The latest political events in Brazil have caused perplexity around the globe. The country once deemed to be not only an emerging global power, but also a positive example of democracy and stability in a region with a long history of political turmoil and authoritarianism, has been engulfed by a deep political crisis. The most immediate result of this crisis has been the ousting of the center-left Workers’ Party government this past March, in power for thirteen years, having won the last four elections in a row. The secondary effects of the crisis have mostly affected minorities and poor people: the interim government, in less than a month, has already dismantled important social policies on cash transfers and housing, and shut down ministries dedicated to agrarian reform, human rights, women’s and racial issues.

While these secondary effects may be seen as even more serious and urgent, as they signal a turn to a bizarre combination of neoliberal policies and conservative moralism, we want to address the more immediate effect of the crisis.

Many within the country and abroad have observed that the change in power is not without precedent. There are plenty of historical examples of backward oligarchies conspiring for and achieving positions of power in Latin American “Banana Republics.” Journalists, intellectuals and social movements have claimed that the ouster of President Dilma Rousseff, the first woman to hold the office, can be described as a coup d’état. And although the transition to an interim government, led by her vice-president and mainly formed by prominent former opposition politicians, went on under apparent legality, latest revelations of the negotiations over the impeachment strengthen the claim that something went really wrong with Brazil’s democracy.

Our aim is to show how discourses about “fighting corruption” were strategically deployed to stage a coup whose ultimate goal was in fact to keep various corrupt networks in place. Moreover, a very thin understanding of legality was marshaled so that the coup d’état did not appear as such.


A brief history of the crisis

Dilma Rousseff was elected with more than 52% of the popular vote in 2014. By the time of the second electoral round, Brazilian voters were well aware of the many corruption scandals involving her party. During the campaign, not only was the Mensalão vote-buying scandal again brought to view, but rumors concerning the state oil company Petrobrás became the object of broad attention and debate. And while the most popular media in Brazil have been keen to publicize possible connections between the president and the oil company, no evidence has ever been presented against her, though a lot has been already established against her party comrades.

Corruption must certainly be condemned, but as a social phenomenon, it is a constant feature of Brazilian political history: no government in the entire republican legacy has been exempt from a major corruption scandal. And getting rid of corruption has been a frequent premise deployed by those who have attempted to break with constitutional democracy in the past. In this sense, while on the surface this is the framing adopted in the current situation, corruption in fact can hardly be the reason why President Rousseff is facing an impeachment process. Or better said, the real reason is corruption on the other side. The most recent events suggest that the main motive of those behind the impeachment is to avoid investigation and possible legal prosecution for their involvement in corruption schemes. However, in order to better understand the current political crisis, we need to rewind to the 2014 elections.

In November of that year, even before Rousseff’s inauguration and the outbreak of the economic crisis, the opposition was already calling for her ouster; they could not accept the fact she had won the elections. Throughout 2015, as the economic crisis worsened, the government’s main supporting parties — the Progressive Party (PP), Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) and Workers’ Party (PT) — saw themselves directly affected by so-called Operation Car Wash, dedicated to investigating corruption schemes linked to the state oil company, Petrobrás. In December, the president of the Lower House, Eduardo Cunha, saw himself at risk of losing his position due to a investigation opened by the Ethics Committee, which found many (non-declared) bank accounts under his name in Switzerland. Just one day after that discovery, he accepted the request to open impeachment proceedings against Ms. Rousseff, which had been prepared by lawyers connected with the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), the main opposition party.

It could be argued that the impeachment procedure followed legal formalities. However, there were many controversial Supreme Court rulings on the matter. The Court refused to consider possible illegalities during the voting process, for example. This led to the claim that it favored impeachment.

The impeachment and its plot

To assert that an impeachment, if approved by parliament and confirmed by the courts, can never be placed under suspicion is no less than a fallacy. It says nothing about whether the process itself is just superficially legal, driven by secret — and illegitimate — reasons.

In fact, following the acceptance of the impeachment by congressman Eduardo Cunha, respect for due process was simply dismissed by some public agents responsible for conducting Operation Car Wash. Among the many illegalities, the telephone privacy of the president had been broken and her conversations leaked to mainstream media outlets. The political commotion that followed the phases of the Operation, which had involved politicians from various parties, facilitated the social mobilization that lent some legitimacy to the conspiracy of economic and political elites against the President. Indeed, as we can chronicle from articles published in Estado de São Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper, the ousting of the president was orchestrated with great care. In a piece published one day before the vote in the Lower House, the newspaper pointed out that “Over the course of a year, between April of last year and April of this year, […] federal deputy Heráclito Fortes (PSB-PI) gathered, in his house in the South Lake, in about two dinners per month, a group of experienced and influential parliamentarians from the opposition to discuss the economic-political crisis and, especially, possible ways of ousting the president Dilma Rousseff.”

The mobilization of various opposition sectors, over months, for a large demonstration on March 13, 2016, with the support of the main media corporations, was crucial to facilitating the closed-door meetings in favor of impeachment. Afterwards, it became evident that the opposition parties directly financed the groups organizing this and other demonstrations, although those groups claimed to be spontaneous independent movements “against corruption.” Just a few days before the demonstration, on March 9, a dinner with nine key figures from the PSDB and the PMDB sealed the future of the president. From this event onwards, the vice-president would openly articulate his support for impeachment, along with the political group that had been planning it for more than year. He would even involuntarily leak the rehearsal of this inauguration speech as interim president.

On April 5, the vice-president resigned his position as the president of his party, PMDB, and senator Romero Jucá, also investigated in Operation Car Wash, replaced him. From then on, Jucá became the man authorized to act in the name of the vice-president, making agreements and offering offices in the future government in exchange for votes in favor of impeachment.

The voting session to authorize the beginning of the impeachment procedure in the Lower House, on April 17, was a spectacle of its own. Besides the absurd reasons given by the deputies to vote in favor of opening the procedure, it became irrefutable that the impeachment had nothing to do with investigating crimes of responsibility supposed committed by the President. Important here is the fact that most of the deputies had already declared their votes to various media outlets. The decision was not taken in the Lower House at the time of voting, but Ms. Rousseff’s fate had already been decided beforehand. On May 11, the majority of the Senate confirmed the Lower House’s decision, therefore removing the president from office for a maximum period of 180 days while the merits of the case are examined.

The interim government, led by the Vice-President, was formed, in great part, by sectors of the opposition who had lost the election to Ms. Rousseff. It also has large involvement by the MPs who had participated in the plotting dinners organized by Deputy Heráclito Fortes.

The revelations of May 23 ground even more firmly the claim that the whole thing was a concerted plot. In recordings made without his consent in March 2016, the president of PMDB, Senator Romero Jucá, well-known as the main proponent of impeachment, made explicit reference to the plot and made a pact with the most important bodies of the Brazilian state in favor of deposing President Rousseff. In these recordings, Jucá talks to Machado, an MP concerned with being caught in Operation Car Wash, and says: “I talked to some ministers in the Supreme Court. They say ‘look, it is possible to [inaudible] only without her [Dilma]. While she is there, the press, the guys want to get rid of her, this shit will never stop’. Got it? So… I am talking to the generals, the military commanders. Everything is quiet, the guys say they will guarantee. They are monitoring landless and other movements. They are not going to disturb.”

Why it was a coup

While the impeachment is a political process, it requires a juridical argument. For that political process move forward, it is necessary to produce evidence that the president committed a “crime of responsibility,” and, with a clear and specific intention to do so. Along these lines, it is not sufficient to simply claim that she was silent in the face of some illegal activity; there has to be proof of her involvement in these actions and of her definitive intention to carry them out. None of this has been demonstrated thus far. Quite to the contrary, Ms. Rousseff’s government has had a notorious, and historically exceptional, positive attitude towards investigations carried out by the Federal Police and the judiciary, demonstrating no attempt to interrupt or stop them. This was the main reason why various sectors of the opposition formed an alliance to impeach her: they needed to stop the investigations and prosecutions before these caught up to them, and this would not be possible as long as Ms. Rousseff remained in power.

Coups d’état need not always be carried out by military forces. They may also be accomplished by political sectors. According to a well-known Brazilian dictionary of politics, what defines a coup d’état is that it is executed by state actors in violation of constitutional processes and without popular participation.

By now it has become clear that the motivations for the ousting of President Rousseff were neither her involvement in corruption scandals nor any criminal practices. The only reason for her to be impeached was the agreement by the most corrupt political oligarchies in the country that she must go. Their reasons probably varied, ranging from the simple intention of paralyzing investigations against themselves to the desire to attain power after losing four presidential elections in a row.

If a coup d’état consists of conspiring to take power without the popular vote, it is hard to call the recent political events in Brazil by any other name.


15 thoughts on “A Coup in Brazil, Despite Legal Formalities

  1. The rationale for the impeachment procedures, the reader must be told because the article doesn’t, was not personal enrichment or accusations of corruption by the president. Rather, the president was accused of budget fraud, which IS a crime of responsibility according to the Brazilian Constitution: the executive branch of the government clearly and deliberately disrespected the federal budget approved by Congress, by amount of dozens of billions of dollars.

    These fraudulent acts artificially propped up the economy in the year before the election, and directly led to an explosion of public debt and inflation, and to the subsequent collapse of growth. The unprecedented unemployment level is a direct consequence of the budget fraud committed by the PT government. Corruption is a part of it all, as is incompetence; but the fact is that the so-called “pedaladas fiscais”, the reason for impeachment which the article goes out of its way to avoid mentioning, are not “legal formalities”, but rather concrete actions which led to an unprecedented economic crisis.

    1. Many were really deceived by Brazilian media outlets to believe that the current process of impeachment in senate has as legal ground the “pedaladas fiscais”. It has not. And this is not a matter of opinion. The so called pedaladas fiscais happened in 2014. The process in the senate mentions only the budget of 2015. And its ground have nothing to do with “pedalada fiscal”. I deeply advice you to read the process. It takes not more than 2 hours. The allegations are related to the enactment of some presidential decrees which were in the end of the year confirmed by the congress. There is a good constitutional reason for that (art. 86, 4).

      1. Now I agree with you: the argument against impeachment is based on legal formalities. It is up to the Senate to judge whether the high crimes and misdemeanors are sufficient grounds for impeachment.

        The fact remains that the president under trial willfully violated the laws of the land, and that her acts directly led to a crisis the proportions of which have not been experienced by Brazilians in 3 generations.

        1. Just to clarify in a separate comment, because it is really an issue of smaller importance: the whole line of defense presented above rests on a particular interpretation of Art. 86, § 4o The incumbent president, during the mandate, is not liable for acts unrelated to the exercise of his functions.

          The reading that exonerates the president under trial is that her reelection makes her in-imputable for crimes of responsibility committed in the previous mandate. This is indeed how the Brazilian Supreme Court decided to interpret the paragraph, although in plain language it only says that while president she is not responsible for acts that are unrelated to the presidency.

          In any case, it’s a technicality. The president is of course allowed to mount of full defense, but in her supporters thought she truly were not guilty as charged they would have come up with a better argument.

  2. Excellent article, Mariana and Pablo! In a time when the details of this story are getting more and more complicated, you managed to recollect the most important aspects of it in a clear, concise, critical and accurate way. Very helpful to update the English speaking world about the current state of affairs. Thank you!

    As for Mr. Pait, I must agree with Pablo: there is really no way to move forward in a productive and informed debate about the “ilegitimate legality” of the current impeachment procedures unless you do your homework. You claim that “the president was accused of budget fraud, which IS a crime of responsibility according to the Brazilian Constitution: the executive branch of the government clearly and deliberately disrespected the federal budget approved by Congress, by amount of dozens of billions of dollars.” This affirmation is simply inaccurate. And this is not a matter of political opinion.
    Please read:
    – The original accusations against the President, submitted to Congress by Mr. Miguel Reale Jr. and Janaína Paschal (please notice that only part of this accusations were included in the process voted by the Lower House) –ão_sobre_impeachment_CD.pdf
    – The report of the impeachment commission at the Senate, written by Senator Anastasia (with the most accurate justification for the opening of the impeachment trial in the upper house. Please pay attention to the obvious inconsistencies of the report in regards to what validates the accusations against the president as “crimes”. Even those who voted for the opening of trials against Dilma agree that they voted for “the whole case”, not only for the reasons mentioned in the report) –
    – The defense of the President, composed by José Eduardo Cardoso and submitted to the Senate last week:

    1. Primeiramente, fora Temer! And thanks a lot, Frederico, especially to your contribution to our conversation with Mr. Pait.

      1. Thanks for clarifying that 1st of all comes the desired conclusion, and then perhaps some argument for it. Or not even, who needs an argument when the conclusion will never change?

        1. Primeiramente, Fora Temer.

          I am sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Pait. It was never my intention to explain anything. Judging by your active participation in all discussions pertaining to Brazil here at PS, I presumed you read Portuguese, so you’d find the explanations you’re looking for in the references I gave – which are official documents that compose the current impeachment trial, not journalistic or opinion pieces.

          I have also assumed that you have been following the recent events in Brazil up close. I may have committed a bad judgement. Apologies again.

          The point is that, in today’s scenario, very few informed persons still defend the thesis that the criminal charges against President Dilma are enough reason to oust her. The abruptly conservative policy shift lead by interim president since he took office and the recent revelations of phone calls involving top PMDB officials just reinforce the thesis put forward by Mariana and Pablo: 1) there was
          (and there still is) an orchestrated plot to remove the democratically elected president; 2) The main reason for a decisive majority of congressmen to vote for the opening of impeachment procedures was not the mismanagement of the economy or fiscal irresponsibility, but their desire to end the “car wash” investigations and save their own skin; 3) The interim government (its supportive base in the congress, the establishment media and considerable sectors of the Judiciary) is doing whatever is in its reach (legally and illegally) to give the world the impression that what is happening in Brazil is perfectly within the law.

          I certainly have my opinions – and believe me: they don’t favor Dilma or Temer. But the 3 points raised above are becoming less and less refutable as the days pass by.

          1. The 1st paragraph confirms that your starting point are your conclusions. Bad, bad logic.

            The 2nd and 3rd, thanks for your condescending explanations.

            The 3rd is incorrect. The “very few informed persons” suggests that the universe of people you hear from is rather limited. Or perhaps that the universe of people you deem to be informed only includes those who agree you your premise, which coincides with your conclusion.

            You end by restating your premise-conclusion. Not a persuasive style of reasoning. Have a good day!

          2. “The rationale for the impeachment procedures…was not personal enrichment or accusations of corruption by the president. Rather, the president was accused of budget fraud… the executive branch of the government clearly and deliberately disrespected the federal budget approved by Congress”. This is how you started your first comment to this article. I may be mistaken – and please don’t think I am being condescending – but this “starting point” sounds a lot like a “conclusion” to me. If the government exaggerated the anticipation of expenses to be covered by the treasury – which I agree it did, with devastating consequences to public finances – all that still needs to be judged. Whether this practice – made by so many governments in the past and present – constitute a fiscal crime or not, that is another story. The controversy is far from over or, as you suggest, “clear”.

            Moreover, I hold my ground: the information is inaccurate. I don’t know what you mean by “disrespecting the budget”. But the “pedaladas” have nothing to do with altering the budget. They are actually maneuvers made to match the budgetary expectations in a year of lower revenues. Do I agree with the irresponsible way the pedaladas were used by Dilma? No. But there is nothing – speaking from a strictly legal point of view – prohibiting the pedaladas.

            I must honestly apologize, once again, Mr. Pait. I have no idea who you are and by no means I want to impose my opinion as “superior” onto yours. But I think it is important to separate opinions from facts. And for that to happen, you need to read and understand the legal groundings of the process against the President. And let us not be naive: much more than a legal trial, this is a political one.

            As for the “very few informed people”, this sentence should be read as “among the informed people (which are not at all so few), only few defend the thesis that the criminal charges against President Dilma are enough reason to oust her.”

            The president is being judged for what is being called “o conjunto da obra” (“the whole process”). She was and still is an unpopular president. The pedaladas were the technicality the opposition found to inviabilize Dilma’s second term. I don’t think the pedaladas are a minor issue. But they are certainly not enough reason to oust a president elected by over 50 million votes and paralize the country politically as it has happened since last year.

            Just to conclude: FORA TEMER.

          3. I think this requires a detailed response.

            1 – The article attacked the impeachment procedures by defending the personal honesty of the impeached president. I pointed out that the grounds were accusations of fiscal fraud. That is a #fact which I stated unequivocally, yes. Whether they rise to the level of crimes that merit impeachment has to be decided by a political process. That is also a #fact and we have to wait for the process to see its conclusion. Of course everyone is entitled to their opinion.

            2 – This stuff about the pedaladas being legal is utter nonsense. I suppose that minor deviations from the budget could be dealt with by quick and dirty fudges. This in fact is the essence of the president’s current legal defense: everyone does it. The “pedaladas” were deliberate, voluminous, repeated, and premeditated. Once again, whether they are ground for impeachment is for the Senate to judge. Opponents are meanwhile entitled to their opinions, but not to invent their facts.

            3 – It really doesn’t matter who I am and who you are. In case you are a graduate student or a recent graduate, I should say that forming arguments by innuendo, picking and choosing facts, appeal to authority, and so on, is an expedient that is unfortunately often very successful in academia, but it is a sad spectacle to behold. Please do not follow that route, even when it brings approval and applause from colleagues and mentors.

            4 – No need for apologies. Make sure you don’t fool yourself. As that most penetrating analyst of Brazilian academy, Richard Feynman, used to write, the important thing is not to fool yourself. The easiest person to fool is yourself. If you are not fooling yourself you’re off to a good start.

            5 – The “very few informed people” is again only a sign of a circumscribed world. The overwhelming majority of professionals, businesspeople, shopkeepers, and small business owners are relieved that the cause of the collapse of the Brazilian economy has been removed. I believe that is true about a large fraction of the 11 million unemployed as a consequence of the expedient of pushing expenses from a year to the other.

            I will add that many of those don’t particularly care that the procedures were legal and constitutional. They just wanted their nightmare over. Of course, people who rely on government support or who benefit from subsidies to their lines of work may have different opinions, more in accordance to their financial interest. That includes many academics and artists working in areas that don’t often lead to attractive career prospects.

            6 – Yes, the Constitution wisely determines that the impeachment procedure is essentially political, with judicial safeguards. It would not have gone anywhere if not that the crimes of responsibility of which the president is accused had not directly led to financial collapse.

            7 – The reason to oust an elected president is that the Executive was impinging on the prerogatives of the equally elected Legislature and the equally legitimate Judiciary. The argument that the president was elected doesn’t fly – so was Congress and the votes for the people’s representatives are equally legitimate.

            Unless one reasons that the elected president has a mandate to pretty much govern as they please. Unfortunately that IS the thought of many of the supporters of the ousted president, as exemplified by proposals that “the president should call new general elections once reinstated” although the president has absolutely no legal power to call elections in Brazil. This of course only reinforces the political argument for ousting a president, which is, I repeat, to prevent undue assumption of powers by the executive.

            8 – Thanks for going back to the premise. No, I don’t expect that any argument for the “Fora Temer” campaign will appear beyond that he was the vice president and therefore shares by association all the president’s guilt.

    2. Thanks for explaining the issue carefully. Except you didn’t.

      You just listed relevant documents and stated that some are right according to you and others are not. Weak argument, to the extent that it can be considered an argument.

  3. Impeachment is set in Brazilian Constituition. As an instituition of Democrátic States Impeachment is a Judicial-political institution. Impeachment process to be set must have a legal motif and a polítical motivation.
    An Impeachment process in order to be set must have 3/5 of votes from both houses of Congress.
    Impeachment against Dilma had 367 votes out of 509 for Impeachment on lower house, and 55 votes out of 81 on Upper house for Impeachment.
    The penalty set by Law for fiscal crime comitted for presidents when considere gulty is to be Impeached from presidency.
    Dilma was not judged yet by the senators.
    The Impeachment process against Dilma follows its normal path. It fullfills both requirements. It has a legal motif which is the fiscal crime and has the polítical Motif, which is the loss of confidence on a president who governs the country by herself like a dictator, ignoring laws, the Constituition and the Congress.
    Besides that, the president is being charged of taken trick measures in order to hide her misdeeds in the governamentais oficial accountability files which shows she was aware that her decisions were against the Law and were not unintentional. On the contrary. Her acts were intentional for the purpose of deceiving públic opinion, and voters about Brazil deep economic problems caused by her governament just before her reelection..
    One may disagre against Impeachment in many ways but is far to be a coup.

    1. Absolutely correct.

      Those who think that the “high crimes and misdemeanors” of the president don’t rise to the level of an impeachable offense only have to persuade ⅓ of the Senate of their thesis. Given the state’s representations in the Senate, that could be achieved by the votes of the representatives of as little as 8% of Brazil’s voters! And considering the difficulties that the current president has encountered in establishing a government with relatively clean support, it may well happen.

  4. We could have discussions about what happens next, what mistakes we could avoid in the future, and different (see? DIFFERENT) and new ways to read the history that’s being made…but it seems like Mr. Pait is always promptly posting comments to all articles and marking his position eloquently and passive-aggressively….throwing us in the oldest and least fruitful discussions of all, a sort of embodiment of PSDB and PT’s differences.

    Mr. Pait,
    While you try to paint yourself as an academic intellectual, who focuses on how arguments are made…I hope you didn’t learn to believe that someone buys that story! Come on, you seem intelligent enough to know that your position comes in bold letters above your posts just like Menino’s or Mariana’s. Otherwise you would be the most naive patronizer of all. You are, and you always made clear you are: a conservative mind focused on one very clear goal (just as well as others here have made clear from their first words…something you might want to learn from them.) I won’t forget the things I have read from you, since the article from Heloisa Pait (Foes of democracy what?) because they fed me with some important vitamins. They fed me with energy and passion to fight prejudice, and with the belief that there is so little debate with people who think like you (and who are stained with such deep prejudices against this project of Nation) that this dialogue can hardly be the path to progress.
    With all the respect, for I’m not intending to merely attack you, but to point to your (apparently unconscious mistakes) but you seem mainly concerned about keeping your pose and your intellectual authority, rather than discussing anything with anyone. Your prejudice and anger against PT precede your ability to think and mainly: to listen! As it may happen to us all…of course.
    Remember that whether you write it above your thoughts or not, you are just another one of us, trying to get your ideas across….only but your methods are arrogant and your mind more narrow than the people who try to actually argue anything with you, and who put a lot of effort into writing pieces about it.

    Brazil is a complex country, with a large nation of people. Let’s not forget to listen and respect them…because when that is the case — no matter if it’s under the pretext of justice, the force of spectacle, or any other “higher order” — it is a sign of something else taking place, but not a Democracy. Listening is hard, and it takes a lot of courage. For the future, I suggest we avoid people claiming a higher level of academic and intellectual integrity throwing us out of the road of listening and discussing here in PS. We are not writing a book together, we are feeding discussions that might one day result in one. There’s no reason to take the path Mr. Pait uses as a shield…(“Weak argument, to the extent that it can be considered an argument.”)
    We are here to try to form the argument….not to bully those who are brave and committed enough to try.
    People who do this kind of patronizing are not true thinkers in my opinion…Mr. Pait.

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