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.