Just when President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva thought he had installed his chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, as his successor in next year’s presidential race Fate struck a blow and Rousseff announced that she was undergoing chemotherapy. She called a press conference on April 25 and announced that she had had a tumor removed from an armpit and a biopsy had detected a cancer of the lymphatic system.
She said this would not affect her life as a minister and left the door open to being the Workers Party (PT) presidential candidate. Despite this brave approach, her candidature has been weakened and we may now see a different match from the expected contest between Rousseff and the São Paulo state governor, José Serra, from the PSDB party.
Despite this setback, both Rousseff and Lula have been chirpy and
behaving as though nothing has changed. The malignancy was discovered
at an early period and Rousseff’s doctor said the chances of a
successful response to treatment were over 90%. She carried on with
her heavy schedule in the week following the announcement.
However, she called off a trip to the United States in her role as chairman of the Board of Directors of the state-owned oil company, Petrobras. Instead of mingling with investors at a trade fair in Houston, she will be undergoing treatment. This may not be important in terms of her political ambitions but it is already a sign that she cannot guarantee her presence at future events.
The news hit the daily newspaper headlines and made the covers of some magazines but has created little stir in the country as a whole since Rousseff is still not widely known. For this reason, there has been no outpouring of popular sympathy for her.
While no-one has been critical of her conduct, the readers letters columns of some newspapers have published a few acerbic remarks comparing the ultra-modern private hospital in São Paulo* where she is being treated with the ramshackle state-run places with too many patients and too few beds and drugs which most Brazilians have to put up with.
The opposition parties have been discreet as no-one wants to be accused of exploiting a personal setback. It was left to one of Lula’s so-called allies, Michael Temer, chairman of the House of Representatives and a member of the PMDB, to say that we would have to wait and see how the medical treatment went before deciding which candidate the party would support.
Although the PMDB is officially in the government – with no less than six ministers – this does not mean that it will support Lula’s candidate. The PMDB is only interested in power and will switch support to any side it believes will win. It is also the biggest party in Brazil and no candidate can refuse to pursue or turn down its support no matter how distasteful he or she might feel about its murky track record.
There is no shortage of PT leaders who could replace Rousseff – Tarso Genro, Jaques Wagner or Aloizio Mercadante – but none has any of Lula’s charisma and it is not even sure whether Lula would support them. He could easily express his preference for someone like Ciro Gomes (PSB) or even Aécio Neves if Neves were to quit the PSDB should Serra become its candidate and stand for another party.
Many Brazilians believe that Lula is exploiting Rousseff and using her as a proxy so that he can maintain an influence in the Planalto Palace during her administration before standing for re-election in the following election in 2014. If this is so, then he should have no scruples about using her illness to move her sideways and create another “dream” candidate.
The problem is that time is running out and if he gives his unqualified support to an experienced politician (as opposed to a technocrat like Rousseff) then he might find his successor will not be so willing to be seen as a stopgap president before Lula returns to a third term in office.
*The Syrian-Lebanese hospital founded by São Paulo’s Arab community which, along with the Einstein Hospital founded by the Jewish community, are probably the best hospitals in Latin America. These two hospitals – and communities – cooperate in a way that could be a model for the Middle East if there was some magic way in which the ability Brazilians have to coexist with each other could be applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. This article originally appeared on his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© John Fitzpatrick 2008