Dilma Rousseff interview: Brazil's first female leader on trying to clear her name

Exclusive Q&A : Ms Rousseff said she was the victim of a 'parliamentary coup'

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The Independent Online

President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil has been suspended since May 12, awaiting her impeachment trial by the country’s Senate. 

In the meantime, an interim government has been formed by her vice president Michel Temer. 

The impeachment process against Ms Rousseff has been branded a coup by her allies, who have pointed out that the charges against her, which focus on claims she violated budget laws, were based on relatively minor misdeeds that were also committed by many of her predecessors without consequences. 

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Ms Rousseff was Brazil's first female president (Agencia Publica)

Ms Rousseff, of the Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores or PT) was elected for the second time in 2014 by a small majority.

She was Brazil’s first female president and the impeachment process against her was denounced as “sexist political violence” by the United Nation’s office on women’s rights. 

During her time as president, Rousseff endured a wave of street protests in 2013 by Brazilians demanding better public services, and presided over an economy which contracted by 3.8 per cent last year.

The Operation Lava Jato, or Operation Car Wash, an investigation into corruption at state oil company Petrobras, has seen many business leaders and politicians arrested under her term, and Rousseff herself has never been directly accused of taking or paying bribes. Last week, a former minister in her government, Paulo Bernardo, was arrested under accusations of leading a R$100 ($29.5m) scheme within the Minister of Planning to illegally support PT's party funds.   

Defiant and determined, Ms Rousseff spoke to Brazil’s female-led Agencia Publica about her impending impeachment trial, abortion, deforestation in the Amazon, sexism in Brazil and the lurch to the right in Latin America and beyond.

Brazil’s suspended president Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment begins

Q: Was it important to you to be the first female President of Brazil?

A: That’s clear. As much as it was important to have the first government of a metallurgist, a labourer, a worker [under Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, Rousseff’s predecessor and mentor] . 

Q: Was this argument used by Lula to convince you to do it?

A: If it had just been that, that would have been very superficial. It was a mixture of reasons, and this was one of them. Because to have the first government under a woman in Brazil - a country which says it doesn’t have any prejudice against women, but is riddled with prejudices - was something very important. There are a series of stereotypes about women. For instance, a woman can’t be firm, she is “tough”. She has to be harsh, she can’t just be someone who takes a stance. Women aren’t accustomed to dealing with public matters - and here is that phrase which is constantly reiterated about me, of my “immense difficulty in dealing with politicians”, as though they are part of public life, or as if some difficulty in dealing with them is not part of the crisis in values that Brazil is facing at the moment. And other things, such as: a woman is essentially fragile. If she is not fragile, she is either having an attack of craziness, she is not in full excise of her rational mind, or she has become alienated. I started saying I was a tough woman in the middle of meek men, immensely meek, all of them so meek, so sweet...

Q: You already had power in Lula’s government [as Energy Minister and Chief of Staff]. Were you treated differently by politicians when you became president?

A: Back in the period of [the government of] Fernando Henrique Cardoso, I was Secretary of Mining, Energy and Communication in Rio Grande de Sul. I was the only woman. And if these were very technical matters, seen as not being “a woman’s thing.” I think there is no area which should be restricted because you are a woman. Being President is one step beyond this, because it is the most unequivocal form of authority, since it is more general.

Q: The United Nations released a note repudiating the sexist violence in which you were treated, mainly by the press during the impeachment process. 

A: I think there was this, but the violence hasn’t just started now, and we should not forget the past [Dilma was a guerrilla during Brazil’s dictatorship years]. The violence is in the fact that I have a story. Once, a reporter asked me if I sleep with my shoes on. You know the stories that they tell about us, in hiding, that we would sleep with our shoes on? We slept with our shoes on to escape [at short notice]. I’m the President now, how am I going to sleep with my shoes on? There is stereotype after stereotype.

Q: You have said in the past that the protests of June 2013 happened just as you were trying to stabilise the Brazilian economy...

A: When you win rights, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone feels included. On the contrary, the winning of some rights means that it opens up the space for others to be won over. That’s why we always said: beating poverty is only the beginning. And those who we lifted up, in an exclusionary state, as the Brazilian state always was, were an excluded part of society, excluded from the economy. The easiest way is to redistribute wealth. When you redistribute wealth it is a political decision. Now I am not diminishing the previously unseen - revolutionary even - programme that was Bolsa Familia.

It was a great achievement, but as soon as you do this people want access to quality services, they want good quality education, they want good quality public safety services. There is a conflict, therefore, between how quickly the redistribution of wealth can happen and the speed of improvement to services. At the same time, I think there is discontent, a general malaise with politics, with political representation. During many of the protests in 2013, when someone did something good, people would say “he represents me!” I think at that moment, we live in a state of malaise with this system of representation, not just in Brazil, but all over the world. Even when you take into consideration that our government always had an agenda of popular participation. The Brexit, talking about today, explains a bit about what’s happening everywhere, from the left to the right spectrum. 

Q: Do you think the impeachment process against you was orchestrated, starting from the protests of 2013?

A: No, I don’t think that was a right wing protest. Before the recession, there was a certain opposition to the redistribution of privileges in Brazil. I think this component, combined with the recession, radicalised the middle class. And it made right wing values very dominant. For me who lost out the most was the PSDB party, which lost its character while turning to the right. How could they side with those who defend the military coup? The impeachment was orchestrated, and it was orchestrated soon after I was elected, not in 2013. My election [in 2014] was very [controversial]. There has never been an election in Brazil like it. Afterwards, they asked for the votes to be recounted, something we haven’t seen in Brazil for centuries. Afterwards, they backed Eduardo Cunha for President of the Chamber of Deputies, who has an eminently right wing agenda, breaking with the centre-democratic tradition in Brazil we have had since we became a democracy. One of the biggest problems with this government [of Michel Temer] is hiding Cunha. Because he is their leader, in every sense. 

Q: Do you think that “the curse of oil-rich nations” had something to do with your suspension?

A: One of the causes of my impeachment was that our government was in favour, we didn’t prevent corruption investigations. But we have always been clear that in combating corruption, you must not destroy companies or jobs. The USA recently, along with the rest of the world, had the biggest corruption case with the banks and their derivatives, which led to astronomical losses in the crisis of 2008. They didn’t destroy the banks, they fined them and arrested the bosses, but they didn’t destroy the companies. The chain of oil and gas is very important for the Brazil’s GDP. It creates jobs. So if you shoot down these companies you are attacking the Brazilian GDP. 

Q: Many on the left believe there were foreign influences in the impeachment process, and this was because of their interest in the valuable pre-salt in Brazil. Do you think this is true?

A: In Brazil, we don’t need to attribute the coup in Brazil to any other country in the world. We’re competent in the art of producing a coup here in Brazil. This coup was endogenous. The responsibility for it lies with local oligarchies. There may be some who were very happy with it - that’s another issue. There might have been people who gave it a little hand - that is another thing. But it is irrelevant.

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Dilma Rousseff said she was the victim of a parliamentary coup (Agencia Publica)

Q: During your campaign you visited many evangelical churches in Brazil, but it is this band of politicians [evangelical leaders] who have most blocked PT proposals, including laws which would have criminalised homophobia and proposed advances in women’s reproductive rights. Do you think it was worth working with them?

A: I think it is of fundamental importance to open this discussion with them. You’re not going to turn your back on 30 per cent of the country. We have to discuss things with them, because I don’t believe they are all the same. It’s not possible to demonise a religion. 

Q: But didn’t this alliance block certain forms of progress in Brazil?

A: I am going to anticipate you. I am going to talk about abortion. There is legalised abortion in this country. The law is clear, the law states the following: you can have an abortion in three cases - when a woman has been raped, when her life is at risk during birth, and in cases of an anencephalic foetus. 

Q: Are you in favour of the decriminalisation of abortion?

A: Personally, I could be in favour of everything. As President, I don’t interfere in this.

Q: But are you personally in favour?

A: I’m not going to respond to that. One day, when I am no longer President, I will respond to this question. And they haven’t taken me out yet. I am still President. If I was out of the government and I was a feminist, I would fight for other things. I have been a feminist.

Q: In the past?

A: I was a feminist. Now I am President.

Q: In Operation Car Wash, Paulo Bernardo has been accused of overbilling by R100 million through a technology company which gave payroll loans, and that this money was used for PT campaigns. 

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Ms Rousseff said it was essential to protect the Amazon while using it to benefit Brazil's economy (Agencia Publica)

A: You don’t want me to comment on things which are in the process of going through the justice system. I have immense indignation with this type of political use of the Operation Car Wash investigations. The theory was this: that only one party in Brazil was corrupt. But this is not what we are seeing now. 

Q: Sergio Machado [businessman who gave evidence in Operation Car Wash] said it has gone on in Petrobras since the campaign for its foundation in 1946.

A: And he should be an experienced connoisseur of this matter. 

Q: The Belo Monte dam in the Amazon  - is it not old-fashioned to see the Amazon as a frontier for economic development of the country?

A: We don’t see the Amazon as a frontier for development. We use the resources that we can, maintaining the preservation of the environment. We still have the issue of ending deforestation, how to replant, how to contain agriculture and keep carbon emissions low, etc. To sum up, we have water as a resource, which many countries do not have. I think the vision of dams is completely wrong. Because if you don’t have Belo Monte, you have to have the equivalent in something. Solar power it can’t be, because the price is absurd. Wind power is unviable. If you don’t use hydroelectric power, you have to use nuclear. 

Q: President, how do you think your impeachment will impact on other Latin American nations?

A: This version of a parliamentary coup has already happened before it happened to us. It has happened in Paraguay, in Honduras. I think it’s a new way of taking out governments which the economic hiearchy is unhappy with. It’s not the same as a military coup. It has one distinct characteristic: you take out the government, but preserve the democratic regime. But there is a price for doing that. You compromise your institutions, you create a scar in society. In many cases, you prevent the recomposition of the fabric of democracy. So there are severe consequences. I think it will create instability in Latin America. 

Q: Do you think this can happen in other countries?

A: I think it could. It’s not just me who thinks that, all the heads of state in Latin America fear this. Any one of them. 

Q: Have you received messages of solidarity from other Latin American heads of state?

A: I did, but I am not able to say from whom, for obvious reasons. 

Q: You were an important force behind the creation of the Access to Information Law, and the creation of the Truth Commission [which investigated crimes committed during Brazil’s dictatorship of 1964-1985]. How was it to see members of the armed forces refuse to hand over files and supply information to the Truth Commission?

A: As I remember it, they didn’t refuse to hand over the files, they said they no longer existed. They said at a certain moment in the past, the files had been destroyed. 

Q: To what extent did the Amnesty Law prevent torturers from being brought to justice, as has happened in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay?

A: The case was not won in the Supreme Federal Court, and that is that. I think we learn in life that we have our personal indignation and our understanding of reality. You can’t make a government without knowing that you will win some things and lose others. We lost that one. 

Q: If you come back into government, will you change the political system in Brazil, which is based on forming coalitions with other parties?

A: I would make basically a transition government. Because the government would only have two more years left, and we would have to guarantee the quality of democracy in Brazil, which would happen in 2018 [when there would be another election]. It fits to have a discussion about political reform in Brazil, no doubt. We tried this in 2013 and were roundly defeated. 

Q: Would there be support for a referendum about calling new direct elections?

A: I don’t know. I have no idea. 

Q: But would you commit to this, to hold a referendum?

A: No, it is being discussed, but there is no consensus on this. But I will tell you this, I would not reform a government under the previous terms, under any hypothesis. 

Q: Are you going to the Senate to defend yourself?

A: I am evaluating that. I am the kind of person who evaluates things. 

 

 Translated and edited by Beth McLoughlin 

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