Sao Paulo: The facts of the case look straight and simple. Dilma Rousseff has been impeached by Brazil’s senate. The first woman president of the biggest South American country was forced out of office by a 61-20 vote in the Senate on Wednesday. Her former deputy, Michel Temer, is now in-charge of Brazil, the world’s fifth most populous country. Rousseff, who faces no corruption charges, can still remain in politics and has not been barred from public office in the future. The world’s seventh biggest economy is vertically split in two halves: one keeping quiet on Rousseff’s dismissal; the other lighting fires in the country’s financial capital.
But nothing is straight and simple in Brazil today.
More than 12 hours after the Senate passed the vote to impeach Rousseff on charges of “fiscal irresponsibility”, Brazil is slipping into an uneasy sleep after a day of tense drama. Angry waves of people are still receding in some of the biggest cities. The pungent smell of tear gas released by cops is still floating about the centre of Sao Paulo. Young men and women hit by the police’s rubber bullets are still nursing their wounds.
Today, Brazil is a wounded nation. Today, Brazil’s worst fears of returning to its dark past seem to have come true.
For Rousseff and her supporters, the impeachment is nothing short of a coup. She minced no words in her first address after the Senate vote on Wednesday. “The senators who voted for impeachment chose to tear up the constitution. They decided to interrupt the mandate of a president who did not commit a crime of responsibility. They condemned an innocent woman and organised a parliamentary coup,” Rousseff said, speaking calmly and in a dignified manner. “It is the second coup that I have faced in my life. The first, the military coup [of 1964], supported with the violence of arms, of repression, and of torture, affected me when I was a young activist. The second, the parliamentary coup carried out today by means of a juridical farce, removes me from the office to which I was elected by the people.”
Rousseff, elected to her second term with 54.5 million votes in October 2014, is leaving the head of state’s office in the hands of Temer, whose popularity rating has been below 5% even after he took over as the country’s interim president in May this year. Deeply unpopular, even among those who did not support Rousseff, and lacking the mandate to rule the country, Temer, 75, looks like bad news for Brazil’s democracy, its economic alliance with several other South American countries and for BRICS, the group of emerging countries. Coup or not, Temer looks all set to reverse the social, economic and foreign policies of the past 13 years that put Brazil on the global map as a country with economic power and political muscle.
On Wednesday night, in his first address to the nation, Temer gave a clear indication of things to come. Warning his critics against calling him a “coup plotter”, the new president announced that his top priority is to “reform” the country’s pension system and labour laws. Even before he took over the presidency, Temer has been selling a plan, backed by industry lobbyists, to bring the country’s economy “back on track” by privatisation, pension reform, abolition of constitutionally-mandated expenditures on health and education, and cutbacks on social security for poor. Early in the day, Aecio Neves, the leader of the main opposition party PSDB who lost the last election to Rousseff, demanded that Temer should be ready to administer a “bitter pill” to the country to revive the economy.
Take back the power
Not just the Workers Party’s leaders and sympathisers, even independent observers feel that the real reason behind Rousseff’s impeachment is not concerns about ‘fiscal responsibility’ but the desire to hand power back to the country’s old elite who have been angry with the policies of Rousseff and her predecessor and mentor, Lula de Silva. In this scheme of things, the impeachment was just an excuse – and the harbinger of things to come. “The coup, in fact, is just beginning,” says Guilherme Boulos, a well-known social activist. “Temer, as acting president, has proved that he will protect the interest of the rich. He was not elected and, it seems, he is not eligible for re-election. He is not accountable to anyone except the business and financial elite, which gave their unequivocal support to impeachment.”
The impeachment process was started by Eduardo Cunha, the former speaker of the Congress who has since been removed from office by the Supreme Court. Involved in numerous corruption cases, Cunha has been a close associate of Temer, who himself has been named in several corruption cases and is actually barred from running for office for violating election funding rules. Though they have often accused Rousseff of protecting Lula and other members of her party in the Petrobras scandal, tape recordings leaked some weeks ago revealed that many members of Congress wanted her removed from office because she refused to block federal investigations against widespread corruption among politicians, including many from her own coalition government.
Since assuming power on an interim basis, Temer has shown no inclination to check corruption, which deeply plagues his own party, the PMDB. But he has unleashed the federal police on Lula, despite an important judge declaring that there was no case against the former president. According to James Green, professor of Brazilian history and culture at Brown University, Temer is following an agenda to finish the Workers Party’s rule, influence and all chances of returning to power. “Based on policies implemented by Temer in the four months since he assumed the interim presidency, it seems that the new government will swerve sharply to the right, cut many of the social programs that were trademarks of the Lula-Rousseff governments, and do everything possible to prevent former president Lula from running for the office of chief executive in 2018. At the same time, it is expected that Temer will try to put a stop to corruption investigations against the members of his new centre-right government coalition,” Green wrote in a recent post on Facebook.
It is ironic that the two parties running Brazil in a coalition today – Temer’s PMDB and Neves’s PSDB – have a large number of tainted politicians in their ranks. While the PMDB has not even contested a presidential election in a long time, the PSDB lost four consecutive presidential elections to Lula and Rousseff. With Lula once again leading the opinion polls for the 2018 elections, the gaggle of PSDB leaders have been on the verge of becoming irrelevant in national politics. It’s common knowledge that PSDB struck a deal with Temer’s party to come to power through the back door. “With the approval of my removal from office, politicians who have desperately sought to escape the arm of the judicial system have seized power, alongside the ones who lost the last four elections. They did not form the government through the direct vote, like Lula and I did in 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014. They have appropriated power through a coup d’etat,” Rousseff said on Wednesday. “It is indisputably an indirect election, in which 61 senators have suppressed the will expressed by 54.5 million voters. It is a fraud, which we will appeal at every possible level of the judicial system. We will continue to fight.”
Cozying up to the US
Temer might have captured power with his machinations and the impeachment process, which looked legal on paper, but he faces a daunting task to win the country’s trust.
Heavily booed during the opening ceremony of the Olympics, he is now banking on the G-20 summit in China next week to give his image a boost. “A photo-op with [US] President [Barack] Obama and other world leaders could be very useful in the current circumstances. The government is also burning the phone lines day and night to get statements of support from western capitals, mainly Washington and Paris,” says a senior Brazilian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Unlike Rousseff, who had a rather rough relationship with Obama, the US is now going to be the most important partner for the new president.”
Since May, when Rousseff was suspended from office, Brazilian foreign policy has made a sharp U-turn under Jose Serra, a PSDB leader who is now foreign minister. In just four months, Serra, who lost the presidential election to Rousseff in 2010, has attacked Brazil’s small neighbours like Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, and mocked several multilateral groupings like UNASUR, CELAC and ALBA that promote Latin American integration. “In his first speech on foreign policy, Serra made clear that Brazil is going to be tough with its neighbours while it works closely with Washington. The minister didn’t say a word about BRICS, which has been the cornerstone of our foreign policy in recent years,” says the diplomat. “If there is a clash between the US and BRICS on an international issue, other emerging countries should be prepared for a different Brazilian position.”
It’s an open secret that Serra, whose name figures prominently in the Wikileaks cables as a lobbyist for the oil industry, is the second most powerful man in the new Brazilian dispensation. A possible presidential candidate for his party in 2018, Serra is working with Temer to dismantle the Brazil made during Lula-Rousseff years. While Temer is rolling out the red carpet for Big Money, Serra is realigning the country’s interest with the rich world – at the cost of other emerging countries.
In the next two years or so, the “country of the future” may begin to look like it did during its murky past.
Shobhan Saxena is a Sao Paulo-based journalist