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10.02.10

Brazil's Next Outlaw President

She is a cross between Tim Geithner and Patty Hearst, an economist with a past as a gun-carrying guerrilla. And she will likely win her country’s election.

She stabs at the air with her index finger, the shocks of her rust-colored hair bouncing with every word of her response.

"I. Am. Very. Proud. To. Have. Been. Lying. Under. Torture, Senator," she says, her eyebrows arched in rage. "Lying under torture is not easy. And any person who dares to speak the truth to interrogators compromises the lives of his or her equals and delivers those people to be killed."

Meet the woman likely to become Brazil's next president, Dilma Rousseff, a woman whose CV makes her sound like a cross between Tim Geithner and Patty Hearst; she's Lula's Rahm and Hillary Clinton all rolled into one. A few years ago, she recounted some of her history during a special session at the Brazilian Senate when senior officials were questioned in connection with a financial scandal.

Rousseff, now 62, has lived a wild political life, mirroring the changing fortunes of her country. Educated by the writings of Trotsky, Lenin, and leftist Brazilian radicals as well as by early involvement in social work with favelas in her hometown of Belo Horizonte, she became a gun-carrying member of Comando de Libertação Nacional (Colina), a left-wing guerrilla group that fought the right-wing military dictatorship that ruled Brazil until 1985. And while Rousseff denies involvement in the actual violence, she knew how to handle a gun.

Rousseff, now 62, has lived a wild political life, mirroring the changing fortunes of her country.

Around the time she got involved with Colina, Rousseff met and fell in love with a man named Cláudio Galeno Linhares, an older comrade-in-arms. After only a year of dating, the couple married. But when police broke up their guerrilla faction, however, the couple parted ways, with Rousseff leaving for Rio de Janeiro, where she would soon meet Carlos Araújo.

In 1970, Rousseff and another member of the group were arrested and brought to the headquarters of security officials, where, years later, a journalist would be tortured to death. Rousseff herself was beaten and given electric shocks. "I was 19 years old, I stayed three years in prison, and I was barbarously tortured," she told listeners at the Senate special session in 2008. By then, she had become chief of staff for President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and was being questioned by a senator who was attacking her credibility on the basis of a statement she had made once about "lying a lot" under torture. (The scandal in question involved the misuse of credit cards by government officials. When the scandal broke, Rousseff quickly ordered the comptroller general to perform an audit of the accounts, and weathered the scandal unscathed.)

Rousseff, whose temper is something to be reckoned with, took the special session as an opportunity to give an impassioned speech about democracy and sacrificing for your political beliefs.

After her release from prison in 1972, she was expelled from the university she attended, and so she enrolled in the prestigious Federal University in Rio Grande do Sul, where she took economics. The end of military dictatorship more than a decade later allowed her to pursue politics more openly and soon, she was advancing within local and state government. When Lula took office in 2003, he appointed her energy minister, and in 2005, she became the first female chief of staff in Brazil.

Since then, Lula has continued to push his protégée and heir-apparent in an effort to protect his own legacy. (Lula should not be counted out for good—some believe he may run again for president in 2014.)

"There is this idea of her as a puppet, and sure, she's associated with Lula, and she owes her presidency to Lula," says Dr. Miguel Carter, a professor at American University's School of International Service working in Brazil as an election observer. "But it doesn't follow that she'll be a mirror."

For one thing, Carter says, Rousseff doesn't have the charisma of her mentor. But, he says, her campaign has demonstrated her competence. "She can do things, get things done."

If Rousseff gets elected, though, she faces a tough task—and a set of very specific economic problems. For one thing, as The Wall Street Journal reported, the Brazilian real has been climbing steadily against the dollar, complicating the country's exports.

Rousseff, has navigated—and survived—the political upheaval of her country. But she will have to show similar dexterity going forward—if she upsets the delicate balance of forces that has aligned under Lula's presidency to generate macroeconomic growth and narrow the enormous income gap, she will fall from favor quickly.

Ian Epstein is a freelance writer and photographer living in New York City. He has worked for The Daily Beast, The Nation, Newcity, and Chicago Life, among other publications and he is a co-founding editor of ECHOBOOMER! due out in January of 2011. He maintains a blog and a portfolio.