BRASÍLIA, Brazil – Hours after a vote in the Brazilian Senate saw President Dilma Rousseff suspended from her position for 180 days pending a trial, she voiced her anger and disappointment at the “unspeakable pain of injustice.”
“My government has been the subject of intense sabotage,” Rousseff said from the Palácio do Planalto, the seat of government, as she stood surrouned by her cabinet members and supporters.
Her words came after a majority in the Brazilian Senate voted to remove her from power; 55 voted for Rousseff’s impeachment while 22 voted against. A majority of the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of Congress) also voted in favor of impeachment several weeks ago.
Indeed, it seems as if Rousseff, who was re-elected in October of 2014 for another four-year term, was railroaded out of office by politicians she once considered allies that are now seeking to capitalize on the government’s fall.
Nearly 55 percent of Brazilian parliamentarians have some sort of criminal case opened against them, mostly in relation to corruption, bribery or money laundering while others are accused of assault and even kidnapping. Those same politicians, however, voted to unseat Rousseff, one of the very few politicians in the nation that has not been directly accused of illegal enrichment.
The official reason given for the action against the leader is that she allegedly transferred parts of the national budget between different funds in order to present a better picture of the national economy. This is standard practice in Brazil and in many nations (and has been seen especially in recent years with the global economic crisis) and while it does present a murkier view of a government and its transparency, it has never come close to toppling a national leader. In truth, judicial experts in Brazil have blasted the whole process as “irregular.”
Instead, budget-shifting tactics like these by any given government will have their consequences at the next election, especially in Brazil, one of the world’s biggest democracies.
In this case, however, politicians have used public discontent over a stagnant economy and rampant cases of corruption (in which most of them and their parties are involved) to use Rousseff as a scapegoat.
In particular, most members of the big-tent (but currently right-leaning) Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), which withdrew itself from the ruling coalition recently, have come out against Rousseff, as have members of other parties that were once allies.
The most notable PMDB members to do so include Eduardo Cunha, the man who started the impeachment effort and was the President of the Chamber of Deputies of Brazil until last week when he was removed due to allegations of corruption and obstruction of justice. Another notable figure is Michel Temer, Rousseff’s Vice-President and now-interim leader who was recorded speaking of himself as President and about his presidential plans two months before the Senate’s impeachment vote even took place.
While some have sought to unseat Rousseff for their own personal gain or notoriety, others welcomed the news of impeachment simply due to their political leanings.
Rousseff belongs to the center-left Workers’ Party (PT) and this made her a target among many politicians who jumped on the chance to remove a democratically elected leader. One example of this is the group known as the Bancada da Bala (Bullet Caucus) or the Bancada da Bíblia (Bible Caucus), their names indicative of their political, military and religious backgrounds and beliefs.
The leader of the group, Jair Bolsonaro of the right-wing Social Christian Party (PSC), is no stranger to voicing his personal opinions, no matter how controversial.
The São Paulo native, and longtime Federal Deputy for Rio de Janeiro after being based there during his military service, has made polemic statements about gays and gay marriage, women and women’s rights, abortion, marijuana use, race, gender, the death penalty, gun laws, torture and the validation of the nation’s violent military dictatorship (1964-1985), all of which have earned him the unofficial title of most controversial lawmaker in Brazil.
Bolsonaro made another controversial statement (and displayed the political nature of the impeachment process) as he voted against Rousseff. Bolsonaro dedicated his ‘yes’ vote to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, a former colonel in the Brazilian Armed Forces who has been recognized by courts as a torturer and killer while he led the DOI-CODI, the dictatorship-era intelligence agency.
Brilhante Ustra, who died in October of 2015, personally tortured then-activist Rousseff when she was detained in the 1970s by the military.
“My destiny has always presented me with many challenges, many of which seemed insurmountable but I always managed to beat them. I never thought that I would have to fight another coup,” Rousseff said on Thursday in reference to the dark period in Brazilian history and the current impeachment process.
While some Brazilians have simply called for Rousseff to step down or to be impeached due to a nonpartisan wish for a change of government, most calls for this change have been marked politically.
Many placards have been seen at anti-Rousseff rallies that call for the return of the military while others say that “Brazil is not Cuba.” The PT, Rousseff’s party, has also been targeted almost exclusively despite the fact that several other parties, mostly conservative in ideology and in favor of impeachment, have seen many more of their members accused of (and arrested for) corruption-related charges.
As the Senate members voted in the National Congress building in the capital, demonstrators gathered outside. Just like in the demonstrations of the past several months, the differences in the crowds were distinct: a diverse crowd of the country’s vast working and lower-middle classes, along with students and various organizations, showed their support for Rousseff.
On the other side, the crowd mostly consisted of White, middle-class, upper-middle-class and well-off members of Brazilian society, many of which have recently arrived in their new economic classes over the last decade during the PT’s leadership and organized over social media. It is true that most people in the nation, regardless of personal characteristics or socioeconomic class, are unhappy with the government but the latter group has the one that is vocal about impeachment.
The scenes were reminiscent (although on a much smaller scale) of the June and July protests of 2013 when Brazilians initially demonstrated against rising public transportation costs. That spread into a countrywide uprising that decried poor infrastructure, poor public education and health care, high taxes, corruption, insecurity and police brutality, among other reasons.
Specifically, the protests were amplified in intensity and quantity due to the FIFA Confederations Cup taking place simultaneously, representing the vast amount of money and resources the government earmarked toward past and future mega sporting events (like the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro) when the money could have served the general public. Over two million Brazilians took to the streets in these protests in one day alone (June 20th).
Now, however, the primary concerns are financial with the national economy lagging (due in part to the catastrophic drop in oil prices and other commodities Brazil exports in large quantities), inflation on the rise and tax increases and budget cuts instituted by the government as a way to meet ends.
Ironically, the tax increases and cuts in public spending were instituted by former Economy Minister Joaquím Levy, an economic liberal to the core, who was named to the position by Rousseff in an effort to placate certain politicians and members of the public and to show that she can cooperate and make compromises. In addition, Temer, or another leader in case new elections are called, would certainly make even deeper cuts and take more unpopular austerity measures.
Rousseff made other attempts to jolt the financial sector back into life with a slew of reforms and bills but with a fractured coalition (that eventually fell apart) and a united opposition, her reforms were backlogged and her second term was essentially ‘lame-ducked,’ even as she re-shuffled her Cabinet in order to include many opposition figures.
The Petrobras scandal, in which prosecutors allege that over $1 billion was doled out and laundered to the the semi-state-owned energy company’s executives in exchange for valuable contracts with construction and engineering companies, has arguably dealt the biggest blow to Rousseff, even more so than the economy.
Although most of those named in corruption case do not come from the PT, the party has bared the brunt of the blame and so has Rousseff as she was Energy Minister (2003-2005) during a part of when the alleged crimes took place, and she also sat on the board of Petrobras during this time.
Several prosecutors overseeing the case, which began to filter out to the public in March of 2014 and is being called the biggest corruption case in Brazilian history, have cleared Rousseff of any wrongdoing and say that she did not know what was happening behind her back. The corruption began with kickbacks in 1997, according to the Attorney General, during the administration of center-right Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003).
Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, Rousseff’s predecessor (2003-2011) and fellow PT member, stood alongside his successor as she quietly spoke of the latest turn of events. Lula, who is credited with lifting 40 million Brazilians out of poverty during his time in power (2003-2011) and averaging an economic growth of 7.5 percent during that time, has also been recently accused of illegal enrichment and has gone from the most popular leader in Brazilian history to being labelled a villain by anti-government figures.
“I may have made mistakes as President of the Federative Republic of Brazil, certainly, but I never committed any crimes,” Rousseff said forcefully to cheers and applause from supporters in Brasília.
While Rousseff finished her speech, interim leader Temer named the 22 Ministers in his cabinet. Temer will rule for the next 180 days while Rousseff’s impeachment trial goes on. In the case that she is definitively stripped of the presidency, he will then rule until January 1, 2019 unless the corruption charges with which he, unlike Rousseff, has actually been charged, derail his plans for the presidency.