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  • The Patriarchy’s Revenge: How Retro-Macho Politics Doomed Dilma Rousseff
  • Omar G. Encarnación (bio)

When Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president, took the stand in August 2016 at the conclusion of the impeachment trial that removed her from office, she minced no words about the role gender played in her downfall: “There are certain elements of machismo and misogyny in this impeachment … I have always been described as a hard woman. Yet I have never heard a man described as a hard man.”

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João Berchmans Correia Serra, Sen. Aloysio Nunes Ferreira, Sen. Raimundo Lira, and Miguel Reale Júnior converse during Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment hearings.

geraldo magela/agência senado

[End Page 82]

Brazilian politicians and media drowned out Rousseff’s accusations of sexism with other explanations for her predicament. She presided over the worst economy in Brazil since the 1930s, with 7.5 percent GDP growth in 2010 plummeting to a 3.8 percent contraction in 2015. Her Workers’ Party, or PT, was mired in corruption scandals, many of them involving Petrobras, the semi-state-owned oil company. In addition, Rousseff’s foes in Congress accused her of breaking budgetary laws. Her approval ratings dropped to single digits, the lowest on record since the last time Brazil impeached a president, Fernando Collor de Mello, in 1992.

Yet a compelling case can be made for Rousseff becoming a victim of “retro-macho politics.” Deeply rooted in Latin American history, the notion of retro-macho politics evokes the enduring influence of a patriarchal social order shaped by such male-dominated bastions of political and economic power as the Catholic Church, the landed oligarchy, the military, and, most prominently, the so-called caudillos, or the strongmen that, since the end of Iberian colonial rule, have so often dominated the region’s politics.

A backlash against the empowerment of women and people of color in recent years, retro-macho politics is characterized by swashbuckling masculinity, overt sexism, and misogyny. In the short term, retro-macho politics seeks to curry favor with a segment of the electorate that professes to be fed up with political correctness. In the long term, the intention is to roll back the progress that women have already made and to undo the policies that female leaders tend to champion in areas such as reproductive health, affirmative action, and human rights.

Retro-macho politics plays well with the public because sexism and misogyny still resonate within the culture at large. This is clearly the case in Brazil, a country that is more socially conservative than its international reputation for freewheeling sexuality would lead one to believe. The same can be said about the United States, where Donald J. Trump, a notorious misogynist, was elected president running against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the first female major-party presidential nominee in U.S. history.


It may seem strange to suggest Rousseff’s gender as a primary cause for her political demise given the success of women in politics in Latin America. After all, the first woman to rise to the presidency of any country was a Latin American woman, Isabel Martínez de Perón, who in 1974 became the president of Argentina, following the death of her husband, President Juan Domingo Perón. Since then, Latin America has had eight women presidents— four of them since 2006. Moreover, according to the U.N.’s Women in Politics Survey, 27.7 percent of all Latin American parliamentarians are women, the second-highest percentage of any region, behind only Northern Europe. The recent surge in female legislators is largely due to gender quota systems, pioneered by Argentina in the early 1990s.

But the advances that female politicians have made in the region are not reflected in Brazil, which shows more patriarchal vestiges than any other major Latin American country. Despite a 2009 gender quota law requiring that 30 percent of all political candidates be female, only 10 percent of seats in the Brazilian Congress are occupied by women, according to the World Bank. This ratio places Brazil dead last in Latin America and well behind the region...


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pp. 82-91
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