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.
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