BRASÍLIA — The year was 1970. Agents of Brazil’s military dictatorship had arrested Dilma Rousseff, then a member of a fledgling urban guerrilla group, the Palmares Armed Revolutionary Vanguard. Inside the prison where she was being held in São Paulo, a debate raged among the inmates: Should they support Brazil in that year’s World Cup?
“At that time, many people opposed to the government initially questioned whether we would be strengthening the dictatorship by rooting for Brazil’s team,” Ms. Rousseff, 66, who is now Brazil’s president, said in an interview here on Tuesday. “I had no such dilemma.”
She said resistance dissipated among the jailed guerrillas in the period leading up to Brazil’s victory over Italy in the championship match, which took place in Mexico City.
With Brazil’s government facing widespread discontent over its preparations for the World Cup, Ms. Rousseff made the rare public reference to her imprisonment decades ago, when interrogators tortured her during three years in jail. Sipping orange juice and nibbling on cashews at a spacious circular table in her office, she defended loans from state banks for new stadiums for the soccer tournament and insisted that Brazilians planning to shun the event were a “small minority.”
As the start of this year’s World Cup on June 12 approaches, Ms. Rousseff is grappling with a wave of strikes, a sluggish economy and a presidential race pitting her against rivals who have climbed in public opinion polls. While she is still viewed as a favorite in the October elections, her government has come under criticism over delays in finishing World Cup construction and an array of other stalled public works projects.
A survey released on Tuesday by the Pew Research Center found that 72 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with the way things were going in Brazil, up from 55 percent just weeks before huge street protests in June 2013 shook Brazilian cities.
The survey, based on 1,003 face-to-face interviews with Brazilian adults in April, also found that two-thirds said Brazil’s economy was in bad shape, and that 61 percent thought hosting the World Cup was a bad idea because it took resources away from public services, including health care and education.
The glum mood, which follows an economic boom that culminated in 7.5 percent growth in 2010, has been compounded by scandals at Brazil’s national oil company, Petrobras, and a multiyear slowdown in economic growth. The economy grew only 0.2 percent in the first quarter of 2014, slower than the 0.4 percent expansion reported in the previous three months.
Still, Ms. Rousseff, a member of the leftist Workers Party that has governed Brazil since 2003, vigorously defended her economic record in an hourlong interview at the presidential palace in the modernist capital, Brasília. She insisted that various measures showed that life had generally improved in Brazil.
Citing antipoverty projects that have pulled millions of people into the middle class over the last decade, she said incomes for poorer Brazilians had risen well above the rate of inflation, making Brazil’s progress in reducing poverty comparable to Spain’s experience after the death in 1975 of the dictator Francisco Franco, which ushered in a transition to democratic government.
Emphasizing that inequality had fallen in Brazil while growing in the United States and parts of Europe, Ms. Rousseff, an economist by training, spoke glowingly of the work of Thomas Piketty, the professor at the Paris School of Economics whose sweeping studies of inequality have gained widespread attention.
“I think he’s done a fantastic job,” Ms. Rousseff said of Mr. Piketty, who has stood by his conclusions about the evolution of wealth inequality after The Financial Times attacked his data.
Ms. Rousseff said that rising incomes in Brazil had created new challenges, reflected in the large demonstrations that have given way to smaller protests, often led by housing activists or anti-establishment groups. She said that many of the protesters’ complaints about the poor quality of services, whether from governments or private companies, were understandable.
“Services grew less than income,” she said, noting as an example the surging access to air travel in Brazil, which has left many travelers fatigued at the mere thought of dealing with the country’s swamped airport infrastructure. Brazil’s larger middle class, she said, has “more desire, more longings, more demands.”
“This forms an intrinsic part of the human being in the society in which we live,” she said. “He obtains something, but he wants more, which is very good.”
Beyond the challenges her government faces before the World Cup, with security forces bracing for a possible return of large-scale protests against spending on the tournament, Ms. Rousseff said the event offered an opportunity to strengthen Brazil’s position on the global stage.
She also said she was prepared for a thaw in relations with the United States, after a souring last year over revelations that the National Security Agency had spied on Ms. Rousseff and her inner circle of senior aides. She noted her plans to meet with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. when he visits Brazil this month to watch the United States soccer team play Ghana.
“I’m certain we can pick up our relations where we left off,” Ms. Rousseff said. She said she was prepared to consider rescheduling a state visit to Washington, which she had postponed in September in response to the N.S.A. revelations.
In other matters, Ms. Rousseff said she expected Brazil to continue raising its diplomatic and economic profile in Latin America and the Caribbean. She singled out Cuba as a country where Brazilian companies were making inroads. “We’re betting much more on a policy of investment than a blockade,” she said, referring to the United States’ trade embargo against Cuba, which began in 1960.
In one example of Brazil’s strengthening ties with Cuba, the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht has carried out a $900 million upgrade of Cuba’s Mariel port. Ms. Rousseff said that overhauling Cuba’s economy required the application of “more market forces, not less.”
Helping Cuba to open its economy also reflects on Brazil’s, and Ms. Rousseff’s, political evolution since military rule ended here in 1985. While Brazil now has a president who was a Marxist guerrilla in her youth, it stands out among its neighbors for a law under which perpetrators of rights abuses during the dictatorship are shielded from prosecution.
Brazil’s highest court has upheld the amnesty law, meaning that Ms. Rousseff’s torturers remain free even as commissions examine the politically motivated crimes of that era.
Ms. Rousseff said that as president, she respected the law, despite her personal views. “I don’t believe in vindictiveness, but I also don’t believe in forgiving,” she said.
“It’s a question of the truth,” she added. “It’s extremely important for Brazil to know what happened, because that will mean it won’t happen again.”
Source: The New York Times