A little rain didn’t stop progressives from celebrating in Brazil on New Year’s Day. On New Year’s Day, I stood in a downpour in Brasilia to watch President Dilma Rousseff become the first woman to lead Brazil because I had the honor to play a very small part in her victory, working with her campaign’s new media team. Nonetheless, it wasn’t where I was standing on that First Day of 2011 that was awe-inspiring – It was the direction progressives in South America are moving, which was on full display.
Rousseff’s inauguration marked a big step forward for anyone who cares about working people. That’s why it was especially infuriating to see the Huffington Post run articles about Rousseff’s hair-style and give more attention to how pretty the Second Lady is instead of reporting on how her election is changing the global political landscape for real progressive values. The frivolous posts inspired me to make sure HuffPo readers understand her actual story.
Dilma Rousseff is no ordinary head-of-state. While many candidates run away from their liberal roots the higher they go, Rousseff embraced her progressive past at the swearing-in ceremony. When she received the presidential sash from President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, she didn’t morph into reconciliation. She surrounded herself with nearly a dozen women who fought dictatorship in a guerilla movement and shared a prison cell with her during their struggle for democracy. How often do we get an opportunity to celebrate a leader who spent years in jail fighting for a just cause in their early-twenties?
This is who Rousseff is. A principled fighter with a strong moral compass. She exemplified this during her campaign too. She never ran away from social justice issues and always stood by the importance of public investments and making government work for her country. So even if the HuffPo thinks style trumps history, even they should note that she’s also the first unmarried President of Brazil and a strong woman who fought for democracy. She also took on this important campaign for president while recovering from fighting cancer, having just survived lymphoma.
Elsewhere, European governments from England to France, Spain to Germany are shutting down public services. Even here at home, federal and state workers are working harder and harder to make ends meet because their pay hangs frozen in the middle of a political assault. But while it seems like everyone in the western hemisphere is cutting budgets and moving austerity measures in a panic, Rousseff has taken her fighting spirit to champion making government work for the people, charting a different course for Brazil. She’s positioned to govern with progressive principles and is moving a real message about job creation and basic kitchen table issues.
The first thing Dilma said in her speech to Brazil was that she “will not rest while there are Brazilians who have no food on their tables, while there are desperate families on the streets, while there are poor children abandoned to their own devices. Family unity lies in food, peace and happiness.”
In Brazil, the leaders of the Workers Party (PT) weren’t afraid to talk about helping the poor. Rousseff drew a clear line in the sand about expanding public spending, not curbing important investments. And word on the street during Lula’s farewell speech was that he’ll start his post-presidential life by staying true to his working-class roots by dedicating his time and support to important progressive causes. One of his first steps is going to be selling off his more than 100-suit wardrobe to benefit charity. (He sold his 2002 inauguration suit for $285,000 to a similar end.)
It’s not only good policy. It’s good politics. Lula’s Worker’s Party (PT) held the presidential palace for three consecutive terms with this message, most importantly, breaking glass ceilings with Dilma’s election. This was especially poignant seeing our own Secretary State Hillary Clinton standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Rousseff – two of the most powerful women in the western hemisphere, together alas!
Because of her fight and struggle – not her hair-style — the possibilities are endless. My niece, hearing about all this from afar, is now growing up in a world where she could be the president of a major world power. Working-class and immigrant friends and family can now take inspiration that one day their children can achieve great things. There’s hope for the struggle of political prisoners that with persistence, one day their voice will be heard. Our country, as well as governments around the world should take note and join Brazil’s progressive march into the New Decade.