"Tchau, querida"

The image speaks volumes. Lawmakers looking to impeach Dilma Rousseff holding up signs saying “Tchau, querida” – a reference to the wiretapped conversation between Rousseff and Lula in which she offers to name him minister apparently to ward off a judicial challenge. Lula affectionately says goodbye to the President using the term, and it has since become a rallying cry for her opponents.

But there is a lingering issue that it raises. To what extent is Rousseff´s gender an issue in what is happening? To what extent is this simply a personal failure of hers, of not being the woman people expected her to be?

I thought about this while reading Foreign Policy’s excellent article on Rousseff’s impeachment. One part in particular jumped at me (it’s long):

On March 7, shortly after Lula’s police interview, I saw Rousseff speak at a rally near the southern city of Caxias do Sul. Lula’s questioning occurred the day after the release of Sen. Delcídio do Amaral’s plea-bargain testimony, which had been leaked to the press. Amaral’s statements directly implicated Lula in offering a bribe as part of a cover-up and Rousseff in trying to interfere, and lessen, the punishment of high-up businessmen charged with corruption. Now, for the first time, Operation Car Wash was not just aiming a high-pressure hose at those near the apex of power in Brazil, but splattering those at the very top.

A big video screen above the stage showed Rousseff’s arrival at the site of the rally. She greeted a stocky dad on crutches and a few other grateful residents. Then, as anticipation of her appearance on stage grew, the rows in front of me took to their feet, rising their right fists in the air. “Não vai ter golpe! Não vai ter golpe!” (“There will be no coup! There will be no coup!”)

The narrative of a “coup” appeals to Rousseff’s supporters because it casts her as the courageous freedom fighter, persecuted by evil forces. For her critics, though, it’s yet another example of how aloof and blinkered she is, indulging the exaggerated idea that she is defending democracy itself, rather than merely her own job.

As she walked out in front of the feverish crowd, she didn’t react to the chanting. Rousseff is no natural performer. She didn’t smile, but instead maintained a stiff forward glance, almost over the heads of her audience, and a steady frown, her chiseled eyebrows frozen. The national anthem cut through the clamor, and her expression gradually softened.

The speech was quintessential Rousseff. She appeared to know all kinds of statistics about a housing program by heart, but had to cast an eye to her notes to acknowledge by name the local officials next to her. If Lula were still president, I couldn’t help thinking, the speech might have lacked numbers altogether — or they would have been the wrong ones — but he would have remembered everybody’s first names.

A lot has been written about how Rousseff lacks her predecessor’s common touch, and about how she was virtually “imposed” by him. So while she has consistently ranked among the most powerful women in the world, there is a question mark lingering around her, and around her political fate: would this be happening if Rousseff had not been a woman? More importantly, would it be happening if she were a different kind of woman?

Women leaders do not have it easy. Society imposes roles on women that men do not have to deal with. For women, it’s damned if you’re motherly, damned if you’re technical. Rousseff, in particular, never really let herself be loved by her people, even though they elected her twice, and at some points she has enjoyed skyrocketing approval ratings. Try and find a profile of Rousseff that doesn’t say she’s a “technocrat” – it’s virtually impossible. Sadly, our societies don’t really know how to deal with “technocratic” women. Even Hillary Clinton has spoken about this recently.

One of Rousseff’s main lines of defense has been that the charges she is defending herself from – that she cooked the books in order to circumvent strict budget rules – are not important, and that all Presidents have done it at one time or another. But what she seems to be saying is that she is being judged differently than other presidents.

She is not playing the gender card, but can we really say that gender has nothing to do with it? Is lawmakers’ use of “tchau, querida” not sexist? I have no sympathy for Rousseff, but as the father of three girls, I wonder about the role her gender plays in all of this.

Female leaders are still a relatively new thing in our culture. Rousseff is the latest in a short line of women that have ascended to the top of world politics. Her downfall in the hands of a bunch of men … says something. About her, about Brazil, but also about our society.

And while she is not the first female president to face impeachment charges (the Phillipines’ Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo faced them for years, although none prospered), she is certainly the most prominent one. If she goes down, it will make history.

Something tells me it’s not the kind of history the heiress to Meir, Gandhi, Thatcher, Aquino, and Merkel was gunning for.