Dilma Rousseff's Fighting Words at the United Nations

Illlustration by Newsweek; Source: John Moore / Getty Images

Just 18 months ago, when Dilma Rousseff took office as president of Brazil, you could almost hear the sighs sweeping the corner offices of the Western diplomatic establishment. After all, she had just replaced Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the charismatic populist who rarely missed an opportunity to lecture rich nations for ignoring the lot of the poor or provoking global financial Armageddon. Surely Rousseff, a political neophyte known for her PowerPoint skills but not commanding a bully pulpit, would be easier to deal with. Or would she?

For anyone listening in on the 67th United Nations General Assembly in New York last week, the answers are clearer now. The sharp, 23-minute speech that kicked off the assembly was not without its rhetorical flourishes. “To many, we women are half of heaven, but we want to be half of earth as well, with equal rights and opportunities,” she said. But in the balance of her address, Rousseff could have been channeling Lula as she flayed global decisionmakers for their mismanagement and shortsightedness in the teeth of crisis. Wearing a bold designer print and a power hairstyle, she scrolled through a laundry list of First World failings, from the quagmire in Syria to unbending fiscal orthodoxy and beggar-thy-neighbor protectionism.

Though she avoided naming names, Rousseff called out “industrial world central banks” for their loose money policies that flood the markets with cheap dollars and euros and so punish emerging markets, “which lose market share due to the artificial overpricing of their currencies,” she said. “Monetary policy cannot be the only response to remedy growing unemployment, rising poverty, and the despair that affects the world’s most vulnerable populations.”

Applause rippled through the assembly, but elsewhere the speech played to mixed reviews. One awkward moment: even as Rousseff criticized the rich world’s monetary dumping, her government recently slapped steep tariffs on hundreds of imports, from bicycles to potatoes, prompting a protectionist complaint by U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk. “Legitimate defense,” volleyed Rousseff. The two governments will have it out at the World Trade Organization.

What fueled Rousseff’s harsh words—essentially a reprise of her speech a year ago—was not just the sluggish global economy, but a reversal of fortunes at home. Five years ago, when world markets collapsed, Lula famously dismissed the gathering global recession as a “ripple” in Brazil. Now the crisis has battered the country in full. GDP growth has tumbled from 7.5 percent in 2010 to 2.7 percent last year and this year is heading to well under 2 percent. Brasilia’s favorite meme is no longer the ripple but the First World’s “monetary tsnunami” and “currency wars.” The octave change in rhetoric will not be lost on world diplomats.