Samantha Gowing’17 is a guest writer double majoring in Community Studies and English
Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, is currently undergoing impeachment proceedings surrounding her alleged budgetary deceit back in her 2014 election campaign. Rousseff, the leader of Brazil’s socialist-leaning Workers’ Party, borrowed billions of dollars from state budgets for social reform programs—the debt of which she hid from public eye during the campaign in order to still win the election. Most experts, whether for or against Rousseff, tend to agree that these claims are valid. If this was only case working against her, then we might ask: is it enough to warrant her removal?
Of course, that isn’t the only case currently being used against her. Since her election, Brazil’s economy has continued to plummet, while political corruption—highlighted by the recent Petrobras oil scandal—has reached all-new heights. Although Rousseff herself has not been directly implicated in the scandal, many politicians in her party have, including her mentor and predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. No side in this battle, however, has gotten off scot-free. Over one hundred politicians from all parties were indicted with pocketing money from the scandal and several have been jailed. In more recent news, the Supreme Court suspended Eduardo Cunha, the man leading the impeachment drive against Rousseff, from his position as Speaker of the Lower House for his own involvement in the scandal. The scale of this corruption far surpasses what the world witnessed when Brazil hosted the FIFA World Cup last year, and it doesn’t even end with Petrobras. An estimated 60% of Brazil’s Congress members are involved in all sorts of scandals, ranging anywhere from money laundering to (in an extreme case from the 90s) homicide.
Corruption is neither new nor uncommon, and Rousseff’s case is nowhere close to the worst the country has seen from a leading politician. In fact, New York Times writer Simon Romero even calls Rousseff “something of a rarity” in the current political climate because “she has not been accused of stealing for herself.” Although her budget deceit during the election may have been manipulative, the only valid claim being used against her is that she tried too hard to put money into social welfare programs benefitting the country’s poor. Rouseff and her party, however, have been at the center of the country’s frustrations—frustrations which have led to massive outbreaks, protests, and enough political pressure placed on the congress to lead to her impeachment proceedings.
A few months ago, I studied for several weeks in São Paulo, Brazil while staying with a family who lived just around the corner from Paulista Avenue, the city’s financial center in the downtown area. During my last weekend in the city, my host-family invited me to go to a protest with them on Paulista. The street was completely crowded with people wearing their country’s colors, shouting Fora Dilma!, and blowing into vuvuzelas every time a media-coverage helicopter flew overhead. We passed stages set up every few blocks with people talking passionately into microphones or bands playing upbeat music, and there were a plethora of food vendors and people to pass out balloons and flyers. Later, I found out that there were millions of people out on Paulista Avenue with me that afternoon.
The protest was fun—it was practically a party. The music was upbeat, and the police maintained safety in the streets by keeping a watchful eye on the events. And bear in mind, the people who came to that protest were the same people who can afford to live in the economically-flourishing downtown area of the city—that is, mostly white, upper-class residents who oppose the Workers’ Party agenda and believe that both Rousseff and Lula are to blame for the economic recession.
In the meantime, a different protest was stirring just beneath the surface. Earlier that week, we’d spoken with an eviction lawyer who worked with poor, displaced people in the city, and it was he who gave us a flyer about a protest occurring in support of Rousseff. I had planned to go, but countless warnings about the violence that would likely ensue held me back. Even before the actual protest began, police were already manning the area and waiting to disperse any crowds that might gather for the pro-Rousseff protest. The distinction was striking: Sunday’s protest, in all its magnitude and excitement, could only happen because it was state-sanctioned.
It is no coincidence that most people I met in support of Rousseff are the people I met working for human rights organizations or occupying abandoned buildings downtown to protest affordable housing shortages. When I spoke with them about the politics going on in their country, I learned that they were not even necessarily pro-Rousseff—but they still took her side because they felt strongly against the impeachment. The impeachment, backed primarily by state-sanctioned events of the wealthy elite classes, would undermine the previous election in which supporters of the Workers’ Party rightfully voted in Dilma Rousseff. Albeit, the vote passed with a 51% majority—but they were able to garner enough votes for Rousseff to enter office. The poor people of Brazil do not have the massive, state-sanctioned protests of the elite classes; they aren’t granted political platforms strong enough to catch their congress’s attention. If the impeachment proceedings continue, they might undermine even the most basic right to citizenship that under-resourced communities have in a democracy: the right to vote.
Around the time of the protest on Paulista Avenue, I noticed a particular narrative weaving its way through the US media’s coverage of events—a narrative that praised the demonstration of democracy that the anti-Rousseff protests seemingly represented. The impeachment proceedings have been lauded as a way to “defend democracy” and to empower the people; The Wall Street Journal described it as a “Middle-Class Revolt” in which “the effort to impeach President Dilma Rousseff is a sign of a maturing democracy.” The political action shown by the elite classes may seem impressive, but keep in mind: the state-sanctioning of the anti-Rousseff protest demonstrates the ability and access of the wealthy, elite class to use state institutions to influence Brazilian politics in their favor, while the lack of any meaningful voice from the poorer classes, who are repeatedly silenced by the same governmental institutions that benefit those in the upper-classes, continually puts them on the losing end of many of the political decisions made by those at the top.
In a country with a strong history of military dictatorships, with the most recent ending in 1988, the threat of a political coup is not far-fetched. Rousseff herself has begun to use the language of a coup in her fight against the impeachment, but continues to be written off as hyperbolic or over-passionate. Even if this is not the beginning of a coup, the implications of this impeachment could prove tremendously harmful for the country’s poor and politically-powerless populations.
The final vote for Rousseff’s impeachment has been projected for late August. On May 12th, 55 senators voted in favor of Rousseff’s impeachment—54 votes will be required in August to remove Rouseff from office. In the meantime, the interim president Michel Temer continues to hold office with a staff consisting entirely of white men; this cabinet is the first since the 1970s in which no women hold a position. Political leaders across Latin America have expressed their disapproval of this new shift in power. Temer has already begun pushing pension and labor reform policies as members of his cabinet recover from facing their own charges related to the Petrobras oil scandal.