The Opportunistic Use of Impeachment to Undermine Democracy in Brazil – posted 6/12/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/19/2016
I think it is fair to say that any news of Brazil is scarce in the United States. We generally pay little attention to news outside our country, unless it is about terrorism.
When I was recently in France, I was surprised how much TV news coverage there was about the impeachment of the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff. It was the lead news story everyday I was there in early May.
Rousseff is currently suspended from office for 180 days, pending a full impeachment trial in Brazil’s Senate.
To the extent Americans are paying attention to Brazil, focus turns to the Zika virus and the upcoming Olympic games this summer, The Olympics will be held in Rio in August.
Much of the discussion about Brazil on French TV looked at the question of whether the impeachment of President Rousseff was, in fact, a coup d’etat by the right wing opposition. The reasons for President Rousseff’s removal seem murky at best. She has not been charged with stealing money or any crime.
Brazil’s legislature voted to suspend President Rousseff from office over accusations that she had tampered with government accounts to hide a budget shortfall. On its face, this hardly seems like any basis for impeachment. Governments of the political left or right routinely do misleading things to try and look better. I would say the Brazilian impeachment effort is on a par with the effort to impeach President Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
The common thread is the bogus use of impeachment to try and reverse an electoral verdict. The party that cannot win an election resorts to a shortcut replacement strategy. In politically polarized countries, especially those with a weaker democratic tradition than our own, impeachment then becomes an undemocratic substitute for legitimate election.
Out of frustration, Brazil’s political right has now embarked on the shortcut method because it has not been able to win an election in the last four election cycles.
Noam Chomsky, the famous scholar/activist, called the Brazil impeachment ” a kind of soft coup”. He said Rousseff is “being impeached by a gang of thieves”. Chomsky is alluding to the fact that many of the figures behind the impeachment effort are themselves being investigated for corruption.
Folha de Sao Paulo, a Brazilian daily paper, ran a widely-read story which suggested the aim of the impeachment process was an effort to stifle a massive corruption inquiry known in Brazil as the “Car Wash” probe. Many of the figures in Brazil promoting impeachment against Rousseff are themselves being investigated.
Leaked recordings show the planning minister in the new government, Romero Juca, discussing the impeachment process as a way of stopping the Car Wash inquiry into corruption at Petrobus, the state oil company. Petrobus is Brazil’s largest corporation and it is one of the world’s largest oil companies. There are actually seven ministers in the new government implicated in the investigation.
The leaked conversations also revealed that some of the politicians under investigation were secretly conspiring with members of the Brazilian Supreme Court and the military. So we have a situation where the right wing interim president and some of his allies face actual corruption charges while they engineer the ouster of a president charged with no crime.
To appreciate this black comedy, it helps to place Brazil’s current political situation in a historical context. The writer Eduardo Galeano described Brazil this way:
“There is no country in the world as unequal as Brazil. Some analysts even speak of the Brazilianization of the planet in sketching a portrait of the world to come. By “Brazilianization”, they certainly don’t mean the spread of irrepressible soccer, spectacular carnivals or music that awakens the dead, marvels that make Brazil shine brightest; rather they’re describing the imposition of a model of progress based on social injustice and racial discrimination, where economic growth only increases poverty and exclusion.”
Galeano’s words were written in the late 1990’s before the election of Lula and the center-left Workers’ Party, Since the early 2000’s, the Workers’ Party has won four consecutive national elections. Luis Ignacio da Silva or as he is known in Brazil, Lula, has been the leader of the Workers’ Party and he is probably the most popular president in Brazil’s history. He left office in 2010 and Dilma Rousseff replaced him. Rousseff was first elected in 2010 by a 56-44 per cent margin and she was reelected in 2014 with a reduced margin of 52-48 per cent.
During Lula’s presidency, Brazil’s economy boomed. He also presided over a very significant redistribution of wealth. The real minimum wage rose 70%. The government created 21 million new jobs and it also created the Bolsa Familia, a federal assistance program which provided financial aid to poor Brazilian families.
Lula has been widely credited with dramatically reducing poverty and hunger. Lula called his program Zero Hunger. He also promoted an expansion of higher education. Professor Alfredo Saad-Filho of the University of London described the Brazilian change:
“For the first time, the poor could access education as well as income and bank loans. They proceeded to study, earn and borrow, and to occupy spaces, literally, previously the preserve of the upper-middle class: airports, shopping malls, banks, private health facilities, and roads, with the latter clogged up by cheap cars purchased on seventy-two easy payments. The government enjoyed a comfortable majority in a highly fragmented Congress, and Lula’s legendary political skills managed to keep most of the political elite on his side.”
But then, on President Rousseff’s watch, things deteriorated. The present crisis is very much the product of a declining economy, a strengthened right wing opposition, corruption, including in the Workers” Party, and powerful right wing media controlled by the Brazilian oligarchs. Imagine Fox News as every network. That is close to the Brazilian reality. The confluence of these factors created the political power grab opportunity.
Democracy remains fragile although Brazil has made enormous strides toward the construction of a more inclusive and just social system. It is not that long ago in 1964 when the Brazilian military staged a coup and overthrew the democratically elected government of then-President Joao Goulart, a mild social democratic reformer.
For 21 years until 1985, the Brazilian military imposed a brutal dictatorship on the people. The military became infamous and hated for, among other things, the use of extreme torture techniques applied against dissidents. Torture victims included President Rousseff herself. During the military dictatorship in the late 60’s until 1970, Rousseff was an underground guerrilla, fighting the regime. Rousseff was captured by the military in 1970 and she was detained for three years without trial.
Her interrogations started with punching, electric shock and then there were sessions of “pau de arara” (suspension from a rod by the hands and feet). She was often beaten and her torturers threatened to disfigure her. They dislocated her jaw and that problem still causes her difficulty. In court proceedings later, Rousseff denounced her own torture and named names of those who tortured her.
A Truth Commission found 434 people were killed or disappeared during the dictatorship. Thousands more experienced beatings, electric shock, sexual violations and psychological torture. The report named 377 people it said were involved in human rights abuses, of whom 196 are still alive. The torturers have so far escaped criminal prosecution. There is a 1979 amnesty law which prevents those who committed abuses from being tried or punished.
Since the military coup in 1964, a body of evidence has appeared showing the role of the United States in assisting the Brazilian military in its coup efforts. The extent of the U.S. role remains in dispute. There is also strong evidence showing the American and British role in training the Brazilian military in torture techniques.
To appreciate the gravity of the present crisis, the history of the military dictatorship must be mentioned. It remains a tricky challenge how Brazil will be able to constructively move forward without reverting to increased economic injustice and authoritarianism. The impeachment of President Rousseff is a step in the wrong direction.