In early 2010 Thomas Shannon, the US ambassador to Brazil, sent a cable to Washington offering his views on Dilma Rousseff, who was preparing to kick-off her campaign for the Brazilian presidency.
The 1,800-word dispatch, recently uncovered by Wikileaks, mused on the state-of-play in the election race and, crucially, on the personality of the woman who would later that year be elected the first female president in Brazilian history.
Five words captured Shannon’s thinking: “She is clearly not Lula.”
The diplomat’s evaluation of Rousseff appears obvious. But it strikes at the heart of the challenges that will face this former Marxist guerilla when she sweeps into Brasília’s presidential Palácio do Planalto on 1 January in the comfort of the presidential Rolls-Royce.
Rousseff will succeed president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, widely considered the most popular president in Brazilian history. Under Lula, Brazil has surfed a global commodities boom, fought off the world financial crisis and hauled millions out of poverty. He leaves office with an approval rating of more than 80 per cent.
How, then, will Rousseff shape up next to her über-popular predecessor?
So far she has offered few concrete signals of what is to come, beyond an election vow for “continuity” and indications that she will distance her administration from Iran and attempt to rein in government spending.
Since her victory Rousseff has holed herself up in a media-proof bunker. Her cabinet line-up has emerged in dry, weekly email bulletins while her only lengthy interview – with The Washington Post – has been pored over by the Brazilian press for signs of what to expect.
Rousseff’s first major challenge will be holding together a volatile coalition with the power-hungry Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, or the PMDB.
Even for President Lula, a master of negotiation, this was not always easy. For the notoriously uncharismatic Rousseff – a competent technocrat but a relative novice in the art of deal-making – it may prove more testing. Many believe Rousseff has already ceded too much ground to the PMDB leadership, naming a series of long-in-the-tooth PMDB faces in her cabinet, among them Brazil’s new tourism minister. He is 80.
“Never before has a government been born so old-aged,” complained Miriam Leitão, one of Brazil’s leading political commentators, pointing out that Rousseff’s cabinet choices had so far represented “the most ancient” face of Brazilian politics.
The economy will also pose serious questions. While “booming Brazil” is currently the darling of the international press, the mid to long-term outlook appears less rosy.
Many believe the level of government spending is unsustainable, while a huge influx of foreign capital has sent the currency, the real, to two-year highs, upsetting exporters. Some analysts worry that a deepening financial crisis in Europe could cause a sudden and painful exodus of capital.
Infrastructure remains shoddy, with airports overloaded and motorways riddled with potholes. Fernando Pimentel, a close friend and the newly appointed development minister, expects his long-time ally to tackle such issues head on.
“I think the emphasis of the future government will be slightly different,” he says. “Dilma has a great concern with infrastructure problems – energy, transport, sanitation – and with education which is an area in which we still lag behind the first world.”
In her victory speech – one of few recent public appearances – Rousseff set herself a daunting set of challenges: eradicating poverty, revolutionising education and battling discrimination by naming a one-third-female cabinet.
“I humbly ask for the support of all of you to help us breach the abyss that separates us from being a developed nation,” she told supporters in Brazil. Rousseff will need all the support she can get – she is not, after all, Lula.