To Impeach or Not to Impeach Dilma Rousseff

From former guerrilla to fast-rising protege of her predecessor Lula da Silva, she was supposed to preside over Brazil's rise. Instead, the Brazilian president's career may soon be over for good.

Dilma Rousseff may be facing impeachment, but the Brazilian president still has her share of friends. You can see them at her political events, where members of the ruling Workers’ Party gather to show their support. Her fans sometimes wear T-shirts printed with a famous photo that shows Rousseff on trial by a military court 46 years ago. At age 22, she looks assured and calmly defiant, while her judges — representatives of the military dictatorship then ruling the country — cover their faces with their hands. At the time the picture was taken, in 1970, Rousseff had already been subjected to torture. She was subsequently imprisoned on subversion charges for almost three years.


But if Rousseff’s supporters are hoping to stir up sympathy, so far they’ve only deepened the rifts that threaten to tear the country apart. Each week seems to bring devastating new revelations in the largest corruption scandal in Brazil’s modern history. Matters took a new turn last month, when Rousseff’s political mentor and predecessor in office, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (usually known as “Lula”), was detained for questioning by police. Rousseff’s subsequent attempt to appoint him as her chief of staff, potentially shielding him from prosecution by a crusading judge, merely inflamed public indignation, drawing her more deeply into the morass.

As recently as December 2015, when the speaker of the lower house accepted a motion to strip Rousseff of office, few in Brasília thought she faced real danger. But as a crucial April 17 vote on impeachment proceedings nears, it’s clear there’s a real chance the president could end up losing her job. If a hearing goes ahead, which looks very likely, she’ll have to step aside for up to six months while the Federal Senate decides her fate.

That would be an extraordinary fall from grace for a president who, for the past five years, has consistently ranked among the three most powerful female politicians in the world, alongside Hillary Clinton and Germany’s Angela Merkel. For most of her first term, Rousseff presided over a steady economy. She kept up programs that dampened Brazil’s high inequality. But today the economy is in a deep slump. Experts expect GDP to drop by about 3.5 percent this year, after a comparable decline last year. Wealth distribution is reversing. All this helps to explain why her approval rating has fallen from highs of almost 80 percent in early 2013 to a low of 10 percent today. In mid-March, hundreds of thousands — by some estimates, millions — of protesters took to the streets, demanding her removal from office.

Demonstrators protest for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff on March 16, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (VICTOR MORIYAMA/Getty Images)

The central paradox of Brazil’s current political tumult, though, is that Rousseff doesn’t stand accused of sneakily trying to line her pockets with cash. Instead, her opponents in the National Congress — many themselves under investigation for malfeasance — have formally charged her with violating financial rules in the constitution, based on her use of funds from state banks to help close gaps in the budget.

Rousseff counters with the argument that this practice was employed by presidents before her. (Her critics insist that records from the Central Bank of Brazil reveal that Rousseff relied on such tactics to a far greater extent than her predecessors did.)

For a while now, though, Brazilian police have been scrutinizing allegations that Lula accepted improper favors from construction companies embroiled in the giant corruption scandal involving the state oil company Petrobras — an affair now widely known as “Operation Car Wash.” Although she was chair of the Petrobras board for many years, Rousseff hasn’t been directly implicated in the scandal — at least so far. Even so, it may prove hard to extricate herself from the mess that her patron now finds himself in.

The irony here is that, both in profile and in personality, she and Lula couldn’t be more different. She is a studious technocrat with middle-class roots, a graduate education in economics, and a passion for opera and fine art. He was born to a poor family in the underdeveloped northeast of the country, shined shoes as a child, lost a finger in a factory accident at 18, and served as a union leader before founding the Workers’ Party. Notoriously, she has no patience for small talk in meetings, while he’s an inveterate schmoozer. Even when Rousseff concedes to demands, she tends to bruise egos in the process; even when he doesn’t, Lula sends people away feeling on top of the world.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Roussef talk during a decree-signing ceremony at Banco do Brasil's Cultural Centre in Brasilia on October 23, 2009. (EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images)

Though they are political “partners,” as she likes to say, Brazil has fared quite differently under each of them. When Lula was in charge, Brazil found oil — lots of it. And China was hungry for Brazilian soybeans and iron ore. So, in 2008 and 2009, as the global recession hit hard almost everywhere else, Brazil sailed through relatively unscathed. Throughout these boom years, it was the only BRIC country to cut inequality during its rise within the global order, and scholars wrote books about the magic of Brazil’s soft power ascent. Gratitude for the policies behind this shift enabled the adored, charismatic, and intuitive Lula to virtually guarantee the presidency to whomever he chose to replace him. This is how Rousseff became head of state of the world’s seventh-largest economy in 2010. (It was, in fact, the first time in her entire career that she ran for elective office.)

Today, it’s as if the country is mourning that lost trajectory. The narrative arc of Brazil as Latin America’s economic superstar has been broken. The heroes of those happier times — Petrobras, the national cash cow, and Lula and his party, the empathetic champions of the poor — are so sullied by scandal that it’s no longer clear whether they were ever quite what they seemed. For the first time in more than two decades, Brazil feels rudderless. Turning this story of scandal and disappointment around would be difficult even for a leader with superb political acumen, and Rousseff was never blessed with that kind of shrewdness.

President Dilma Rousseff greets people during the Brazil's independence day parade in Brasilia on September 7, 2013. (BETO BARATA/AFP/Getty Images)

That stubborn 22-year-old now emblazoned on T-shirts took a long time to emerge onto the national stage. After serving her term in jail, Rousseff faced another wait for her husband, fellow activist Carlos Araújo, who remained incarcerated for several months more. Such experiences were painfully widespread among members of left-wing militant groups during the difficult years of one of Latin America’s longest dictatorships, starting in 1964 and lasting about two decades.

Rousseff studied economics from 1973 to 1977, gave birth to a daughter in 1976, and continued to involve herself in left-wing politics, becoming an early member of the Democratic Labor Party. (She left it for the more successful Workers’ Party only in 2000.) When Brazil became a democracy in 1985, she embarked on a career in local and state government, which she continued through the 1990s. Early on, she worked as municipal secretary of the treasury in the southern city of Porto Alegre and rose within the city council. In the 1990s, she flitted between an economics research institute and the position of Rio Grande do Sul’s state energy secretary, a post to which she was twice appointed and that she held continuously from 1999 to 2002.

Along the way it was her tenacity and attention to detail, rather than glad-handing charisma, that propelled her rise to the top. It was these qualities that impressed Lula during a televised debate among state energy secretaries. As president-elect in 2002, he realized that he’d need an especially diligent minister to prevent more of the electricity blackouts that were blighting the country at that time.

Until their divorce in 2000, Rousseff shared with Araújo the house he still lives in today. When I visited him there in mid-March, he told me a story that illuminates Rousseff’s climb to the top. A few days into his first term, Lula called upon Rousseff to serve as his minister of mines and energy, even though he’d only met her once. Lula then gathered together all the members of his cabinet for a briefing by the central bank chief at the time, Henrique Meirelles. Moments into the meeting, Rousseff took out her laptop and started shaking her head, making Lula uncomfortable. He asked her what was wrong. According to Araújo, she replied: “I’m shaking my head because he [Meirelles] knows that you do not know the financial part of the constitution, and he’s lying to you.”

In consternation, Lula swore to never again bring all of his ministers together, but a few years later, had forgotten this pledge. At that point, as Araújo tells it, Lula’s candidate for the presidency — his chosen successor — was then-Finance Minister Antonio Palocci (whose suitability for the presidency was soon scuttled by his involvement in another corruption scandal). As Palocci spoke to a roomful of ministers, Rousseff — this time equipped with a new computer — started shaking her head again. Just as before, aware that Lula didn’t understand the financial rules laid out by the constitution, she directly accused Palocci of lying.

Not long after that, Rousseff showed up at the president’s door with four carts full of files. She had checked his calendar and established that he had nothing scheduled for three days. She suggested that she spend those days instructing Lula in the intricacies of the constitution so that he could no longer be misled. Which is exactly what she did. “And hence arose a trust,” Araújo said, rounding off the story. (He made no note of the evident irony that accusations of improper budget management now form the basis of the impeachment motion against his ex-wife.) 

In 2005, Lula, all too conscious of his limits when it came to policy detail, appointed her as his chief of staff — exactly the sort of position that suited her dutiful wonkishness. But a fractious nature is more exposed in a head of state. It conflicts with the continual, complex hustle of keeping a congressional coalition together. The ability to deftly manage competing demands is a core skill for Brazilian presidents: There are almost three dozen registered political parties, and none, since the re-emergence of democracy, has ever held more than 20 percent of the seats in Congress.

Dilma Rousseff delivers a speech during her swearing-in ceremony as chief of staff on June 21, 2005 at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia. (EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images)

Early in Rousseff’s presidency, the Workers’ Party’s main coalition partner, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), said it would vote against an important forestry law unless the text was amended to include an amnesty for illegal logging that occurred before 2008. Dismayed, Rousseff overreached, threatening to fire PMDB ministers. Lula had to step in to smooth over the misstep. The PMDB got its amendments and kept its ministerial posts.

This is a disposition that has plagued Rousseff throughout her presidential career. She has occasionally been accused of bringing the mindset of an anti-dictatorship guerrilla to the presidency. A remarkable 2014 profile published in Brazilian magazine Piauí, based on the accounts of 26 high-ranking members of the Workers’ Party, depicts Rousseff as distrustful, someone who jealously guards information. Others describe her governing style as insular, and she’s not known as a patient listener — flaws that undoubtedly have a lot to do with why so many members of Congress want her gone. Some in the Workers’ Party take issue with her well-to-do origins and her relatively recent entry into the organization, and her independent mindset hasn’t encouraged their appreciation.

She may have lost favor significantly in 2012, when she decided to stand for re-election. Many in the Workers’ Party hoped their 2014 candidate would be Lula. Pollsters said he was the safer bet, and rumors circulated that Lula’s wife, Marisa — otherwise an important Rousseff ally, in Araújo’s view — was especially displeased. Octavio Amorim Neto, a political scientist in Rio de Janeiro, notes that the announcement of Rousseff’s 2014 candidacy coincided with the moment when congressional voting started to drift away from her, even though, at that point, her coalition should have generated solid majorities and her approval ratings were still high.

Rousseff managed to scrape through re-election after a wave of protests the previous year, expressing dissatisfaction, in part, over government spending on the 2014 World Cup, held in Brazil. Her second term, which began in January 2015, has been arduous. Eduardo Cunha, her nemesis in Congress, won election as speaker of the lower house on the back of promises that he would counter her arrogant ways and give deputies a greater voice. As the Operation Car Wash investigation has crescendoed, it has turned Cunha, an evangelical Christian with a socially conservative agenda, into a pit bull. Yet he has also been deeply implicated in the Petrobras scandal, and chose to put forward the impeachment motion against Rousseff immediately after members of the Workers’ Party on the congressional ethics committee said they would vote for his removal.

2015 was also an economic annus horribilis for Brazil: Its economy contracted by 3.8 percent while inflation hit a 12-year high. The real, Brazil’s currency, fell against the dollar, and international oil prices festered. Brazilian cities sustained by agricultural exports probably managed fine, but those that rely on oil revenues saw their budgets cut by maybe one-half, says Daniel da Mata, an economist at the Institute for Applied Economic Research. This kind of shift implies a deadly calculus. Da Mata’s colleague, Daniel Cerqueira, who studies violence rates, estimates that each 1 percent increase in unemployment brings a 2 percent rise in homicides. Brazil saw more murders last year than deaths inflicted among both civilians and fighters in Syria, and the International Monetary Fund says that unemployment is set to rise from its 2015 level of 6.8 percent to 9.2 percent this year to 10.2 percent next.

A military police officer adjusts a plaque at a memorial honoring police officers killed in the line of duty on December 10, 2015 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (MARIO TAMA/Getty Images)

Rousseff may have been unlucky with the economy, but she has also handled it poorly. She couldn’t have done anything to boost Chinese demand, but she could have lent more support to her liberal finance minister, Joaquim Levy, who spent the whole of last year arguing for austerity. He quit in December 2015.

Amid these woes, there have been echoes of the past. In the last year, Brazil has lost more jobs in the formal sector since corresponding records began in 1992. It was also the first year since 1992 that the country has experienced both a rise in inequality and a shrinking GDP. The ongoing economic contraction is thought to be the deepest in more than a century and, eight quarters in, is now the longest recession since 1992. And that, coincidentally, was when the Senate last voted in a presidential impeachment hearing.

The president at the time, Fernando Collor de Mello, was manifestly corrupt. But one can make the argument that the accusations of wrongdoing during the early 1990s were only part of the reason why he eventually lost his job in 1992. The fact that they coincided with a severe economic slowdown, prompting widespread popular protest, appears to have been important as well. When I suggested to veteran politician Ibsen Pinheiro, who served as lower house speaker in the runup to the impeachment process more than 20 years ago, that a bad economy is in practice a necessary ingredient for impeachment, he agreed. But he clarified that this could only be the case as long as the protests in question are spontaneous expressions of grassroots sentiment, not the organized marches often orchestrated by unions or other interest groups. (Collor ultimately resigned.)

In the hours after Rousseff announced her ministerial job for Lula on March 16, several thousand people responded by rallying on Avenida Paulista, São Paulo’s main thoroughfare. The palpable anger at Lula’s appointment was accentuated by a timely leak from Operation Car Wash’s lead judge, Sérgio Moro. In a wiretapped call released online by Moro shortly after the announcement, Rousseff can be heard telling Lula that she has a letter of appointment for him, “in case it is necessary” — tacit confirmation the move was intended to circumvent Moro’s pursuit. Like other recent leaks from the inquiry, this one appeared with a loose but eerie sense of choreography.

As I sat in a café the next morning, I heard screaming. It sounded as though someone was being attacked somewhere in the building above. I walked outside to look up and saw residents leaning out of their windows, arms aloft, loudly banging pots and pans. Cars sounded their horns in reply. Eventually, I realized what had prompted the commotion: It was 10 a.m., and the TV was showing live pictures of Lula being sworn in. As noise throbbed around us, a man turned to me and said, “The country is on fire.” It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the phrase that week. It had become a stock answer from my interviewees, who were at a loss to explain the rapid course of events and the deepening unpredictability of its outcome.

Anti-impeachment protesters light red smoke, the color of the Workers' Party, in support of President Dilma Rousseff on March 31 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)

On March 7, shortly after Lula’s police interview, I saw Rousseff speak at a rally near the southern city of Caxias do Sul. Lula’s questioning occurred the day after the release of Sen. Delcídio do Amaral’s plea-bargain testimony, which had been leaked to the press. Amaral’s statements directly implicated Lula in offering a bribe as part of a cover-up and Rousseff in trying to interfere, and lessen, the punishment of high-up businessmen charged with corruption. Now, for the first time, Operation Car Wash was not just aiming a high-pressure hose at those near the apex of power in Brazil, but splattering those at the very top.

A big video screen above the stage showed Rousseff’s arrival at the site of the rally. She greeted a stocky dad on crutches and a few other grateful residents. Then, as anticipation of her appearance on stage grew, the rows in front of me took to their feet, rising their right fists in the air. “Não vai ter golpe! Não vai ter golpe!” (“There will be no coup! There will be no coup!”)

The narrative of a “coup” appeals to Rousseff’s supporters because it casts her as the courageous freedom fighter, persecuted by evil forces. For her critics, though, it’s yet another example of how aloof and blinkered she is, indulging the exaggerated idea that she is defending democracy itself, rather than merely her own job.

As she walked out in front of the feverish crowd, she didn’t react to the chanting. Rousseff is no natural performer. She didn’t smile, but instead maintained a stiff forward glance, almost over the heads of her audience, and a steady frown, her chiseled eyebrows frozen. The national anthem cut through the clamor, and her expression gradually softened.

The speech was quintessential Rousseff. She appeared to know all kinds of statistics about a housing program by heart, but had to cast an eye to her notes to acknowledge by name the local officials next to her. If Lula were still president, I couldn’t help thinking, the speech might have lacked numbers altogether — or they would have been the wrong ones — but he would have remembered everybody’s first names.

When she had no more to say about housing, she got to the point, carefully endorsing her supporters’ chant. The move to impeach her, she declared, was rooted in dissatisfaction at the results of the 2014 election. She put her political difficulties down to the opposition being sore losers, unwilling to wait until 2018 for their next attempt to gain power.

At a recent meeting with foreign journalists, Rousseff clarified what she means when she says she’s facing a coup: “I am not comparing the coup here to the military coups of the past, but it would be a breaking of the democratic order of Brazil.… [It] will have consequences. Maybe not immediately, but it will leave a deep scar on Brazilians’ political life.” On the latter point, she’s probably right. Without more potent formal grounds for impeachment, it’s hard to see how history will sit comfortably with her ousting by a Congress stocked with suspected scoundrels. Yet the idea of 200 million people being stuck with a powerless leader for 32 more months is hardly more reassuring. This is the agony of Brazil’s current dilemma.

Rousseff’s legal troubles are even broader, however. If this impeachment motion doesn’t stick, Cunha has other options. Meanwhile, Brazil’s top electoral court is considering claims that her 2014 presidential campaign was paid for with dirty money. (She denies all knowledge of this, even though the former treasurer of the Workers’ Party is serving a 15-year prison term for channeling Operation Car Wash bribes into party coffers.) These proceedings are separate from the impeachment process and, when they conclude in 2017, could usher in new elections.

But it seems unlikely Rousseff will last that long. A survey of Congress members carried out between March 21 and April 7 found that 60 percent of lower house representatives were planning to vote in favor of moving the impeachment process forward — just 34 members below the two-thirds majority required. The “yes” camp has grown quickly in the past week and, on April 15, appeared to have that majority secured. More than 50 percent of senators currently say they will vote for impeachment — the requisite proportion to begin a hearing, but, at least at the moment, those who are certain to vote in favor constitute less than the number needed to depose her when one ends.

Many Brazilians are now arguing over the extent to which the current crisis poses a serious challenge to the quality of their democracy. Some ominously evoke similarities between Operation Car Wash and a large-scale corruption investigation called “Clean Hands” that ruined the careers of most leading Italian politicians in the early 1990s and destroyed major political parties. (It led to the rise of Silvio Berlusconi, who arguably ended up making Italian politics more corrupt than ever.) But history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself. And a number of recent anti-corruption reforms to state-owned companies and campaign financing offer hope that Brazil can find its way to a healthier basis for gaining and managing power and, eventually, back to growth.

For all the drama, Porto Alegre — where Rousseff will likely return after she leaves or gets pushed out of politics — remains remarkably quiet. Araújo told me that she is trying to buy an apartment somewhere in the neighborhood in order to be close to her family. In the lake in front of his bungalow lies the small prison island where he spent the final phase of his sentence. For 25 years, Rousseff looked out on the island from her kitchen table.

Recent Brazilian presidents have maintained high profiles after leaving office. But Araújo says that his ex-wife is unlikely to follow suit. In any case, Dilma Rousseff, the former guerrilla, may soon be in a position to find the sense of peace that has eluded her in politics.

In the top image, President Dilma Rousseff speaks during the 12th Congress of the CUT, Brazil’s main trade union federation, in Sao Paulo, Brazil on October 13, 2015.

Photo credit: MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL/AFP/Getty Images

is a PhD student at Oxford University and former Argentina correspondent for  The Economist. (@annajessiep)