Brazilian president-elect Dilma Rousseff is building a Cabinet in her own image: a group of bookish technocrats who, like her, have risen to power not because of charisma or political connections, but for their ability to crunch numbers and get things done.
You could even call it, in the most charitable sense, a government of nerds.
“It’s true,” laughed an incoming minister, who like Rousseff and several other future officials, pursued graduate degrees in economics. “We’re more likely to argue about yield curves than soccer, that is certain.”
The emphasis on technical qualifications reflects Rousseff’s -priorities, such as exploiting newfound deepwater oil reserves, bringing down interest rates, improving woeful schools and ports and other reforms designed to keep Brazil’s economy booming once she takes office Jan. 1.
The approach carries risks. Rousseff, 62, is a career civil servant who never ran for public office before this year and she may find her administration short of political operators who can push contentious issues, like budget cuts, through Congress.
Rousseff’s determination to focus on resumes rather than political ties has strained relations with her main coalition partner, the PMDB party, whose leaders felt they were underrepresented in early appointments.
Yet, to the delight of Brazil’s public sector, Rousseff has pressed ahead.
Perhaps the most visible example of her selection criteria was Alexandre Tombini, the next head of the central bank. The bespectacled, slightly disheveled 47-year-old spent the last 15 years rising through the bank’s hierarchy and had been best known for working with the opposition party on a highly technical inflation-targeting plan a decade ago.
Tombini — who will replace Henrique Meirelles, one of the PMDB’s most prominent politicians — acknowledged the unlikely nature of his appointment last week, calling it an example of a growing “meritocracy in public institutions.”
Rousseff’s career followed a similar path.
After fighting in the resistance to Brazil’s dictatorship as a student in the 1960s and spending three years in prison, she became an economist, worked at a think-tank and occupied several government jobs in a southern state when democracy returned in the 1980s.
It was her policy knowledge that first impressed outgoing Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who said he made her his energy minister in part because of a great PowerPoint multimedia presentation. He later chose her as his party’s presidential candidate over other, better-known figures.
Rousseff seems eager to give others a chance to follow her lead. Fernando Pimentel, who fought alongside her in the guerrilla movement and will likely be her minister of trade, was an economics professor before becoming a popular mayor.
Even the future chief of staff — traditionally a grease-the-wheels, glad-handing position — will fall to Antonio Palocci, a former finance minister, trained physician and reformed Trotskyite who colleagues say seems more comfortable around Wall Street bankers than at large public events.
Rousseff’s appointments have also been designed to signal a continuity of Lula’s policies, as illustrated by her decision to keep Guido Mantega as finance minister. The next round of ministerial appointments, expected later this week, will include some overt -political decisions to please the PMDB.