BRASÍLIA, Brazil – By a vote of 61 to 20, the democratically elected Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who has still not been linked to any corruption scheme, was permanently removed from her position by a Senate where nearly 60 percent of the representatives are under investigation for a plethora of crimes.
In the days leading up the Senate vote, groups of pro-Dilma and anti-coup demonstrators gathered in São Paulo, Brasília and elsewhere and clashed with security forces. The protesters were mostly dressed in red, the color of Rousseff’s center-left Workers’ Party (PT).
Inside the Senate building, meanwhile, Rousseff herself took the stand and spoke in her defense and answered questions for over 14 hours, save for two breaks for lunch and dinner. The marathon session began at 10 in the morning and ended shortly after midnight with Rousseff listening (and responding) to 51 Senators that wished to make statements or ask questions.
The following day, the closing statements were made by the prosecutors and the defense team. As expected given previous votes, the Senate then voted by a count of 61 to 20 to permanently impeach Rousseff three months after she was temporarily removed from her position as President of the Republic for alleged budgetary indiscretions. The official beginning of the entire process was on December 2, 2015.
The vote was considered a formality as previous votes in the Senate (upper house of Congress) and the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of Congress) easily passed thresholds to investigate and suspend Rousseff, but interim leader (and Rousseff’s former second-in-command) Michel Temer still took measures to ensure the vote went his way.
The São Paulo-based Folha de S. Paulo outlined that just hours before the vote, Temer promised Roberto Rocha of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) the head position at the Fortaleza-based Banco do Nordeste.
The same daily also showed footage of Temer calling his catch-all (but currently right-leaning) Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) colleague Rose de Freitas for a clarification after the latter jokingly said that she would vote against impeachment. The joke, made very clearly to be humorous in nature, was enough to make Temer reach out to de Freitas, which resulted in the Senator emotionally apologizing to Temer in a surreal scene.
In the end, Temer’s dilligence paid off as Rousseff was impeached by a comfortable margin by the 81-seat Senate. As the votes were being tallied and it was becoming evident that Rousseff would be removed, Temer was in another nearby political building in the nation’s capital playfully wearing a water polo cap and joking with members of Brazil’s water polo team in the midst of the biggest political crisis Brazil has seen in decades.
Less than two hours after the vote took place, Temer arrived in the Senate to cheers and slaps on the back from his PMDB colleagues and other political allies. In a hasty ceremony, the national anthem was played, Temer signed the pertinent papers and was officially sworn in as President. Minutes later, he was gone as he hurried to catch a flight to Hangzhou for the 2016 G20 Summit.
Meanwhile, at the presidential Palácio da Alvorada, Rousseff once again denounced the impeachment process and lamented that she had “suffered two coups in her lifetime; the one that led to the military dictatorship and now again.”
In May, a Senate vote saw Rousseff suspended from her position for up to six months pending an investigation into her alleged wrongdoing, meaning that a decision had to be made whether she would be reinstated or face a trial. According to the Impeachment Commission, a two-thirds majority (54 votes) of the 81-seat Senate was required to launch the impeachment trial and this was achieved (59 for and 21 against).
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 Rousseff is that she allegedly transferred parts of the national budget between different fund sections in order to present a better picture of the national economy; more specifically, she publicly presented the budget of a government ministry with a monetary figure that was higher than it should have been because there was a delay in payment from the ministry’s budget to a public bank.
While the action did present a murkier view of a government and its transparency, budgetary discretions have never come close to toppling a national leader, and even Brazil’s Constitution outlines impeachment proceedings for leaders that have committed much more grave crimes compared to Rousseff’s actions. In truth, judicial experts in Brazil and worldwide have blasted the whole process as “irregular” and “unprecedented in a democracy.”
Instead of punishing Rousseff’s party via democratic elections, politicians like Temer have used public discontent over a stagnant economy and rampant cases of corruption (in which most of those politicians and their parties are involved) to use Rousseff as a scapegoat.
In particular, most members of the PMDB, which withdrew itself from the ruling coalition after previously supporting Rousseff, have come out against the now-impeached leader, 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 by digging up an old report made by three lawyers that outlined Rousseff’s budgetary moves.
Cunha was the President of the Chamber of Deputies of Brazil until mid-May when he was removed due to allegations of corruption and obstruction of justice. He stepped down from the position definitively in July. Ironically, he launched the impeachment process because PT members would not acquiesce to his request for them to vote against an investigation into his wrongdoings, which include lying about his role in the Petrobras scandal and about having illegal, multi-million dollar accounts abroad in Switzerland and embezzling millions more with his wife Cláudia Cruz.
Another notable figure is Temer himself who was recorded speaking and referring to himself as President and about his presidential plans two months before the Senate’s temporary impeachment vote even took place.
Lawyers speaking on behalf of Rousseff, who has still not been implicated in any corruption case herself, said that she was removed from power by other politicians with the sole purpose of putting an end to the massive corruption investigation Operation Lava Jato.
Operation Lava Jato has focused mostly on 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.
With Rousseff out of the way, her legal team argued, the investigation would be sidetracked or stopped altogether by the interim government. In turn, the citizenry would not object to the stoppage of the investigation because the most powerful politician in the country would be impeached as the biggest result of the ‘anti-corruption’ campaign and other politicians would be safe.
Rousseff’s lawyers presented tons of evidence to back their claims including numerous recordings held between members of the PMDB (whose members are the most represented on the corruption lists compiled by prosecutors) in which the dialogue clearly suggests ousting Rousseff with the aim of saving themselves by stopping the investigation. In fact, Temer has already seen three cabinet members resign since he assumed power on May 12 as each became implicated in the corruption case.
Several prosecutors overseeing the Lava Jato 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.
According to the Attorney General handling the case, the corruption involving the semi-statal energy company Petrobras and construction goliath Odebrecht, among others, began with kickbacks in 1997 (14 years before Rousseff even became President) during the administration of center-right Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003).
Regardless, Rousseff, who admitted to “making mistakes but committing absolutely no crimes” during her mandate, was ousted and permanently removed from her position. In an unexpected move, however, the Senate did not ban her from holding any other political office for a period of eight years as the impeachment proceedings outline.
Rousseff was narrowly re-elected in October of 2014 after her initial four-year term, a development that came after the mass protests of July 2013 against what protesters deemed to be poor public education and health care, high taxes, corruption and insecurity. Specifically, the protests took place as the FIFA Confederations Cup began, an event that represented 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.
At that time, Rousseff made certain reforms in order to placate the public but the protests returned (albeit on a much smaller scale) in 2015 with the primary concerns financial: the national economy is lagging (due in large part to the catastrophic drop in oil prices and other commodities Brazil exports in large quantities) and inflation is on a slow but steady rise.
In response to the second wave of protests, Rousseff made 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’ as part of the concerted effort to drive her out even as she re-shuffled her Cabinet in order to include many opposition figures.
Rousseff’s supporters say the effort to drive her out is multi-pronged: the elite-owned and highly concentrated media whipped the impeachment calls into a frenzy while the policies of the PT were not conducive to the economic aspirations of major corporations (like those of the media).
The PT won the presidential elections in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014 and Rousseff’s supporters and PT colleagues said that the only way the party could be unseated, and the power returned to the traditional elite, was through a soft coup.
Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva (2003-2011), Rousseff’s predecessor and political mentor, is credited with lifting 40 million Brazilians out of poverty during his time in power and averaging an economic growth of 7.5 percent during that time. He has vehemently defended Rousseff and claimed that any accusations of wrongdoing against both of them are false and politially motivated.
“Through democratic and peaceful means, we were able to remove Brazil from the United Nations’ map of hunger, we lifted more than 35 million Brazilians from extreme poverty and more than 40 million more from poverty and into the middle class; this is the single largest process of social mobility in the history of Brazil,” Lula said.
“President Dilma, despite facing an extremely difficult environment in which the world went through its worst economic period since the 1930s, managed to stay the course in furthering social development and maintained vital social programs,” he said, and added that Temer’s harsh austerity measures have not managed to improve any aspect of Brazil’s economy save for the bottom line of wealthy corporation owners.
“The opposition, the losers of four straight elections, did not admit their last defeated and started a process of sabotage and conspiracy against the government in order to obtain power by illegitimate means,” Lula continued.
“In their efforts to derail the government, they even bet against the Brazilian people in freezing government actions and then passing irresponsible measures once they gained power that have produced fiscal instability that affects citizens.”
“Finally, they did not hesitate to launch an impeachment process that is completely arbitrary and unconstitutional. This was a purely political process that openly violates our national laws and the rules of the presidential system in which the people directly elect the Head of State. In one fell swoop, 61 Senators tossed aside the will of the 55 million Brazilians that decided the last election,” Lula concluded.
Rousseff made repeated references to the “will of the people” and said that if she were reinstated, she would have called for new elections this year and would have “happily stepped aside” if the Brazilian people voted in a different direction.
Given the latest development, however, Temer will now rule for the remainder of Rousseff’s mandate (January of 2019) barring any unforeseen events. He is sure to have a difficult time juggling both ruling the nation and placating those that brought him to power through shortsighted political moves that resulted in a soft coup as his collaborators will certainly want something in return.