The impeachment of Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff installed a regressive neoliberal regime which has implemented a major reversal of the social advances made under successive PT governments.
‘On this day of glory for the Brazilian people… in the memory of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra: Dilma Rousseff’s terroriser… for Brazil above all and for God above all, my vote is yes!’
These were the words of the far-right deputy of Rio de Janeiro, Jair Bolsonaro, on 17 April 2016, when Brazil’s congress voted to impeach the country’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff. His homage to the head of the intelligence unit that imprisoned and tortured Rousseff during the military dictatorship (1964-1985), when she was a member of a guerrilla organisation opposing the regime, was the darkest moment on the night Rousseff was suspended from the presidency.
Rousseff was elected president in 2010 for the Brazilian Worker’s Party (PT); her PT predecessor, Luis ‘Lula’ Ignacio Da Silva, left office with record approval ratings. In a Brazilian senate vote on 31 August 2016, Rousseff was permanently removed from office and replaced by her former vice president Michel Temer of the rightwing Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB). Unelected Temer will now be president until the 2018 election despite having been found guilty of overspending on elections campaigns in 2014, an offence that prohibits him from being elected to office for eight years, but has not prevented him from assuming the presidency following the impeachment.
Rousseff was accused of delaying loan repayments in order to pay off social programmes, a tactic known as ‘fiscal peddling’, without the approval of congress. That this represented, as her opponents claimed, a ‘crime of responsibility’ worthy of impeachment is untenable, particularly as many elected officials who preceded her have performed similar manoeuvres without repercussion. Moreover, it is clear that those who were instrumental in her displacement were not motivated by budgetary legislation.
The fallout from an investigation into allegations of corruption at the state-owned oil company Petrobras, known as Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), was crucial to Rousseff’s removal from office. Launched in March 2014, it has uncovered a vast corruption network at Petrobras. In light of the investigations, much public anger was directed against Rousseff due to her former role as chairwoman of the company’s board of directors. The sharp downturn in her popularity, especially among the middle and upper classes, was also in the context of Brazil’s economic recession following the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis.
In contrast to many of those who voted to impeach her, Rousseff was not accused of personal corruption. According to the corruption watchdog Transparência Brasil (Transparency Brazil), over half of the representatives in both congress and the senate are currently implicated in judicial processes or audit courts. Even Temer’s newly-appointed cabinet swiftly saw three ministers resign after being implicated in the Lava Jato corruption investigations, satirically including the Minister for Transparency. Fresh corruption claims against Temer himself came to light in a plea bargain made by Marcelo Odebrecht, the CEO of Brazil’s biggest construction company, in August 2016. The hypocrisy of the political class who impeached Rousseff was stunning, especially as their anti-corruption rhetoric exploited genuine long-standing public anger in Brazil.
A new governing coalition
The turmoil resulting from anti-government protests, numerous corruption scandals, deepening economic recession and the impeachment proceedings created a window of opportunity for anti-PT interests in Brazil.
Temer’s exclusively-white-and-male cabinet sends a clear message to the Brazilian people about what a government of self- professed ‘National Salvation’ looks like. In the Women in Politics Map 2015, launched by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women, Brazil ranked a lowly 117th, with women accounting for just 9 per cent and 13.6 per cent of all congress and senate members respectively. Temer’s all-male cabinet threatens to worsen the already unequal representation of women in Brazilian politics, particularly since Temer agreed, in a meeting with evangelical pastors, to consider using the Ministry of Education to combat a so-called ‘Ideology of Gender’ in the country. Sociologist Maria Betânia Avila denounced Temer’s cabinet as a ‘patriarchal coup’, affirming that ‘without feminism there is no democracy’.
The cabinet, nevertheless, quickly gained the support of a coalition of rightwing seats in congress, nicknamed by opponents as the ‘BBB’ (Beef, Bible, Bullets) alliance. As the name suggests, the group represents components of agro-business, prominent members of the evangelical community and gun rights advocates.
According to Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, the three wings of the ‘Beef, Bible, Bullets’ coalition respectively voted 83 per cent, 84 per cent and 81 per cent for Rousseff’s impeachment: significantly higher than the 72 per cent average in congress. Politically, they opposed Rousseff on many issues and, according to the PT deputy who coined the ‘BBB’ nickname, Erika Kokay, they seem ‘even more united and articulated than ever’.
The ‘BBB alliance’ largely voted to elect Eduardo Cunha, a strong critic of Rousseff and a leading figure within the evangelical movement, as Speaker of the House of Congress in early 2015. Cunha initiated the impeachment proceedings against Rousseff in December that year, after the government supported investigations into corruption allegations made against him. He has since been stripped of his mandate and banned from politics for eight years as he stands accused of having received millions of dollars in bribes and laundering money through undeclared bank accounts in Switzerland. Judge Sergio Moro, who is heading the Car Wash investigations, ordered Cunha’s arrest in late October as he was identified as a potential flight risk.
Other notable issues which underpin the ‘BBB alliance’ are the reduction of the penal age from 18 to 16 years old, the legalisation of the right to bare licensed firearms, the introduction of a family statute that restricts the legal definition of ‘family’ to heterosexual couples only, and the criminalisation of all cases of abortion, including in cases of rape or the mother’s ill-health, as legalised within the public health service by Rousseff in 2013.
Indigenous rights are also under threat from the ‘BBB alliance’. The coalition of conservative interests gives strong support for the Proposal of Amendment to the Constitution 215 (PEC 215), which Rousseff opposed. PEC 215 is a proposal whereby the demarcation of indigenous territories in Brazil would no longer be dependent on research and deliberation by the National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI), but rather would be subject to a vote in congress. The conservative agricultural sector has lobbied hard to overturn the protection of large indigenous territories, which it views as contrary to its interests.
As things stand, the ‘BBB alliance’ will play an important role in the future of Temer’s administration, and therefore potentially in the future of Brazil.
These events did not go unchallenged. Many groups identified the political, rather than judicial, motives behind the impeachment and called the process a political coup.
The Brazil Popular Front (FBP) is a coalition of 68 civil society groups that united, according to its mission statement, to ‘defend the rights and aspirations of the Brazilian people, to defend democracy and an alternative political economy, to defend national sovereignty and regional integration, [and] to defend the profound transformations in our country’. The FBP includes the country’s largest trade union, the Brazilian Workers’ Central Union (CTU), as well as advocate groups for women’s, Afro-Brazilian and LGBTI rights. It released public declarations against Temer and his cabinet, while also organising rallies and protests throughout 2016.
There was also strong opposition from the Association of Indigenous Peoples (APIB), which allied with the National Forum of Human Rights for Democracy to protest Temer’s proposal to appoint former army general Sergio Roberto Peternelli as president of FUNAI. General Peternelli is a supporter of PEC 215; his potential nomination as head of an organisation responsible for the rights of indigenous peoples in Brazil would have represented a catastrophic blow for those groups. Following protests, however, a petition signed by over 4,000 indigenous people, anthropologists, social scientists and university professors put enough pressure on Temer to drop the nomination: a small but significant victory.
Despite its efforts, the FBP was unsuccessful in preventing Rousseff’s impeachment. Temer’s cabinet, with strong congressional support, will now hold executive powers to push through an agenda the Brazilian people did not vote for. Supporters of democracy will therefore need to remain united to counter the potentially devastating impact of the accession of anti-democratic and neoliberal interests in the country.
This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue three (Winter 2016/17)