Global Independent Analytics
James N. Green
James N. Green

Location: USA

Specialization: Latin America, Brazil

Democracy or Farce?: The Brazilian Congress and the Impeachment of President Rousseff

Unfortunately, there are many within the opposition to the current government who want to use this crisis to roll back progressive measures of the Lula-Rousseff administrations.

On Sunday, April 17, 2016, Brazilian Congressional representatives produced a spectacle, not unlike the antics of Donald Trump in a typical campaign rally. For nearly five hours, politicians from different political parties lined up in alphabetical order by the state to declare whether or not they supported the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. Rather than addressing the legal charges against Brazil’s chief executive, namely flexibility in budgeting and the release of monies to pay for social programs, the majority of members of the Chamber of Deputies ranted about corruption, called on God to protect the country, dedicated their actions to their spouses, children, and grandchildren, and then cast their vote in favor of impeachment. It was a bizarre scene in which they promised that by deposing of the President, who was elected with 54 million votes in a three-point lead over her opponent, somehow Brazilians would once again have hope for their future.

In spite of all of the economic and political errors committed by the Rousseff government, the charges made against her do not merit impeachment. This is clear not only in the report prepared by the commission of the lower house, but also in the defense of that report by Congressional representatives who voted for impeachment. Virtually no one spoke of the legal charges; rather 90 percent of the Congressional representatives who voted for impeachment complained about the economy and corruption. As José Eduardo Cardoso, the Solicitor General and Rousseff's attorney pointed out, Brazil is a presidential system, and, unlike in a parliamentary system, a president cannot be removed from office because she has lost political support or the confidence of the voters. Nor were the charges made against her linked to corruption or personal gain. Simply put, he argued, the bases for her impeachment are groundless.

This leads to another question about the nature of the effort to remove her from office. Was it a "golpe,” that is, a coup d'état, or a legitimate constitutional procedure? Here I think a historical analogy is appropriate.

João Goulart (1961-64) was "legally" removed from the presidency by a vote of the Congress on April 1, 1964, for "abandoning" his office. According to the 1946 Constitution, the speaker of the house then assumed the presidency. This was the case because Vice President Goulart took office in August 1961—in the face of opposition from the armed forces—when President Jânio Quadros suddenly resigned. Within a week the Chamber of Deputies then voted to make four-star General Castelo Branco the president.

All of this was formally legal and according to the letter of the law.  However, it ignored the fact that the military had driven Goulart from Brasília and seized power. Although Goulart was still in Brazil, it was alleged that he had abandoned his post and the country, which was the basis of placing the speaker of the house temporarily in power until a purged Congress could approve the armed forces’ candidate.

The majority of the Congress voted for this procedure, which is one of the reasons why many historians have referred to 1964 as a military-civilian coup d'état. Today, the military is (seemingly) not present in Congressional machinations, but conservative political forces have used the same arguments of a socio-economic crisis, the mobilization of the people in the streets, and the “legality” of the process of impeachment as justifications for deposing the president.

The political elites of Brazil have been brilliant over the last five centuries in retaining their power against all odds, using laws and the state to justify their rule. The current situation follows that pattern. Fortunately, President Rousseff has been a Democratic president. She did not rein in the press or introduce censorship, although the mainstream media has systematically presented the news to favor its conservative agenda. She did not try to obstruct the corruption investigations. Even when population mobilizations, fueled by right-wing forces and public outrage about corruption revelations, demanded her impeachment, she did not try to repress their democratic right to protest.

Unfortunately, there are many within the opposition to the current government who want to use this crisis to roll back progressive measures of the Lula-Rousseff administrations. Some of these initiatives, admittedly, were initiated in modest forms under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, but they were dramatically expanded during his successors’ administrations. In fact, one of the reasons for Rousseff’s “creative budgeting” has been the drop in state revenues to pay for these programs, which in part has been due to the slump in international commodity prices that had fueled Brazil’s growth in the previous decade. While these social programs have only begun to address the endemic gaps between the rich and the poor, this state support has made a dramatic difference in their lives of millions of people.

If President Rousseff is impeached—and it is now up to the Senate to decide—it is likely that her opponents will use the argument that the country needs to come together and the people need to tighten their belts to justify the dismantling of those social programs that have benefited the poor and marginalized. They will, no doubt, offer inadequate alternatives that will rely on market forces for their implementation.

It must be emphasized that corruption is (and has been) a serious problem in Brazil. It must be routed out, but it will not be, in spite of the rhetoric of those who declared their votes for Rousseff’s impeachment on Sunday. The current investigations, which have included the laudable incarceration of titans of Brazilian capitalism, will end, I foresee, when former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been barred from running for the presidency in the next elections. Those involved in corruption linked the Workers' Party will be prosecuted, as they should be, but major figures in other political parties will not end up in jail.

That is, in my assessment, part of the deal that led to the impeachment vote. Eduardo Cunha, the current president of the Chamber of Deputies, and second in line for the presidency, should the Senate approve the motion for impeachment, will not be sent to prison, even though it seems that he has been involved in money laundering, tax evasion, and influence peddling. Cunha is in the Panama Papers; Rousseff is not.

Conciliation among the elites was one of the main reasons that slavery lasted so long in Brazil, and social inequality continues to be so egregious today. Although there had been moments when state power had slipped from their grips, it not been often. Deals have been made to unite opposition forces in their efforts to overturn the will of the majority in the 2014 elections.

The end of the dictatorship in the early 1980s was soiled by an amnesty law that protected agents of the state from prosecution for gross violations of human rights. Based on the military’s “legal” rules, indirect Congressional elections chose the first civilian president in 1984 after two decades of military rule. This week, indirect elections began the process of deposing a democratically elected president for charges much less serious than those of her accusers.

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