Who do you back: the disgraced president of Brazil or the army of lawyers and legislators who turned against her?
Which side you’re on will determine how you view the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who was thrown out of office this week by a hostile Senate after a gruelling eight-month scandal. Side with Rousseff herself and you will consider this a blow to Brazil’s fragile democracy, an attack on a democratically elected president instigated by the wealthy elites who have always despised her left-wing government. According to the lawyer who defended Rousseff from charges of budget manipulation and fiscal irresponsibility, her real crime was supporting a widespread investigation into Brazil’s institutional corruption. In her farewell address, Rousseff reiterated her stance that the impeachment process – which involved a supreme court ruling, two special impeachment committees, a debate in the lower house, and multiple senate votes – was in fact a “coup”.
The alternate view is that Rousseff got what was coming to her, and that Brazil will be better for it. At best, Rousseff was utterly ineffective at getting Brazil’s economic crisis under control. At worst, she was instrumental in its meltdown. During her presidency, debt spiralled out of control, creating a deficit that even the country’s vast wealth of natural resources could not plug. Her tightening of protectionist measures have strangled businesses and raised the cost of living, and when she was in trouble, Rousseff splurged on welfare spending to try to recover her popularity. In the past year, inflation reached its highest point in 13 years, the Brazilian real lost almost a quarter of its value, and the country now faces its biggest recession since the 1930s.
As for whether or not she did manipulate the government accounts in the run-up to the 2014 election, the answer appears to be yes, but not in a way that radically differs from previous administrations. This is a point both the pro- and anti-Rousseff camps can claim for their advantage. Rousseff is also associated with the state oil giant Petrobras that is now embroiled in a $3 billion corruption scandal, known as Lava Jato (operation “car wash”). While this does not condemn her, it does tar her with the taint of cronyism that pervades Brazil’s economy, and much of its political class.
That includes the new president Michel Temer (formerly Rousseff’s vice president and interim president while her impeachment trial was ongoing). There has been a rush to present Brazil’s political turmoil as a battle between two distinct sides: corrupt power-hungry socialists vs. principled pro-market reformers, or scapegoated elected left-wingers vs. fascist anti-democratic elites, depending on your perspective. But the situation is far more blurred. Temer, as Rousseff’s running mate in 2014, is charged with the exact same accusations as she is, and is himself subject to an ongoing impeachment trial. The man who instigated the proceedings in the first place, former speaker for the lower house Eduardo Cunha, is more deeply embroiled in the Petrobras scandal than either of them, and was removed from office in May. His replacement, Waldir Maranhão, is also entangled in the Lava Jato investigation. In fact, the majority of Brazil parliamentary representatives are implicated in crimes of some kind.
That’s a level of endemic corruption that the removal of one unfortunate president will do little to mitigate. Either it’s a surface-level fix that will fail to confront the real issue, or – worse – it’s the nudge that will send Brazil’s political house of cards tumbling down. The main casualty aside from Rousseff herself may prove to be Brazilian democracy. As Guardian reporter Jonathan Watts pointed out, six of the last eight directly elected presidents of Brazil have failed to complete their full terms: “two have been impeached, one removed in a military coup, one killed himself, one died before taking power and another resigned”. For a country that has struggled against both populism and military rule, destablising the delicate system is a significant risk, especially against the backdrop of riots and economic collapse.
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On the eve of the final vote, Janaína Paschoal, the lawyer who filed the original impeachment petition, said she wished Dilma Rousseff well, but has no regrets. Her biggest fear is that, in 20 years time, Brazil will be facing exactly the same corruption crisis as it is today.