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Brazil’s Broken Political System

By Fernanda Canofre

Back in April, during the first impeachment vote in the lower house of Brazil’s Congress, a political columnist wrote about how one of Dilma Rousseff’s female ministers appeared to be concerned and shaken while preparing to watch the vote with the president at Palácio da Alvorada. Rousseff looked at her and, in an informal, humorous way, said: “Calm down, my child. Do you think that if I had done anything I would still be here to embarrass myself?”

Since her first year in government, Rousseff, an ex-guerrilla fighter who had never run for political office until her election as the first female president of Brazil, decided that the fight against corruption would be her personal brand. In the first 10 months of her first term, she fired seven ministers because of mere hints of their involvement in corruption scandals. This is characteristic of Rousseff. Whenever she is described, two traits emerge hand in hand: “tough to deal with” and “honest.”

This is where the irony of her impeachment lies. At a time when Brazil is witnessing a resurfacing of street protests, with the protesters on both right and left shouting against corruption and the police and judiciary orchestrating the Car Wash operation—the largest corruption investigation in the history of the country—a president without prior legal charges or corruption scandals to her name has been impeached. No one is sure that her actions even qualify as a crime that merits impeachmentnot even the senators who judged her and voted to oust her.

Although illegal, concealing budget deficits is a recurrent practice in politics. Barack Obama did it, Rousseff’s predecessors did it, and at least 17 Brazilian governors—including Antonio Anastasia, who was responsible for compiling the Senate’s report on the impeachment process—did it. No one has ever been punished for this action before.

Rousseff’s downfall was the price to pay for the Workers’ Party’s involvement in corruption scandals. Once in government, the party that ruled Brazil for the past 13 years adopted the same schemes for which it had previously criticized its opponents. In 1989, after the first direct presidential elections in Brazil following the military dictatorship era, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva said on TV that as president “he would prove you can put the corrupt in jail.” In March 2016, he was ready to accept the position of Rousseff’s chief of staff to gain privileged status and avoid charges as an investigation crept closer to him.

While Brazilians are born complaining about how we tolerate everyday corruption from the bakery line to the police, the corruption executed inside the Workers’ Party couldn’t be forgiven. It was the left-wing party that promised to bring social change and an end to the corruption era. The first promise was delivered, especially during Lula’s years as president, but the second fell by the wayside shortly after he took office in 2003.

The impeachment of Dilma Rousseff goes even further in exposing the contradictions in political opinion. If the weariness with corruption was the reason for it, the process was executed by a Congress that was itself buried in corruption scandals and legal challenges but full of moral speeches. In the lower chamber, 298 of 513 deputies had been charged or convicted when they voted for impeachment. Forty-nine of 81 senators were in the same situation.

News outlets and political commentators hurried to make the case that Brazil’s Congress was a mirror of its own society after the horrifying speeches in the name of “God, family members, and small towns” at the first impeachment vote, but this is not true. Yes, Brazilians voted in 2014 to put together the most conservative Congress since 1964, the year of the military coup. Still, when you look at a group of middle-aged, white, rich men with higher education, most of them linked to the rural (those who work for the agribusiness lobby) or evangelical benches, you are not considering the diversity that has historically built Brazilian society.

As much as we are a society of mixed cultures, we are also inscribed with racism and an attachment to old power structures. This explains why most seats in the Congress are perpetually occupied by the same families who are used to playing the game in a certain way and are not willing to change it.

These people include Senator Romero Jucá, who served as Planning Minister under interim president Michel Temer for 11 days, until he was caught saying that to “stop the bleeding of Operation Car Wash” they would have to “remove Dilma and put Michel.” Jucá has held a Senate seat since 1995, was a minister during Lula’s government, and voted for Rousseff’s impeachment. Or consider Renan Calheiros, who comes from a northeastern political dynasty and has been mentioned in several corruption scandals over the years, but helped to elect his son as governor of Alagoas and is still the Senate’s president. These men are not the exception.

Both politicians belong to Temer’s party. An old fox in the political realm, Temer represents the traditional way of doing politics in Brazil. Unlike his predecessor Rousseff, he knows how to deal with backroom political alliances and has the “levers of Congress,” as historian Luiz Felipe de Alencastro once said, in the palm of his hand.

And while the Senate voted to maintain Rousseff’s political rights, allowing her to run for public office in the next elections in 2018, Temer cannot do so. He is already indicted for illegal campaign donations and is ineligible for the next eight years.

Only history will tell if these days in August in Brazil were a parliamentary coup—as many are already calling it—or just Brazilian politics at work once again. The only thing we know for sure right now, with political reform and plans to punish corrupt politicians put to bed by the new government, is that corruption as we know it is still firmly in place.



Fernanda Canofre, a Brazilian journalist, writes frequently for Global Voices Online.

[Photo courtesy of Antonio Cruz]

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