Brazil

A soft coup

Print edition : September 30, 2016

Dilma Rousseff after the Brazilian Senate confirmed her impeachment by a 61 to 20 vote in Brasilia on August 31. Photo: Lula Marques/Bloomberg

Supporters of Dilma Rousseff protesting against her impeachment, in Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city, on September 4. Photo: Miguel SCHINCARIOL/AFP

Michel Temer being sworn in as interim President. Photo: Igo Estrela/Getty Images

Right-wing opposition forces have succeeded in ousting President Dilma Rousseff on dubious grounds and are in the process of making changes in the country’s domestic and foreign policies.

THE devious plan a corrupt, right-wing Brazilian elite hatched has finally come to fruition. On August 31, the final act of the plot to remove a democratically elected President was duly staged. As was expected, the members of the Brazillian Senate overwhelmingly voted to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, who had three years of her term left. The two-thirds majority needed for her impeachment was easily obtained as the President’s party was in a minority in the upper house: 61 Senators voted for impeachment and only 20 against it. However, a separate vote calling for her to be debarred from holding elective office for the next eight years failed to get the required two-thirds majority. The impeachment also marks the end of the 13-year rule of the left-wing Workers’ Party and the return of the discredited right wing to power through dubious means.

Despite the best efforts of her opponents and the misuse of state machinery, no evidence was found of personal corruption on Dilma Rousseff’s part. The only charges against her were of a purely administrative nature: that of issuing three unauthorised supplementary spending decrees before the 2014 presidential election. The charge of “fiscal sidestepping” to cover budget deficits was a laughable one. These are routine administrative measures that governments throughout the world resort to. Many former Brazilian Presidents had resorted to similar measures with no questions being asked. The federal prosecutor investigating the case concluded in early July that Dilma Rousseff had not committed any criminal offence. Her supporters said that the real reason for her ouster was her refusal to protect corrupt politicians involved in a kickback scandal surrounding the state-run energy conglomerate Petrobras. The massive corruption scandal involves the diversion of millions of dollars into the private accounts of politicians, most of them from the opposition.

Dilma Rousseff went down fighting, telling the Senate that it should not “expect the obliging silence of cowards” from her. Her supporters thronged the streets of many cities as the hearings were taking place. The main thoroughfares of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, were shut down. The impeachment process, she said, “has been marked from start to finish by blatant misappropriation of power”. In an emotionally surcharged speech, she told the Senate that it was the “second coup” she had faced in her lifetime. The first, she said, was the United States-backed military coup in 1964. That coup was mounted to overthrow another leftist President, Joao Goulart. Dilma Rousseff was imprisoned and tortured for her struggle against the ruthless right-wing military regime, which held on to power for 20 long years.

The “second coup”, she said, was the “parliamentary coup” this year that was concluded “through a juridical farce” on August 31. “It is a misogynist coup, a homophobic coup, a racist coup,” Dilma Rousseff said. She has pledged to appeal against her dismissal. “They have convicted an innocent person and carried out a parliamentary coup,” she said. The new Cabinet under Michel Temer, her former political ally and Vice President, is an all-white, all-male one; 51 per cent of Brazil’s population defines itself as non-white. She went on to say that the coup was the handiwork of a “powerful and reactionary force” that was intent on upending all the progressive measures that Workers’ Party governments had undertaken on behalf of the poor and the marginalised sections of the Brazilian populace.

A Workers’ Party Senator, Regina Sousa, in her speech at the final impeachment vote, said that Dilma Rousseff veered from the narrative of the Brazilian elite as she was “elected President of the Republic as a woman, from the Left, a former militant against the dictatorship and without a husband” to pose by her side. Dilma Rousseff is a divorced grandmother who, according to Regina Sousa, “never fit in the cute little dress designed by the conservative elite of the country”.

The ease with which she was removed from office is a sure recipe for political instability, Dilma Rousseff warned. After her ouster, many of those involved in perpetrating the soft coup continue to be in positions of power and influence. According to Transparency International, more than 60 per cent of the Senators who voted for Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment are themselves corrupt. The impeachment process was initiated immediately after Workers’ Party Members of Parliament supported a probe into an allegation of millions of dollars being diverted to private Swiss bank accounts by the then Speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha. He has since been forced to resign from the post and is under criminal investigation.

Temer is also facing charges of serious corruption, including receiving more than $3 million in kickbacks. He was found guilty of campaign finance violations on June 2 and banned from seeking office for eight years. At the inaugural ceremony of the Rio Olympics, he was virtually booed out of the stadium, with the crowd chanting “ golpista” (coupist). Temer thought that discretion was the better part of valour and chose to absent himself from the closing ceremony. His approval rating among the Brazilian public is in the single digits. Fifteen of his Cabinet Ministers are under investigation for corruption, along with the majority of Brazilian legislators. Three Ministers in the Temer Cabinet, including the Minister appointed to tackle corruption and the Planning Minister, have resigned in the last few months. Foreign Minister Jose Serra is accused of receiving more than $6 million in bribes.

Many countries in the region, such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, have withdrawn their envoys from Brazil to protest against the constitutional coup against an elected government. The Presidents of Cuba and Venezuela, Raul Castro and Nicolas Maduro respectively, characterised the impeachment process as part of “an imperialist reactionary counteroffensive” and “a fundamental step towards a coup d’etat”. The Cuban government has “strongly rejected the parliamentary and judicial coup d’etat perpetrated against President Dilma Rousseff”. The U.S. has however given the Temer government its stamp of approval. The U.S. State Department spokesperson said that the Brazilian Senate had acted in accordance with the country’s constitutional framework to remove Dilma Rousseff from office and that the U.S. would continue with the strong bilateral relationship that already existed between the two countries. The Barack Obama administration provided tacit support for the coup from the outset. The U.S. had earlier supported parliamentary coups in Honduras and Paraguay. The Obama administration is also supporting the proponents of a “soft coup” in Venezuela these days.

Austerity measures

Temer is poised to rule until 2018 and is already promising tough austerity measures, with the working class and the poor being at the receiving end. His party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, will be running the government with the help of other right-wing parties. The primary goal of the golpistas is to reintroduce neoliberal economic policies. One of the first acts of the Temer administration was to slash social spending for the rural and urban poor. Emir Sader, a Brazilian sociologist, had predicted that “that everything positive that Brazil built this century will be thrown out by a coup”.

Under Workers’ Party rule, between 2003 and 2013, poverty was reduced by 55 per cent and extreme poverty by 65 per cent. Income inequality had come down dramatically and unemployment had hit record lows. The economy only started going downhill after the fall in global commodity prices. In 2010, Dilma Rousseff started instituting budget cuts, increasing interest rates and curtailing spending on public projects. By 2015, Brazil had plunged into recession. Under pressure from the business elite, she introduced further austerity measures after she won a second term in office. The economy continues to be dependent to a large extent on the export of agricultural and hydrocarbon products.

In a public broadcast before he left to represent Brazil in the G20 summit, Temer told the Brazilian people that “the government was like your family, if it falls into debt, we must cut expenses”. He warned that the government might not be able to pay pensions and might raise the retirement age from the current 54 years. His government has already announced plans to privatise state-owned enterprises and allow foreign companies to explore for oil and gas. Temer has offered foreign investors “a good deal” along with “political stability” in Brazil. That is easier said than done. The country already seems to be on the verge of political and economic turmoil as the unelected government seeks to rewrite labour laws and has, at the same time, been unable to curb runaway inflation and unemployment. The unemployment rate officially stands at 11.6 per cent; 3.4 million Brazilians lost their jobs in the last year alone.

Under the new political dispensation, Brazil has started distancing itself from economic groupings such as Mercosur that promote the economic integration of Latin America and Caribbean nations and has instead started cosying up to the U.S.. Brazil under Workers’ Party rule had played a key role in the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). Brazil also had a big role to play in the defeat of the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas. In the last decade, Brazil had emerged as a leader of the developing world.

The new government does not seem to be enamoured of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) grouping either. Foreign Minister Serra has scarcely spoken a word about the grouping. “There will be a new foreign policy. …Brazil’s foreign policy must serve the interests of the nation, and not that of one party or one ideology…,” he told Miami Herald. India is hosting the next BRICS summit in October. With both Brazil and India veering towards the U.S., a shadow is looming over the future of the grouping.

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