What led to the Impeachment of Brazil’s First Female President?

By Denise Rivera.

The thought of Brazil instinctively invokes images of the festive carnival, the beautiful beaches of Rio de Janeiro, beautiful women dancing to the rhythms of samba, or the recent 2014 World Cup games. These images of blissful paradise precede any inkling of political turmoil when thinking of the largest country in South America. On 1 January 2011, Brazil witnessed a significant moment in history as its first female President was inaugurated into office. It was a significant feat, especially in light of Brazil’s increasing influence as a rising superpower on the global stage. During the inauguration ceremony, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had the honor of placing the presidential sash on his Chief of Staff and protégée, Dilma Rousseff, secure in the belief that the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) would remain in power. When elected as the leader, Rousseff’s confidence must have been soaring, and the declared victory may have even been surreal for a moment. However, on 17 April 2016, President Rousseff would face another surreal moment when a congressional vote from the lower house succeeded in commencing impeachment proceedings against her. This motion, which required 342 votes for its approval, gathered 367 votes in its favor. On 12 May 2016, the Senate too voted to move forward with an impeachment trial against President Rousseff thus suspending her presidential duties for six months. Her vice-president, Michel Temer, is now serving as interim president until the outcome of the trial determines whether or not Rousseff can finish her presidential term until 2018. When thinking of Brazil of late, political turmoil precedes blissful paradise.

Such news no doubt stirs front-page headlines, and may even serve as a grim reminder to all heads of state in the world (including dictators) that their right to executive powers is not indiscriminate and absolute. The last time Brazil experienced a presidential impeachment was in October 1992 when the Senate passed a motion to proceed with an impeachment trial against former President, Fernando Collor de Mello. The people of Brazil were protesting and demanding the impeachment of Collor de Mello for his suspected involvement in bribery and other forms of corruption. His presidency was suspended for six months and his vice-president, Itamar Franco, took over the reins as acting president. Collor de Mello eventually resigned two months later, but that did not stop the Senate from finding de Mello guilty of corruption charges, thus preventing him from holding an elected position until 2000. These charges were later taken up at Brazil’s Supremo Tribunal Federal (Supreme Federal Court), where he was acquitted due to lack of evidence. Although history has a tendency to repeat itself, President Rousseff appears resolved to not give up her presidency and is quite adamant in fighting these impeachment proceedings.

When evaluating Brazilian politics, pandemonium seems to be the best way to describe Rousseff’s time served in office. In her first term, Rousseff enjoyed almost eighty percent approval ratings, supposedly due to low unemployment, expanding social welfare benefits, decreased electricity and food costs, and the implementation of more social programs aimed at reducing poverty and hunger. At one point, she was deemed more popular than her predecessor, President Lula da Silva, who was believed to have had a successful presidency. Rousseff seemed to have a prominent political future ahead. Yet her troubles appeared to start with the 2013 Confederations Cup riots, when thousands of protesters mobilized in several cities, raising awareness on issues such as high transportation fares, the need for more investment in education, health services, infrastructure, and the forced relocation of several people to make comfortable accommodations for tourists for the upcoming 2014 World Cup games. Public demonstrations continued throughout the World Cup games where protesters decried the rampant political corruption, the increased level of evictions, and the high costs of constructing and maintaining stadiums taking precedence over social services that many are lacking. In the nation that boasts of the most number of World Cup titles, the tenor of the people’s chants was anything but festive and optimistic. Furthermore, there have been labor strikes in the hydroelectric dam projects in the Amazon with workers demanding higher wages and better working conditions. Residents living in the vicinity of these dam projects are worried about being displaced from their lands and the environmental and economic consequences of such construction projects.

Had Brazil won the 2014 World Cup, things may have calmed down for Rousseff. Although she won the 2014 elections, President Rousseff received only fifty-two percent of the vote while her opponent, presidential candidate Aecio Neves, won the rest. These close margins demonstrate that her previous high approval ratings were gradually declining. It certainly didn’t help matters when, in the spring of 2015, the Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) investigation revealed that Petrobas, Brazil’s state-owned oil company, was awarding building contracts to construction firms in exchange for bribes to several political officials. This led to the arrests of João Vaccari Neto, the treasurer of Rousseff’s political party, José Dirceu, the Chief of Staff for former President Lula da Silva, and Eduardo Cunha, Speaker of the lower house of Congress. On 4 March 2016, Brazilian police forces arrested and detained former President Lula da Silva on charges of fraud in relation to the Petrobas scandal. Lula da Silva denied all allegations of corruption, and President Rousseff, in a tactical maneuver, came to his aid by naming him her Chief of Staff, thus providing him judicial immunity. President Rousseff served on the board of directors of Petrobas from 2003 to 2010, and has hence been facing harsh criticism by the both the citizens and politicians of Brazil for not raising awareness of this fraud going on under her watch. Although she claims she had no knowledge of the Petrobas illegal activities and that she is innocent of any wrongdoing, the majority of Brazilians are not convinced. With Brazil suffering from its worst recession and dealing with high unemployment and inflation rates, with the Panama Papers scandal revealing the names of prominent politicians involved in tax evasion, and with mass protests demanding Rousseff’s impeachment, this was the perfect opportunity for both the Congress and the Senate to seize power from Rousseff. It was ripe for the politicians to wash their hands clean, and to show to the people of Brazil that their voices were being heard.

As of now, Rousseff’s approval rating is ten percent. The other demands raised by protesters have yet to be met, and the politicians appear to transition away from left-leaning politics to advance their own agendas, be it political or personal. Despite having a minority support from both citizens and politicians of Brazil, Rousseff does not appear to be resigning from her post as her predecessor Collor de Mello did. Protecting her mentor Lula da Silva backlashed and tarnished her image. Not paying attention to the local mass protests was a poor judgement call not just for Rousseff but for all politicians. The constant shuffling of cabinet members and aides amidst corruption charges and scandals during Rousseff’s term has left the interim President Temer with a disoriented government to handle. Both the congressional and Senate voting to impeach Rousseff confirms that her destiny as President is no longer in her hands and that she must await the outcome of her trial. All that is certain is that when playing the game of roulette with politics, you will never know if the odds are in your favor or against.

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