August 31, 2016 / 10:51 PM / 3 years ago

Defiant to the end, Brazil's Rousseff vows to fight on

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla who rose to become her country’s first female president, went out as she always said she would: fighting.

Brazil's former President Dilma Rousseff, who was removed by the Brazilian Senate from office earlier, speaks at the Alvorada Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

There was no regret, no submission and no compromise as she responded to the Senate vote that stripped her of the presidency on Wednesday.

“They think they’ve defeated us, but they’re wrong,” she said from her official residency, her voice cracking and eyes moist with emotion. “I know we will all fight.”

Such defiance is characteristic of the 68-year-old leftist, who was imprisoned and tortured in the early 1970s under Brazil’s military dictatorship. For many, it was also the root of her downfall.

Removed from office for breaking budget laws, Rousseff denied any wrongdoing to the very end, vowing to appeal to the Supreme Court to reverse an impeachment she has described as a coup.

But for critics, her economic mismanagement, some of it masked by the accounting tricks for which she was impeached, helped drive Brazil into its worst recession in nearly a century.

Though Rousseff’s budgetary misdemeanors pale in comparison to the corruption charges against many members of Congress, her political isolation and approval ratings in the single digits ultimately made her government untenable.

Her dogmatic approach, reflected in an inability or unwillingness to cut deals and maintain allegiances, played into the opposition’s hands, while a corruption scandal at Petrobras, centered on the period when she chaired the state-run oil company, eroded her reputation for honesty.

“She does not have a high tolerance for dissent,” said one colleague who worked with her for nearly a decade in government, adding that she had rarely demonstrated flexibility in negotiations.

Her ouster marks the end of 13 years of leftist Workers Party rule. Once heralded for a sustained economic boom that helped more than 30 million people out of poverty, it finished in the midst of deep recession and with government finances in tatters.

EARLY SIGNS

For someone who had never held elected office, plucked from relative obscurity by her mentor and predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Rousseff won her first presidential election easily.

It was 2010 and Brazil was still flying high on the back of a commodity boom, as exports of soy, iron ore and oil soared.

Lula left office with an approval rating of 83 percent and his success rubbed off on Rousseff, whom he marketed as a no-nonsense technocrat.

But she lacked Lula’s charisma and negotiating skills, a fatal flaw in rough-and-tumble Brazilian politics.

Warning signs appeared early on. Economic growth halved in her first year in office to 3.9 percent as commodity prices fell and debt-laden consumers curbed spending.

By 2012 growth had fallen to 1.9 percent. In an increasingly desperate bid to restore growth, Rousseff abandoned economic principles such as inflation targeting and balanced budgets that for two decades had kept boom-bust cycles at bay.

She also ignored business leaders’ pleas to pursue tax, labor and pension reforms to make Brazil more competitive.

Despite falling tax revenues, Rousseff increased spending, hoping that public works would encourage investment. To curb inflation, she froze fuel prices and gave electricity companies tax breaks to keep power rates low.

The policies held off recession just long enough to win re-election in 2014. But almost immediately the gravity of Brazil’s problems began to take a toll.

The economy went into freefall, contracting 3.85 percent in 2015, while the Petrobras scandal swept through congress, heightening suspicion and fracturing allegiances.

When Rousseff finally tried to pass austerity measures, she largely failed, having lost the support of congress. Her main ally, the PMDB party led by Michel Temer who succeeds her as president, split in December and momentum for her impeachment grew.

Many Brazilians hope Rousseff’s removal will help to end a political crisis that has obstructed attempts to salvage the economy.

But there is a large section of society that will grieve the departure of Rousseff’s Workers Party, which promised a new type of inclusive politics combining economic growth with the reduction of inequality.

To her supporters, Rousseff promised this was not the end.

“This story does not finish like this ... We will return to continue our journey toward a Brazil in which the people are sovereign,” she said.

Additional reporting by Jeb Blount; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown

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