That “Dilma” (as everyone in Brazil already affectionately refers to her) is a member of the governing Partido dos Trabalhadores  (Workers’ Party) that rose to power with the election of President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva  in 2002 explains the fact that, in Salvador, the celebrations took place at Praça da Santana. Historically, this pretty cobblestoned square, framed by bars and overlooking the sea, has been a gathering point for PT activists (whose team color is red) and as well as artists and intellectuals, a tradition that has helped seal Rio Vermelho’s reputation as the city’s bohemian bairro.
Yesterday, Americans went to the polls frustrated, angry, and seeking some sort of change that will put the U.S. back on the road to success. In contrast, Brazilians handed Dilma a sizable victory because they have faith that Lula’s former energy minister, chief of staff, and handpicked successor will continue to repeat the command performance of the wildly popular president (whose current approval ratings, after 8 years in office, are over 80 percent).
While the U.S. has floundered in recent years, Brazil has soared. The economy is so robust that the global economic crisis was but a blip on Brazil’s radar. While unemployment is rampant in the U.S., Brazil is struggling to find candidates qualified to fill new jobs in growing sectors. Best yet is that the increasing prosperity is affecting all Brazilians. Due to a variety of government programs, a record number of poor Brazilians – tens of millions - were able to join the middle class; getting loans, starting businesses, purchasing homes, sending their children to school, and putting food on the table. For all these reasons and more, Dilma – who vows to continue along on the same path forged by Lula – was voted in as Brazil’s 36th president.
As such, the fact that Dilma is a woman was not a major issue in voters’ mind. (Interestingly, in a country where machismo is still strong, polls consistently reported that Dilma’s approval rate with male voters was significantly higher than with females). However, when she mounted the podium to make her victory speech on Sunday, Dilma made clear that the fact that a woman has ascended to the nation’s highest office symbolized an important gain in Brazil’s consolidation as a modern democracy.
The 62-year-old president-elect (who will be sworn in on January 1, 2011) has never held an elected government post, but has certainly come a long way. Born in Belo Horizonte , Dilma had an upper middle-class upbringing. Her father, a Bulgarian Communist who came to Brazil fleeing political persecution, was a contractor and real estate agent while her mother, who had grown up in Minas Gerais, was a school teacher.
As a teenager in the mid-‘60s, Dilma joined socialist student organizations that opposed Brazil’s military dictatorship. In her early 20s, she became a member of an underground Marxist guerilla group (although she was never personally involved in any violent activities). Forced to go into hiding in São Paulo, Dilma was arrested in 1970 and imprisoned for over 2 years, during which time she was tortured.
Upon her release, she moved to Porto Alegre  to be with her then-husband, a politician, with whom she had a daughter. After completing her studies in economics, Dilma entered politics on a municipal and then state level, eventually becoming Rio Grande do Sul’s energy minister, before Lula surprised everyone by choosing the little-known politician to be his minister of energy when he came to power in 2002. In 2005, even Dilma herself was surprised when Lula asked her to become Brazil’s first female chief of staff, a position that earned her national exposure and widespread respect.
If Dilma lacks experience as an elected official and the cult-inspiring personal charisma of her predecessor, she makes up for it in terms of intelligence and a reputation for being tough and working hard. Foremost among the issues she plans to tackle is education, which is seen as one of the greatest obstacles preventing Brazil from realizing its full social and economic potential.
Unlike the U.S. at the moment, these are optimistic days in Brazil. As the jubilant, red-clad crowd at Rio Vermelho chanted while samba-ing the night away in the street: “Viva Dilma!”