation" was a Social-Democratic youth union, part of the Social-Democratic party, which a year later was swallowed by the Bulgarian Communist Party, the Soviet-orchestrated formation that established a totalitarian dictatorship in 1948-1989.

Bulgarian journalist Momchil Indzhov has observed that both Dilma Rousseff and her Bulgarian half-brother Lyuben-Kamen Rusev, both of leftist views, had been in trouble with the respective political regimes in their country.

The difference was that Dilma was prosecuted for her leftist and communist views by a right-wing military dictatorship in Brazil, while Lyuben-Kamen was in trouble for his leftist views with a communist regime in Bulgaria, a paradox that only serves to show how little sense the Marxist-Leninist indoctrination of the Bulgarian Communist Party made when viewed from more objectively.

Only in the 1980s was Lyuben-Kamen allowed to work abroad, in Algeria and Morocco. In the 1950s, Lyuben-Kamen Rusev began receiving regularly parcels from his father in Brazil secretly containing US dollar banknotes. He and his wife had no children. Lyuben-Kamen died in 2008, and his wife passed away in early 2010. His dream was to visit the carnival in Rio de Janeiro.

"He was a modest man who did not like to brag. I am sure that he was proud of his sister," explains Rumen Stoyanov, a long-time Bulgarian diplomat in Brazil, a Professor of Latin American studies at Sofia University, and an acquaintance of Dilma Rousseff, her mother, and her Bulgarian half-brother.

In 2006, he helped deliver a four-digit sum in euro to Lyuben-Kamen that Dilma sent to her ailing brother without having been asked for it. According to Stoyanov, Dilma learned about the bad health of her brother that she had never seen from the Bulgarian consul in Brazil, Joao Vas, whom he took to Lyuben-Kamen's home at his request. Stoyanov believes this was an incredible gesture of Dilma's part.

Dilma's other living Bulgarian relatives include a number of first and more distant cousins. But people around the world should be aware of one fact – Dilma's Bulgarian relatives – today and in the past include some of Bulgaria's most prominent writers, lawyers, journalists, and even a couple of politicians – of both rightist and leftist orientation – a testimony to the fact that her father was not just anybody.

Petar Rousseff's birth house in Gabrovo is no longer standing, with a parking lot occupying its place. Nonetheless, Gabrovo, a city of 80 000, is totally excited about Dilma's rise to the presidency in Brazil.

"In these times of crisis, it is very important that we seek occasions to take pride in, cheer up and find inspiration to change the world around us. Dilma Rousseff's victory in the presidential race is  such an occasion," Gabrovo Mayor Nikolay Sirakovas said as the people of Gabrovo started taking pride in the fact that a person descended from their town became president of Brazil.

Lula kisses his favorite Dilma - a photo distributed by the Brazilian government after Dilma's election victory.

What Kind of Person Is Dilma Rousseff?

While Dilma has been Lula's hand-picked favorite, analysts have indicated what they see as a rather substantial difference in their characters.

"Dilma Rousseff has a more quieter and reserved temperament and she is not known as a person that will go out like President Lula. She is not a "people's person" but she will now occupy a position as President of an emerging power that will require her... to show she is capable. She has very big shoes to fill," comments Professor Sotero comparing Dilma and her sponsor, outgoing President Lula.

"As in theater... Dilma's victory will be a signal "Enter Dilma" at the beginning of 2011. The question is: will it also mean "Exit Lula"? Brazilian history shows that the level of loyalty between the creator and its political creature tend to diminish at the first sign of a crisis. To compare with Russia, Dilma will not be Lula's Medvedev. Brazilian democratic institutions are much stronger than those in Russia," explains political analyst Neves.

"I think that no other politician will be as popular as Lula in Brazil, at least not in the short term. Even if President Dilma (we usually call people by their first names in Brazil, even in more formal occasions) can make a technically perfect government, I think she will never manage to match Lula's approval rates. His background is a true fairy tale story - a poor blue collar worker who made it to the big stage and became president of a big country. Besides, he is by far more charismatic than her and has a more popular approach with people," Brazilian journalist Pedro Bassan states.

Probably enchanted with her "Bulgarianness", those Bulgarians who have been in touch with Dilma see her as explicitly sociable and welcoming person.

"Dilma is a person who is a technocrat in the best sense of this term. She is a cordial person, as are most Brazilians, who easily communicates with people, and does not play the demagogue, she names things the way they are," Prof. Stoyanov says.

Another Bulgarian, who has been in contact with Dilma – journalist Momchil Indzhov, who made the first ever interview with her for a Bulgarian media in 2004, and then another one in 2010, backs his words.

"She said this explicitly that Brazil will not be changing Lula's way, and Brazil will be going on with Lula's way. And this is enough. But let's not forget that she is a woman. This is a big change. There have already been other women presidents in Latin America, but she is the first in Brazil. The Brazilians respect her very much. Let's not forget her past. After all, she fought against the military junta. She went to jail, and was tortured by the military dictatorship. But Dilma Rousseff definitely has the ability to charm people. I was present at her rally in Porto Alegre, after which I managed to interview her. The people were enchanted by her. She enjoys their respect. The favelas are filled with Dilma's posters and banners, for example. But Dilma is getting mass support indeed, from all classes," Indzhov concludes.

Spring 2010. Lula introduces Dilma - back then still only a presidential candidate with questionable chances to win - to US President Barack Obama in Washington, DC.

Leading the Rising Brazilian Colossus

It is a common opinion nowadays that Brazil is an emerging economic powerhouse, with the 8 years of President Lula witnessing the gist of its growth. The "great expectations" for his successor Dilma Rousseff – and probably the reason he selected and promoted her – are for her to stay the course.

In her election night speech as well as in her first address as President to the Brazilian Congress - Rousseff has made clear her intention to work to eradicate poverty in Brazil. She declared fighting poverty and promotion of Brazil's economic development her "fundamental commitment."

"In the short term, we will not have the pull of developed economies to boost our growth. For that reason, our own policies, our own market, our own savings and our own economic decisions become even more important," Rousseff said, as cited by DPA, when it became clear she nailed the presidency.

She did pledge to remain firm on the course of her promoter, outgoing President Inacio Lula. At the same time, as she formally took over, it became clear that she is now facing even tougher new challenges, for example, with respect to "trade defense" and "currency issues" in relations with China, Brazil's largest trading partner.

"There are two major challenges for Brazil today. One has to do with the improvement of the physical capital and infrastructure of the country – airports, ports, highways, railways... The other equally or even more important issue is the human capital problem," believes Professor Sotero.

"But internationally she will have challenges as well. For example, Lula is a leader very well known in the region, he is an international star. Dilma is not. Her inclination will probably be to have a quieter kind of foreign policy, less visible, less protagonistic, as we say in Brazil, which will be probably more in line with the Brazilian temperament."

He emphasizes Brazil's rising international responsibilities given the fact that the Brazilian economy is approximately 60% of South America's economy, and over 40% of the Latin American economy, which creates expectations for Brazil on part of the neighbors.

"I believe that Dilma Rousseff, having had dealings as Chief of Staff with the USA and Europe, etc, probably will look for a balanced interaction to really emphasize the fact that Brazil is a global nation, our trade is more or less evenly distributed with the different regions of the world, and Brazil obviously has to act very carefully," Sotero says.

"Brazil should have a very strong competitive advantage - energy. The energy substitution and sustainability are clearly two factors that will be very dynamic in the world in the next few years," stressed Urani.

Bulgarian journalist Momchil Indzhov has indicated the impressive growth of the middle class in Brazil. "Despite the recent developments, there is still rampant poverty across Brazil, especially the Northeast. Each city has its own favelas, or slums. But still, the unique thing about Brazil has been the growth of the middle class – a development little known elsewhere in Latin America."

"It will be "business as usual" in terms of foreign policy. Emerging powers coalition will be one of the main foreign policy strategies. But the lack of popularity and charisma may also hinder this strategy. If Brazil maintains a foreign policy more distant to Western democracies when it comes to human rights, climate change etc., it will be hard to deal with pressure and criticisms. Lula had enough strength to fend off criticism. Dilma may not have that. But, then again, the Brazilian foreign ministry may adjust the rhetoric a little bit, to avoid taking too much risks," political analyst Neves says.

Dilma with Bulgarian PM Borisov, Dec. 30, 2010. Dilma's warm welcome to the Bulgarian delegation led Borisov to declare that the entire world envied Bulgaria for its special connection with Brazil's new president.

Bulgaria and Brazil: Two Countries with Bulgarian Presidents

The most interesting question for Bulgarians, now that "one of their kin" has been elected to lead one of the rising global powers, is how that will reflect on Bulgaria.

The two nations have had little interaction despite mutual friendly declarations. Bulgaria has been diagnosed with a "Dilma fever." There have been hopes it can now become Brazil's EU "door". Can her Bulgarian origins make the two countries really close?

"Dilma has occasionally talked about Bulgaria as the home country of her father with respect and affection. I believe that as president she will be interested in Bulgaria because there is this historic tie," points out Professor Sotero.

"I think that Dilma's probable victory will draw more attention to the fact that she will be the first woman president than anything else. A reminder that Brazil had a very popular president with a Czech last name (Kubitschek) in the 1950s. But undoubtedly it will make Brazilians more curious about her family's origins in Bulgaria and probably inspire books and more studies on the subject," predicts analyst Neves.

"I remember that Dilma Rousseff explicitly told me, quote on quote, "I am half-Bulgarian." This is no surprise for an immigrant society such as Brazil. Her election will be good for both Brazil and Bulgaria, and since Brazil is a country with peaceful foreign policy, it will also be useful for the international community," says diplomat Rumen Stoyanov.

"Feelings of tenderness and love," is what Dilma Rousseff told journalist Momchil Indzhov from the 24 Chasa daily she has for Bulgaria. "I have to say that to some extent I feel Bulgarian even though I never came to my father's homeland."

Dilma with her daughter, son-in-law and grandson Gabriel Rousseff Covolo, the youngest member of the Rousseff/Rusev family, in September 2010

"I assume to be the only Bulgarian, in inverted commas of course, who has achieved success outside Bulgaria," Dilma Rousseff told Brazilian TV channel Globo. "It would be a very moving experience for me to be welcomed in Bulgaria as Brazil's president because this is a small country. Just imagine how they look at Brazil," she added.

Indzhov explains that Dilma is well-intentioned towards Bulgaria, all the more so given the fact that she owes her upbringing and education to her Bulgarian father. "Dilma herself says about her father, "I don't remember my father without a book. He read really a lot, he always had a book in hand." So she got this love for reading and knowledge from her Bulgarian father. She does have feelings for Bulgaria, she has been dreaming of visiting Bulgaria, something she told me in our first interview in 2004. Unfortunately, she did not manage to come and meet her brother while he was still alive," he says.

"Brazil and Eastern Europe were in opposite camps during the Cold War. I think that Dilma Rousseff helped to promote not only Bulgaria, but the surrounding countries too, a very remote place for the average Brazilian, at least from my generation. Now, many Brazilians know where Gabrovo is. And that is not a joke!" says journalist Bassan suggesting that "Brazilians have a bit of a "Bulgaria fever", too."

Whether Bulgarians and Brazilians will start to be more aware of one another, and whether their countries will have economic and cultural exchange worthy of the name remains unclear, but Dilma Rousseff herself has made a goodwill gesture towards Bulgaria even before she took over – by breaking the protocol and receiving the Bulgarian state delegation for her inauguration two days before that – on December 30, 2010. The entire episode led Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov to remark with his typical mischievous grin that the entire world now envies Bulgaria for its special relationship with the new President of Brazil.

With all due respect to US President Barack Obama, but should both he and Dilma Rousseff visit Bulgaria in the months and years to come, Dilma will probably receive an even more excited welcome in Sofia than he will.

From Dilma Fever to Dilma Pride in Bulgaria

The most important question that comes to mind here is – do Bulgarians have the right to be proud of Dilma Rousseff? Being a small nation, many Bulgarians have always been proud of the achievements of Bulgarians or people of Bulgarian origin – such as the inventor of the modern day computer John Atanasoff – accomplished abroad or with little actual direct connection to the Bulgarian state; this is precisely the reason other Bulgarians have been critical of their own nation for this kind of pride.

"Well, at least I don't think we have any grounds to be ashamed of that, to put it this way," says Indzhov when asked if Bulgaria's pride in Dilma Rousseff is justified.

"I think that we have every right to be proud with the Bulgarian origin of Dilma Rousseff because this does not in any way affect her Brazilian nationality. May God allow, one day, the way we have a monument of John Atanasoff in downtown Sofia, that we also have a monument of Dilma Rousseff," states Professor Stoyanov.

Anyone with at least some brains would hate the empty fakely patriotic rhetoric that goes to suggest that everything and everyone important in the world comes from Bulgaria. What Bulgarians should do with respect to Dilma Rousseff's story is first take a good notice of it – because it is truly amazing - all the way from 19th century Gabrovo to the 21st century Presidency of Brazil. Second, they should make sense of it by expanding their horizons in the world and put some hard work into doing their homework as far as trade, diplomacy, and cultural ties are concerned.

Bulgaria's Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov (right) shows a Roman statue to his Brazilian counterpart Celso Amorim before their joint news conference in Sofia, June 2010

The first sign of that happening – as far as Brazil is concerned – was actually not related to Dilma. In June 2010, Bulgaria was visited by Brazil's Foreign Minister for the first time ever – back then Lula's top diplomat Celso Amorim; a visit that will be remembered with a joint declaration on the ties between the Balkans and Latin America and statement of Bulgarian support for a permanent seat for Brazil on the UN Security Council.

Unlike most of the 20th century, today Bulgaria and Brazil are "in the same camp" – both are Western-style liberal democracies. While Brazil is also a BRIC country and a representative of the global South, its importance for the USA and the EU, of which Bulgaria is a part, is only set to grow.

Interestingly, even with so much having already happened in Dilma's life, the most challenging moments for her are still ahead. The amazing history of her family and her own life appear to have been a true success story to date – for both Brazil and Bulgaria. It remains to be seen how it will be remembered after her time as president of Brazil and a revered symbol in Bulgaria.


This article is based on the interviews of (Sofia News Agency) with Bulgarian journalist Momchil Indzhov; Bulgarian diplomat Rumen Stoyanov; Professor Paulo Sotero, Director of the Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC; Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, a US-based Brazilian political analyst, CAC Political Consultancy; economist Andr? Urani, Executive Director of the Institute for Studies on Work and Society in Rio de Janeiro; Brazilian journalist Pedro Bassan.

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Tags: Paulo Sotero, Lula, Brazilian President, Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, Rumen Stoyanov, Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, Pedro Bassan, Momchil Indzhov


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