New Petrobras Head Clears Brazil's Glass Ceiling In Rise From Intern To CEO

Maria das Graças Foster, 56, has recently taken over as president of Latin America’s largest company, Brazilian oil giant Petrobras. Trained as a mechanical engineer, the new CEO was nominated for the post by another powerful Brazilian woman, President Di

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (left) presents Maria das Graças Foster with an award (dilmarousseff)
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (left) presents Maria das Graças Foster with an award (dilmarousseff)
Graziele Dal-Bó and Sérgio Siscaro

SAO PAULOThe 23rd floor of Petrobras' headquarters in Rio de Janeiro has a new occupant, and for the first time in the company's history, that person – as in the president of state-owned oil giant – is a she.

Last week, Maria das Graças Foster, the head of the gas and petroleum division at Petrobas, took over the post formerly occupied by José Sérgio Gabrielli. His will be a hard act to follow, given that he multiplied the company's revenues by six in the years that he served as company president. The stock market, nevertheless, reacted positively to news of the new CEO's appointment, registering an immediate bump.

Graça Foster, as she is known, has been a life-long civil servant, both at Petrobras and in the government. Her appointment was approved by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff herself, with whom Graça Foster has a long-standing professional relationship. Petrobras, a public-private hybrid company, does have private stockholders, but the government holds 64% of the company's stock, enough to call the shots.

Graça Foster was a very strong candidate for the position, and the company's stocks jumped immediately after her appointment. According to Marco Aurélio Barbosa, a financial analyst, Graça Foster has a very strong track record in the company, as well as important technical knowledge. "She took over divisions that were losing money and managed to turn them around and make them profitable," he says.

Many experts, including Barbosa, say that they do not expect any major changes in Petrobras's management, in spite of the fact that Graça Foster's style is distinctly different from her predecessor.

Humble Origins

Graça Foster, who came from humble beginnings, studied chemical engineering and has a Master's degree in mechanical engineering in addition to an MBA from the Fundación Getúlio Vargas. She began working at Petrobras in 1978 as a student intern, and rose in the ranks until, in 2003, the then-minister of energy and mines, Dilma Rousseff, invited her to become the secretary of petroleum, natural gas and biofuel. In 2007 Graça Foster took over the strategic direction of gas and petroleum at Petrobras.

Graça Foster, who is said to have an aggressive temperament, has earned the nickname "Maria Caveirão," in reference to the armored vehicles used by the military police in Rio de Janeiro. Like Dilma Rousseff", she's a member of the Worker's party and is also a technocrat.

That political coziness could have its negative aspects, especially since investors have long seen Petrobras as susceptible to interference from the Brazilian government. Her appointment is also attracting a lot of attention for the simple fact that she is a woman. Economically speaking, her position is indeed a powerful one. Petrobras is Latin America's largest company and, by some measures, the eighth largest in the world.

Political scientist David Fleischer of the University of Brasilia says that "there is still a lot of opposition against Graça simply because she is a woman. For a long time, her rise was blocked by José Dirceu, the former chief of staff for President Lula." Dirceu was forced to resign amid a major scandal involving payoffs to law-makers. "Without Dirceu in her way, she was free to rise," says Fleischer.

Another controversy surrounding Graça Foster was revealed last year by the newspaper Folha de São Paulo. According to a note published by the newspaper, the company C Foster, which belongs to Colin Vaugham Foster, Graça Foster's husband, signed 42 contracts with Petrobras between 2007 and 2010, of which 20 did not go through an open bidding process. C Foster said that the lack of open bidding was due to the relatively minor sums involved. The Financial Times, in a follow-up report, discovered that those contracts were worth up to $350,000. When the Financial Times contacted Colin Foster, he told the reporter that his company did not have any contracts with Petrobras or its subsidiaries.

In the next couple of months, Graça Foster will have to prove that the contracts with her husband's company are not cause for concern. And she will also have to show that the continuing fears of governmental intervention can be overcome. But for the most part, her appointment as the first woman to lead this major company did not surprise anyone.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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