The following excerpt is from the chapter, “If I Lose” in the book “Dilma’s Downfall: The Impeachment of Brazil’s First Woman President and the Pathway to Power for Jair Bolsonaro’s Far-Right,” written by Associated Press journalists Mauricio Savarese and Peter Prengaman. The book takes an in-depth look at the 2016 impeachment fight that threatened democracy in Latin America’s most populous country and deepened visions in ways being felt to this day.
Far-right Congressman Jair Bolsonaro stepped up to the microphone and began an explanation of the vote he was about to cast.
By this point, it was nearly a done deal that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff would be impeached: 235 had voted in favor, compared to 82 against. But the words of Bolsonaro, known for provocative statements during a career in Congress that dated back to 1991, summed up how many conservatives were interpreting what was happening — and it had nothing to do with Rousseff’s alleged breaking of fiscal laws and sleight-of-hand budget maneuvers.
“On this day of glory for the people there is a man who will go down in history. Congratulations, Speaker Eduardo Cunha,” said Bolsonaro, receiving a few muddled cheers and boisterous boos when speaking about the man who spearheaded the impeachment proceedings.
“They lost in ’64 and they lost now in 2016,” said Bolsonaro, referring to Brazil’s left and the beginning of the 1964-1985 dictatorship.
Surrounded by dozens of deputies, waving his hands and shouting into the microphone, Bolsonaro went on: “For the families and the innocence of children that the Workers’ Party never respected! Against communism! For freedom! Against the São Paulo Forum!”
The São Paulo Forum, founded by the leftist Workers’ Party in its namesake city, is a conference of leftist parties and other groups from Latin America and the Caribbean — the kind of gathering that conservatives like Bolsonaro frequently bash. In recent decades, participants have mostly been fringe politicians of socialist leanings, but that is enough for the forum to be a bogeyman for far-right activists and fans of conspiracy theories.
Then came Bolsonaro’s most fiery statement, which provoked gasps, boos and some muted cheers in the chamber as he delivered it: “In memory of Col. Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the dread of Dilma Rousseff!”
It was a shout-out to the military officer who had overseen the repressive apparatus that tortured Rousseff when she was imprisoned — clearly a low blow, and shocking even by Bolsonaro’s standards.
In the early 1970s, Ustra was head of the Department of Operations and Information, an investigative unit of the Army that focused on gathering intelligence and torturing perceived enemies of the dictatorship. Dozens died while he ran the unit and several hundred were tortured. While in 2008 Ustra would be recognized as a “torturer” by a civil court in São Paulo, until his death in 2015 he continued to be active in military clubs, often defending the dictatorship.
Bolsonaro’s hearty embrace of Ustra captured a growing idea in many circles, albeit a romantic and, for many, incorrect idea, that things were better when the military was in power. To hear Bolsonaro and supporters tell it, during the dictatorship there was less violence and less corruption in politics, and since things like gay marriage and LGBT rights didn’t exist, they didn’t endanger nuclear families made up of husbands and wives. According to this line of thinking, the only way to pull Brazil from recession and tackle chronic problems like violence was to uproot leftist ideologies and bring back more “traditional values.”
The thrice-married and dirty-mouthed Bolsonaro was hardly a model of the evangelical Christian values he espoused. His list of offensive statements was long: He said he would rather have a dead son than a gay son. During an argument, he told a congresswoman, “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it.” He frequently insulted gays, Blacks and women. But those kinds of statements, similar to the one about Rousseff ’s torturer, garnered him attention and added to an everyman persona.
“Brazil above everybody. God above everything. My vote is yes,” Bolsonaro concluded his vote, cheers finally overtaking the boos as he raised his arms as if in victory. That vote, while controversial and condemned in many circles, raised Bolsonaro’s national profile enormously, helping him lay the groundwork for this presidential run in 2018.
What were Rousseff’s thoughts and feelings as the far-right leader expressed himself in this way?
“Bolsonaro’s vote was very sad to watch,” Rousseff told The Associated Press in comments made a year later in an interview that still reflected the hurt. “I don’t think average Brazilians are OK with what he said. Even those that didn’t like me.”
Another vote that would be repeatedly played on newscasts was that of Cunha, the speaker. He didn’t even have to vote, since he was presiding over the session.
“May God have mercy on this nation. I vote yes,” said Cunha, who simply sat back in his chair.
When the impeachment vote concluded, the final tally was 367-137 against Rousseff. Impeachment legislation would now move to the Senate.
With the realization that she was now one step closer to being ousted, celebrations erupted among many congressmen, and fireworks flashed and echoed in many cities. Meanwhile, some deputies supporting Rousseff cried in the chambers.
Many Brazilians believed the demise of Rousseff and her Workers’ Party would mean the start of the country’s comeback. Even though it meant little-known Vice President Michel Temer could soon take over, many hoped that Rousseff ’s ouster would lead to a massive cleaning out that would sweep away Cunha and other politicians accused of corruption. Others likely just pretended they believed that.
For many who watched the proceedings live — whether one supported impeaching Rousseff and felt elated relief or thought it a terrible idea and felt dejected — another common feeling at the conclusion was embarrassment. The voting had laid bare the lack of preparation and seriousness of many congressmen. Many hadn’t bothered to even mention the accusations against Rousseff when casting their vote, much less engage with them.
Beyond that, there was the reality that many deputies were themselves accused of crimes — and thus were hardly in a position to judge anybody.
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