Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor at The Washington Post.
President Dilma Rousseff’s relationship with the White House hit the skids two years ago, when she learned that the National Security Agency had tapped her cellphone. This coming week, with the Brazilian economy in trouble, her poll numbers at an all-time low and political scandals looming large, Rousseff will visit Washington to restore relations with President Obama and attract U.S. investment. On the eve of the trip, she spoke with The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth at her home in Brasilia. Edited excerpts follow:
When I was here last, your economy was booming, but now it is really struggling. Your inflation rate is high. The commodity boom is over. Your new finance minister, Joaquim Levy, is carrying out tough austerity measures. This is quite a change for you to be calling for austerity. How does Brazil get out of this situation?
Brazil has been struggling for six or seven years so as not to adopt measures that would reduce employment opportunities or income.
But this hasn’t worked, has it?
It worked for seven years. We didn’t see any reduction in the levels of employment or income.
But then you had the commodity boom, which has now fallen apart, and also there is a slowdown in China.
Yes. We experienced the end of the supercycle of the commodity boom.
In the past, you thought that government could do everything?
No, I don’t believe that. If you think the state can take care of everything, you are not taking into account the fact that the economy is much bigger than that. Brazil has a very strong private sector. We did not want the private sector to experience a depression. We lowered taxes for the private sector.
You’re running a deficit now?
It’s not very high because our currency has depreciated.
Now, with your new finance minister, you have proposed austerity measures and cuts to the budget. Your own party opposes these changes, as do some in the opposition. Do you think you can get them through the Congress?
Yes, the current program is not run by my finance minister — it is, of course, run by my government. We are absolutely certain that it is essential to put in place all the measures that are required, no matter how hard they are, in order to resume the growth conditions in Brazil. Some measures are fiscal. Others are structural.
Reforms in the labor market, for example?
Yes, unemployment insurance benefits as well as death benefits and sick leave allowance. We do not believe adjustments are an end in and of themselves. We have an objective — to resume growth.
What do you expect from your visit to President Obama?
The United States is the biggest private investor in Brazil. We share a vision that may lead us to a major partnership on the climate-change agenda. On this trip, I expect to draw closer ties on science, technology and innovation. We also expect cooperation in the field of education, particularly in primary education.
Where do you think things stand in the scandal involving Petrobras , the state-run oil company? Two CEOs of Brazil’s largest construction companies were arrested this month, in addition to prior charges against politicians and former Petrobras executives in connection with fixing contracts and giving the payoffs to politicians, Petrobras executives and political parties. You were chairman of Petrobras for a long time. Did you have any idea this was going on?
We totally support all investigations. It was under my [presidential] administration that these [arrested former Petrobras executives] were removed from office — way before the scandal came to the fore. These people did commit crimes, or at least that is what the public prosecutor’s office is saying. I cannot say that.
What about the allegation that the Brazilian National Development Bank [BNDES] was involved in this scandal? That it was giving loans to the large construction companies at favorable rates? And that the Workers’ Party was given payoffs by Petrobras and those who benefitted from it?
The BNDES was not involved. There is no investigation into this. The opposition wants to know about all loans that were made by BNDES to foreign countries, and that does not involve Petrobras at all.
Does it involve the construction companies?
Yes. But these construction companies are just that. Just as Enron and U.S. banks were investigated in the U.S., this is part and parcel of democracy.
When you were chairman of Petrobras, you had no idea of the corruption that was going on?
No. An investigation had to be conducted by the federal police and the public prosecutors before we could find it out. You don’t usually see corruption going on. That is typical of corruption — it conceals itself.
People say that you are a micromanager. But they also say that since the last election, you have changed and decided to empower people like your finance minister and your vice president, Michel Temer — to enable Temer to negotiate with Congress.
Have you ever heard someone say that a male president puts his finger on everything? I’ve never heard that.
So you think that is a sexist comment?
I believe there is a bit of a sexual bias or a gender bias. I am described as a hard and strong woman who puts her nose in everything she’s not supposed to, and I am [said to be] surrounded by very cute men.
Your approval rating is at 11 percent. You must worry about it.
Yes, worrying doesn’t mean I pull out my hair or lose my bearing. You have to live with criticism and with prejudice. I do not have any problem with making mistakes; when one does make a mistake, one should change. There is no ready-made plan to say, “This is the right path, this is the wrong path.” In any activity, including government, you must endlessly be making adjustments and changes. If you do not, reality will not wait for you. What does change is reality.
Was there a moment in your first term when you thought, “This isn’t going well”?
We saw a worsening of the Brazilian economic situation in late 2014 as well as a drop in government revenue collection.
Do you think it is time for Brazil to be able to look beyond regional trade associations like Mercosur? Is it time for Brazil to trade with the E.U.? How do you feel about free trade?
Mercosur is a major achievement. . . . We have already informed our E.U. counterparts that we stand ready to submit a trade offer. We also signed a good agreement with Mexico recently. It is important to have trade relations with several different regions of the world, such as the U.S. and China.
Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel for Brazil’s economic problems?
Our expectation is that next year we will be in a much better situation. And from next year onwards, we will start growing at the so-called “new normal” rate. The world will no longer grow at the past rates. The IMF says the world will not grow beyond 3.5 percent — and even that is not a given.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I believe the most important part of my legacy is ensuring that a huge reduction of inequality is still possible. I expect that at the end of my term in office, I will have built the conditions to make these gains permanent. We were able to uplift 50 million people into the middle class, and our main objective is for Brazil to become a middle-class country.
Inequality did shrink during your first term, but it may be increasing now because of the economic situation. Might people take to the streets if unemployment increases?
I don’t believe it.
You don’t worry about that?
Of course I worry about it, and I’ve been worried about it from day one. There has been an increase of unemployment in the past two months. But before that, we had already created 5.5 million jobs. We want a quick adjustment to be carried out, because we want to reduce the effect of unemployment. Today our unemployment rate is between 6 and 7 percent, which is not high.
What about Brazil’s relationship to Africa?
Africa will always be a continent where we play an active role because we have a human, social and cultural debt towards Africa. Fifty-two percent of the Brazilian population declare themselves of black origin. We view ourselves as the largest black country outside Africa. Our relations with Africa are ultimately about rehabilitating our past history, considering the slavery practices that prevailed in this country since the 16th century. This country lived under slavery until 1888, and it must overcome the historical wound left by slavery.