The coup begins

Print edition : May 27, 2016

A day before the impeachment vote, Eduardo Cunha, President of the Chamber of Deputies (seated top), presiding over a debate in the house on whether or not to impeach Dilma Rousseff. Opposition lawmakers are holding signs in Portuguese that read "Goodbye dear" and "Impeachment now". Photo: Eraldo Peres/AP

President Dilma Rousseff at a press conference on April 18 in Brasilia, Brazil, a day after the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the parliament, voted for the motion to impeach her. Photo: Igo Estrela/Getty Images

Vice President Michel Temer. Photo: Ueslei Marcelino/REUTERS

With the lower house of Brazil’s parliament voting for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, she faces the biggest political challenge of her life.

THE VOTE IN THE LOWER HOUSE OF THE Brazilian parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, on April 17 to forward the case for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff to the upper house, the Senate, was the first big step taken by the coup plotters as they seek to oust the popularly elected President of the republic. Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first woman President, was re-elected only 18 months ago for a second four-year term. The Senate is dominated by the political opponents of the ruling Workers’ Party and is widely expected to recommend that the President stand trial for alleged constitutional improprieties, when it considers the issue in the middle of May. As is well known, almost all the key players who want Dilma Rousseff’s head are themselves mired in corruption. The Brazilian President has not been charged with corruption herself nor has any evidence surfaced to implicate her. Her alleged crime is that she illegally covered up budgetary shortfalls by borrowing from public sector banks as the country went to the polls in late 2014. All ruling party candidates like to paint a rosy picture of the economy before they face the electorate. But the opposition is charging Dilma Rousseff with “a crime of responsibility” for misrepresenting the actual state of the Brazilian economy at the time.

In the political circus that led to the impeachment, the legislators voting against Dilma Rousseff gave various reasons for their move, ranging from “peace in Jerusalem” to “saving the country from communism”. One prominent right-wing legislator, Jair Bolsonaro, even said that his vote was to honour “Col Brilhante Ustra”, the military officer who tortured Dilma Rousseff in 1973 when she was a left-wing guerrilla fighting against the military dictatorship in the country. Bolsonaro’s son, also a member of the lower house, voted in honour of “the military men of 1964”. The 1964 United States-backed military coup in Brazil led to the overthrow of a centre-left government. The military dictatorship constitutes one of the dark chapters of recent Brazilian history. Many of the current coup mongers in civilian garb look nostalgically to that dark era, which only ended in 1985. Dilma Rousseff spent three years in military prisons where she was routinely tortured.

Operation Lava Jato

None of the legislators voting to impeach her mentioned the formal charge of “crime of responsibility” for economic mismanagement against her. Instead, many of them falsely accused her of being involved in the ongoing corruption investigations into politicians from all political parties, known as “Operation Lava Jato” (Car Wash). Dilma Rousseff has remained unscathed by the corruption scandal that has tarred many in her own party. Attorney General Jose Eduardo Cardoso has been insisting that the corruption charges against Dilma Rousseff are totally unfounded.

The political mastermind behind the move to remove an elected President is Eduardo Cunha, the President of the Chamber of Deputies. He is constitutionally third in line to succeed the President. He was angry with the Workers’ Party for a variety of reasons, the main one being its refusal to protect him from serious charges of corruption. He is said to have millions of dollars parked in Swiss bank accounts and is currently under investigation by the Swiss authorities. The Ethics Committee of the lower house is investigating him for having received $40 million as illegal gratification in the Petrobras (the state-owned oil company) scandal. His name has also figured in “the Panama Papers”.

Some 299 of the 513 members of the lower house are currently under investigation for acts of corruption and nepotism. A Brazilian magazine has published a 41-page summary of the corruption charges against them. Brazilian legislators have immunity from criminal prosecution unless the Ethics Committee expels them or if the country’s Supreme Court orders it. Only 10 per cent of the legislators in both houses of parliament are directly elected. Therefore, most of the corrupt legislators do not have to face the electorate; they make it to the parliament on the basis of party lists. This is only one of the many flaws of Brazilian democracy. The media in the country are almost totally under the control of the elite, which has no love for the Workers’ Party. The entire corporate media seem unified in the attempt to destabilise the elected government.

The immediate political beneficiary of the impeachment move against Dilma Rousseff will be Vice President Michel Temer. He too has been named a beneficiary of a gargantuan corruption scandal, with a high court judge ruling that the parliament should consider an impeachment motion against him. If the Senate decides to put Dilma Rousseff on trial, she will have to take leave of absence from the presidency for six months. If she is found guilty, she will have to quit. Temer has said that he is ready to step into her shoes at short notice. A recent opinion poll showed that only 2 per cent of the Brazilian public would vote for him. Dilma Rousseff has called the Vice President a traitor and alleged that he is playing a prominent role in the unfolding coup. Temer is the leader of the Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement, which until recently was helping the Workers’ Party run the government.

The Workers’ Party has never had a majority in the country’s parliament since it was first voted into power more than 14 years ago. In fact, since 1995, no ruling party has got more than 20 per cent of the seats. The Brazilian Constitution, while envisaging a strong presidency, made provisions to ensure a multiparty legislature. In the vote in the lower house to refer the impeachment motion to the upper house, the majority of the members of all the right-wing and centre-right parties, which form the overwhelming majority in the Chamber, voted against Dilma Rousseff. Only the Workers’ Party, the Communist Party of Brazil, the Democratic Labour Party and the Socialism and Freedom Party, along with seven members of the Vice President’s party, voted against the motion.

According to observers of the Brazilian political scene, it will be difficult for Temer to form a government given his abysmal approval ratings and corrupt image; 58 per cent of the electorate wants Temer also to be impeached. This will leave the door open for Eduardo Cunha, who is at the moment instrumental in protecting the Vice President from impeachment. His approval ratings among the Brazilian public are also dismal. A group of Senators is calling for a new presidential election to be held in November this year along with the municipal elections. This is the only way, they say, to keep venal politicians out of the presidency after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, which they consider a foregone conclusion. The lead public prosecutor of “Operation Car Wash”, Deltan Dellagnol, has expressed his fears about the regime that will displace the Workers’ Party-led government. He has said that with corrupt legislators forming a new government, there will be concerted attempts to derail the ongoing investigations which have implicated leading figures from the opposition.

During the vote in the lower house, Dilma Rousseff forcefully pointed out that she was never mentioned in any documents or witness accounts relating to Operation Lava Jato and that the impeachment process should not have been allowed in the first place as at the most she was guilty of administrative errors. Brazil’s Supreme Court has so far refused to step in and give a legal ruling on the constitutionality of the impeachment proceedings. The court, like all the major institutions in the country, seems to be split along ideological lines. Dilma Rousseff emphasised that the reforms her government had instituted had empowered the judiciary to thoroughly investigate the nexus between the country’s political and economic elites. Six of her Cabinet Ministers had to resign last year for their roles in the Petrobras scandal.

Dilma Rousseff, facing the biggest political challenge in her life, has decided to fight on regardless of the shadow of a looming impeachment. During a recent visit to the United Nations headquarters in New York, she said that she would never let the coup against her succeed. She told the media in New York that there were no “legal grounds” for her impeachment. “In the past, coups were carried out with machine guns, tanks and weapons. Today all you need are hands willing to tear up the Constitution,” she said. She said that if the Senate approved the impeachment motion, then she would appeal to the international community and that she might go to the Mercosur, Latin America’s major regional grouping, to get its support to thwart the unfolding coup. She said that she would ask the grouping to implement the “democracy clause” in its constitution if there “is a rupture in the democratic process in Brazil”.

The impeachment process, she said, had all the “characteristics of a coup” as it had no legal basis. The left-wing parties in the region have all come out in support of their beleaguered comrade. The Permanent Conference of Political Parties of Latin America and the Caribbean, comprising 60 Left parties, issued a statement condemning the “institutional coup” in Brazil. The statement rejected “any destabilising intent to undermine democracy in Brazil”. It drew comparisons to the 2009 coup in Honduras and the 2012 impeachment of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo.

The Brazilian President said that she had received messages of solidarity from many world leaders. Brazil, along with Russia, India, China and South Africa, is a member of the important BRICS grouping, which was formed to challenge the economic dominance of the West. If a right-wing regime took over in Brazil, the country’s interest in the grouping could wane. Top opposition leaders from Brazil have been flying to Washington to brief senior officials in the Barack Obama administration on the neoliberal economic policies they would implement once Dilma Rousseff is ousted from power. But the U.S. seems to be having second thoughts about the impeachment process. The U.S.-backed Organisation of American States (OAS) has been critical of the whole exercise. After meeting with the Brazilian President in mid-April, OAS secretary general Luis Almagro issued a statement that said: “Her constitutional mandate must be ensured, in accordance with the Constitution and the laws, by all the powers of the state and all the institutions of the country, and any undermining of her authority should be avoided, wherever it may come from.”

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