Dilma, Maria Gabriela, and the legacy issue

The election of Dilma Rousseff as Brazil’s first female President inspires mixed feelings.

On the one hand, the historic nature of her win cannot be underestimated.  In a few months, Rousseff will become one of the world’s most powerful women, leader of the eighth-largest economy in the world, its fourth-largest democracy, a country that has become crucial to its neighbor to the north.

It’s also worth noting that Rousseff follows the term-limited Lula da Silva, who chose not to change his country’s Constitution and run, as many of our hemispheric caudillos have previously done.  Instead of cashing in on his enormous and, let’s not kid ourselves, well-deserved popularity, Lula is exiting … for now.

But is this a graceful exit?  Hardly.

The fact that Lula chose to get out of the way is worth applauding, but the way Rousseff was chosen reminds us of some of our continent’s more unsavory traits.

Rousseff was tapped early on by Lula as his handpicked successor. She did not face a primary inside the Workers’ Party.  The only serious challenger from within the President’s ranks, the remarkable Marina Silva, was effectively kicked out of the party early and came in third place in the first round of voting.

While Rousseff was the clear choice of the majority of Brazilians, her selection as the country’s president has more than a whiff of a “dedazo“, the infamous procedure through which Mexico’s PRI selected its Presidents.  The way Lula personally threw himself into Rousseff’s campaign makes one wonder – is he a democrat, or just another popular caudillo? And what questions does this raise about Brazil’s institutional development?

Moreover, how can we unabashedly claim Rousseff’s victory was an advancement for gender rights in the region when she was clearly handpicked and groomed by a man?

History shows us repeatedly that Latin American politicians’ natural inclination is to focus on their “legacy.”  Whether it’s Nestor Kirchner supporting his wife so the family can hopscotch their way to indefinite re-election (until God says “Ha!”) or changing the Constitution to abolish term limits, our politicians have shown they have a problem with knowing when to leave the stage.

These are key questions for those of us who believe that Latin America cannot overcome poverty if its institutions and its democracies don’t develop as well.  Brazil’s election was not a “dedazo,” but it was also not entirely kosher either

Other countries in the hemisphere have broken free from this trend.  Say what you will about Chile’s opposition Concertación, but during their 20-year tenure, most of their presidents faced primary fights, even when they were the favorites of the establishment.  These contested primaries were healthy for Chile’s parties, and the country is better off for them.  And while Juan Manuel Santos clearly won the Colombian elections by riding the Alvaro Uribe’s coat-tails, the outgoing President did not throw himself in the campaign the way Lula did.

This brings us to Hugo Chávez.  As we know, Chávez abolished term limits so he can rule the country until nature calls.  Part of the reason he felt compelled to do this is Chávez’s own failure in constructing a democratic alternative within his own ranks.

It is clear that Chávez believes no one in his entourage, not even the most rabid of followers, can fill his shoes. This speaks volumes about the lack of quality and loyalty within the President’s ranks, as well as the degree of paranoia the man suffers from.

And yet, deep down, Chávez must now that his time, too, will come, particularly if he continues drinking coffee like it was water.  Has he thought about what will happen to his adored Revolution once the Grim Reaper comes to expropriate him?

There are few signs he has, but the few we have point to a natural successor: his daughter Maria Gabriela.  Whether it’s taking her along on state visits or hinting that he would love to hand over power to a woman, the young Chávez princess is increasingly, yet subtly, taking on a more public role.

In fact, in this extraordinary yet little-known video, Chávez practically spells out that his daughter is next at bat.

In spite of Chávez’s words, this is all highly speculative at this point. After all, it’s hard to find any public statements from the still not-ready-for-a-prime-time-cadena Maria Gabriela.

Still, there is a certain kind of logic to the idea that Chávez, who treats his country like his own fiefdom, would select his own daughter to rule after he is gone.  And didn’t Fidel keep things in the family?

The lengths our local caudillos will go to protect their “legacy” are a disservice to the continent’s democratic aspirations.  Whether it’s the manifestation of egotistical machismo, or simply caused by the need to reward your cronies with a prolonged stay in power, the sacrifice of democratic institutions for the sake of continuing to “win” runs contrary to the region’s best interests.

In the last few days, George W. Bush has come back to the public sphere.  While we’ve never been fans, it’s been refreshing to hear him say that he really does not care about his “legacy” or how historians view him.  His statements that he relishes private life and wants to play no role in politics is kind of refreshing, and it comes across as sincere.  If there is one thing Bush can’t fake, it’s disinterest.

Our Presidents could choose to exit the stage gracefully and strengthen our democracies.  They usually don’t.

Dilma Rousseff’s election is a positive development, but it has the undeniable stench of some of Latin America’s worst traits.  It will be up to her to either continue this trend or choose to institutionalize her nation’s young democracy – by simply bowing down quietly when her time comes.

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