Why Brazil’s Impeachment of Dilma Rousseff Matters

by Ben Morris

24 May 2016

Last week, a devastating blow was dealt to South American democracy: the president of Brazil and leader of the left-leaning Workers’ Party (PT), Dilma Rousseff, was impeached and suspended from office. The subsequent trial will most likely see her permanently removed as president.

Corruption has been endemic in Brazilian politics for a long time, leaving neither the right nor left untarnished. Successions of scandals have become the norm in this young democracy. Rousseff, the former chair of the state-controlled oil company Petrobras, had been hurt by a scandal which uncovered executives had been bribed in return for awarding exorbitantly lucrative contracts to construction firms during her tenure there from 2003-10.

As president, Rousseff had become incredibly unpopular due to the combined forces of corruption allegations, the economic turmoil in which Brazil has been mired after the 2008 global downturn, and zealous attacks from much of the corporately-owned right-wing Brazilian media.

A former socialist guerrilla who was captured and tortured by the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964-1985, Rousseff will now be put on trial following a vote by the Brazilian senate over another corruption scandal, this time regarding the “arcane fiscal manoeuvres her government allegedly used to pump up the economy and disguise a deficit in the public accounts.”

Some have suggested that Rousseff’s removal, whilst cloaked in the dry form of parliamentary procedure, actually constitutes a putsch, as the charges against her seem somewhat hypocritical given the pervasiveness of corruption across the board. Eduardo Cunha, chief organizer of the movement to impeach Rousseff, has since also been suspended from his position as leader of Brazil’s lower house on account of allegations of intimidation of members of congress and obstructing investigations into his alleged ongoing bribe-taking. Michel Temer, Rousseff’s interim replacement, has assumed the presidency, notwithstanding the fact that he himself has been found guilty of election spending violations and faces an eight-year ban on running for any public office.

Despite these incredibly shaky grounds for upholding the impeachment, it has not been annulled.

Even the staunchly conservative Economist has described the allegations against Rousseff as simply “a pretext for ousting an unpopular president.”

Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who lives in Brazil, described recent events as “a campaign to subvert Brazil’s democratic outcomes by moneyed factions that have long hated the results of democratic elections, deceitfully marching under an anti-corruption banner.”

Similarly, Reporters Without Borders described the complicity of the Brazilian media in recent events: “…leading national media have urged the public to help bring down President Dilma Rousseff. The journalists working for these media groups are clearly subject to the influence of private and partisan interests…”

Michel Temer, the chair of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PDMB), had been the vice president under Rousseff in a coalition government, and had previously described the muted impeachment of Rousseff as “…unthinkable, [it] would create a constitutional crisis, there is no judicial or political basis for it.”

Yet his ascension to the interim presidency has come despite astonishingly low approval ratings of just 2%. In an incredibly ill-advised approach, Temer’s first move has been to appoint 23 ministers to his cabinet, all of whom are white men, despite the majority of Brazil’s population identifying as non-white.

The same census also indicated ‘acute’ rates of wealth inequality across the country, with “the richest 10% of the population gaining 44.5% of total income compared to just 1.1% for the poorest 10%.”

This statistic makes for unpleasant reading when you consider Temer is moving to implement harsh austerity measures in the form of spending cuts and the deregulation of the financial industries whilst encouraging the sale of public assets. This shift is best evidenced by the appointment of the investor-friendly ex-banker Henrique Meirelles as finance minister. Noam Chomsky has described the impeachment as being carried out by a ‘gang of thieves’.

South American neighbours are not enamoured with proceedings in Brazil either. Venezuela and El Salvador have recalled their ambassadors from Brazil. UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) has insisted that Rousseff remains the ‘legitimate president of Brazil’, and Ecuador, Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua have also criticized the impeachment, whilst Chile and Uruguay have expressed grave concerns.

However, a statement from the US State Department was more softly-worded: “We are confident that Brazilians will work through these difficult political questions democratically and in accordance with Brazil’s constitutional principles.”

The coup that installed a military dictatorship in 1964 overthrew João Goularta, president of a democratically-elected government. The involvement of the CIA, under direct orders from President Lyndon Johnson, only came to light many years later.

It is not inconceivable that the largest country in South America and the fifth-largest economy in the world is of considerable interest to the world’s foremost global superpower. The National Security Agency (NSA) was shown by the files leaked by former analyst Edward Snowden to have been conducting a mass surveillance programme which had deliberately spied on Rousseff and some of her top PT aides, at the time in which Brazil was “ranked among the NSA’s most spied-upon countries.”

Yet despite this affront to Brazilian sovereignty, close channels of communication between Brazilian and US political figures is clearly a reality.

A Wikileaks cable from 2006 shows then-leader of the opposition Michel Temer communicating in detail to the US National Security Council and military his thoughts on how the PDMB might unseat Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the president at the time.

It does not inspire confidence in US impartiality in Brazil when the current US ambassador to the country, Liliana Ayalde, is described as “an expert in promoting ‘soft coups’” – having previously served as the US ambassador to Paraguay during the 2012 ousting of Fernando Lugo. Lugo, a former Roman Catholic priest, was another leftist president, who had been called ‘the bishop of the poor’ and whose impeachment constituted a “progressive but imperfect leftwing leader ousted by rightwing forces determined to halt policies that threaten their business interests.”

These close political ties, though, are the product of a paramount need for the US investors and business interests who hold so much power in Washington to see a corporate-friendly government in place in Brazil.

One of the most prominent forces behind the mass protests against Rousseff is the Free Brazil Movement; itself an offshoot of Students for Liberty. The latter group supports the neoliberalization of economic policy in the country, being described by political scientist Celso Barros as “clearly inspired by the Tea Party and the recent radicalization of the Republican Party.” It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Students for Liberty is backed by US conservative factions and free-market advocates such as the John Templeton Foundation and the billionaire Koch brothers.

Regardless of her low popularity ratings, Rousseff was democratically elected. The latest news that her residence has been surrounded by soldiers at Temer’s behest is a tactic ominously reminiscent of coups the world over. The grounds for her impeachment are shaky at best, and the plausible prospect of the covert involvement of US business interests makes for an even graver situation.

Her suspension from office represents a profound threat to Latin American democracy and progressive politics across the region.

Photo: Radio Interativa/Flickr

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