Reports of U.S. Secret Service personnel procuring Colombian prostitutes and duking it out at a local brothel marred Obama’s participation at the 6th Summit of the Americas (Cartagena, Colombia) in 2012. His comments concerning the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America must have ruffled feathers throughout the region as well. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay are still reeling from painful truth and reconciliation commissions to punish officials who participated in regional military dictatorships and Operation Condor. “Sometimes I feel as if… we’re caught in a time warp… going back to the 1950s, gunboat diplomacy, and Yankees, and the Cold War and this and that,” Obama griped during debate.
Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff didn’t flinch as she attentively listened only one seat away from Obama. Maybe his top Latin American advisor hadn’t warned him that Dilma wasn’t a vague relic of the past but living proof that she, like many other women, had been imprisoned and brutally tortured by the Brazilian military dictatorship that seized power in 1964 and was supported by U.S. foreign policy.
Fast-forward four years to 2016 where we’re greeted by the likelihood of U.S. presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, being defeated by misogynistic Donald Trump. Obama’s emotional and psychological appeal for the average American woman to vote Hillary was made in June when he publicly declared that, despite his greyer hair, he’s what a feminist looks like. Two months later he penned an essay in Glamour magazine reaffirming that he’s a feminist. These petitions place him squarely in the crossfire of Trump’s fiercely decided, anti-women views. Still, his newfound feminism should also signify that he, no presidential advisor needed, should have sentenced a retroactive condemnation of his snark choice of words professed before Dilma in Cartagena. Though she’s never spoken publicly about her experiences while imprisoned for three years it has been documented that women who suffered at the hands of Latin American dictatorships had rats shoved in their vaginas, electric shocks applied to their genitals and breasts, and tortured in other inhumane ways. To deride their experiences, implying that political figures like Dilma should magically release themselves from being caught in a time warp and blindly realign public policy with Washington’s consensus is a callous remark, much more reflective of The Donald’s fire and brimstone than Obama’s chivalrous debonair.
In August, the same month that Obama took his feminism mainstream in Glamour, Dilma was impeached. Many insist that her ouster was an institutional coup. She had been democratically re-elected in 2014, committed no crime (this is according to a report by Brazil’s Public Prosecutor office that found that Dilma was not guilty of any crime), and wasn’t implicated in the notorious Car Wash investigations that have rocked almost every facet of Brazilian politics over the past few years. Her removal from office was due, in large part, to a carefully orchestrated, private media smear campaign that occasioned ruins for the democratic process. Their interests, aligned with the interests of an elite political and big business minority frustrated with loosing democratic elections for a fourth consecutive time, fostered an atmosphere of dissent and brazen calls for impeachment.
While Dilma’s record in office remains impeccable, the career politician who replaced her, Michel Temer, and the bulk of his administration, are currently under federal investigation for corruption, personal enrichment, and a battery of other crimes.
It can’t be overstated that Dilma is a member of the Worker’s Party. Since 2003, when Lula (Luis Inácio Lula da Silva), also a Worker’s Party member, was first elected president, Brazil has pursued policies based on regional solidarity, advancing MERCOSUL partnerships, strengthening ties with African nations, redistributing wealth in one of the world’s most unequal nations and implementing robust internal social programs. Another highlight has been the government’s recalibrated relationship with the U.S., no longer abiding by Washington’s directives like a lapdog republic.
But, low and behold, the boys of old are back. In a country where the majority of the populace are black and brown people, old white, criminally implicated men hold all key political posts. They look like Trump. Sound like Trump. They’re brothers of another mother, like the present-day city of Americana in the state of São Paulo, developed, primarily, by confederates who immigrated to Brazil after the US Civil War. William Hutchinson Norris, a pro-confederate senator from Alabama, was the first politician to arrive in Brazil in 1865.
Not learning an iota from his gaffe in Cartagena or U.S. foreign policy meddling in Latin America’s internal affairs, Obama’s administration declared, shortly after Dilma was impeached, that her removal was constitutionally legal. It tells the 54.5 million voters who democratically re-elected her for a second term in office that their voice doesn’t count. It has, effectively, told women, and black and brown people, to step aside and let the boys of old take care of biz. It reminds me of a number of men I’ve come across on the streets of Brazil who comment, in deafening voice if one stands too close, that a woman has no damn business being president.
Obama’s embrace of feminism appears to come with a strategic string attached, one that can only be supportive of a particular stripe of woman at a particular point in political time. Whenever his administration became the misogynistic reflection of Trump’s campaign is anybody’s guess—anybody except Dilma. Maybe her enemies and detractors wanted to hear her wail like a banshee as she stood before a special congressional session that would eventually consecrate her impeachment. But Dilma spoke the words of a valiant, dignified leader, indeed, the first female president of Brazil. It was a reminder of her lifelong struggle of resistance against the forces of inequality.
She said (and I translate and quote):
“Of my shortcomings, disloyalty and cowardliness don’t exist. I don’t betray commitments that I assume, principles I defend, or those who fight beside me. In the struggle against the dictatorship, I received torture marks on my body. For years I gradually succumbed to bitterness by the plight of being imprisoned. I saw comrades being raped and assassinated.
Back then I was very young. I had much to expect of life. I was afraid of death—of the impact of torture on my body and in my soul. But I didn’t give in. I resisted. I resisted the storm of terror that had started to consume me in the darkness—in the bitter times in this country. I never changed sides. Despite receiving the weight of injustice on my shoulders, I continued fighting for democracy. (…) Not now, at almost 70 years of age, after becoming a mother and grandmother, will I abdicate from the principles that have always guided me.”