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Dilma Rousseff: Brazil’s President goes head-to-head with Harper Add to ...

Stephen Harper has arrived in Brazil seeking a meeting of the minds with the leader of the world’s seventh-largest economy – but President Dilma Rousseff could not have come from a more radically different background than her Canadian counterpart.

Ms. Rousseff, who meets with Mr. Harper in Brazil’s capital Monday, started her early adult life as a Marxist guerrilla who was part of an insurgency against the South American country’s brutal former dictatorship.

Arrested by the Brazilian state in the early 1970s, she was viciously tortured and then jailed for nearly three years for her brief revolutionary career. Ms. Rousseff was forbidden from political activity for nine years, but got back into the game in the 1980s.

After she was apprehended in 1970, a military prosecutor described her as the “Joan of Arc of the insurgency,” although Ms. Rousseff has denied any taking part in actual violence. For instance, before one spectacular robbery, she told a Brazilian newspaper she didn’t manage the operation’s money as police reports suggest – but only purchased a Volkswagen for the cause.

Mr. Harper, by comparison, worked at Imperial Oil after high school before heading to the relatively safe confines of a Canadian university to study. He subsequently found a role working for a federal member of Parliament.

The Prime Minister, eager to diversify Canada’s trade beyond the ailing U.S. economy, needs to cement a better working relationship with Brazil, one of the so-called BRIC countries – that include Russia, India and China, and a rising player on the world stage.

Bitter and hostile divisions between Brazil and Canada have healed since reaching a low point one decade ago over aircraft subsidies – but Canadian companies need to keep pace with international rivals beating a path to the South American nation of 190 million.

The daughter of a Bulgarian-born immigrant father, Ms. Rousseff succeeded the exceedingly popular and populist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as President in January.

Her predecessor, who left office with approval ratings that exceeded 80 per cent, only quit because term limits prevented him from running again. He picked and promoted Ms. Rousseff as his replacement, campaigning for her election.

Mr. Harper will arrive in Brasilia as Ms. Rousseff is struggling to cope with inflation, an over-valued currency and a string of corruption allegations at home that resulted in the resignations of the government’s chief of staff and the transport minister in the space of one month. The latter, Transport Minister Alfredo Nascimento, is the leader of one of the parties in Ms. Rousseff’s coalition government.

Brazil’s newspapers have been covering the corruption story heavily, and regularly run editorial cartoons lampooning the situation.

Brazilian businesses are nervous about foreign competition right now because the country’s currency has risen steeply against others in recent years, making it harder for them to make a living selling goods and services abroad.

Ms. Rousseff, who’s traded in revolutionary ideas for a pragmatic embrace of capitalism, made it clear at her inauguration that she has not forgotten the punishment she suffered for fighting a dictatorship that lasted until 1985. She invited 11 women who were former cell mates to the ceremonies.

Mr. Harper may find he has more in common with Ms. Rousseff than expected. Brazil-watchers describe the country’s first female president as a tough, no-nonsense administrator who lacks the magnetic charm of her predecessor, Mr. Lula.

“She always been known for being very bright and very much on top of her file ... [but] she is not charismatic at all,” said Jean Daudelin, a Latin American specialist at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

U.S. officials described her as a “blunt and demanding manager” in a 2005 diplomatic cable made public by Wikileaks.

It’s a phrase that echoes what subordinates privately say of Mr. Harper as Prime Minister.

Ms. Rousseff comes from a political system where the government is far more interventionist and protectionist, but she’s shown herself less wedded to this on occasion. She’s proceeding with a plan to privatize Brazil’s poorly run airports, and has taken steps to curb inflation by trimming government spending, such as on housing subsidies.

She’s nevertheless vowed to follow in Mr. Lula’s footsteps, saying she hopes to lift another 20 million Brazilians out of poverty in the same way 30 million poor entered the lower-middle class and middle class between 2002 and 2010 under his tenure.

She’s still standing in the long shadow of her predecessor though.

Mr. Lula plucked Ms. Rousseff from her powerful back-room job as his chief of staff, and used his personal popularity to vault her into the president’s office.

It’s an open question whether Mr. Lula’s merely waiting until the next election to re-enter politics. “Everyone understands he’s sort of waiting in the wings and if necessity calls, he will be the candidate in 2014,” said David Fleischer, a professor at the University of Brasilia.

Follow on Twitter: @stevenchase

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