Whatever the fate of President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's chance to stamp out corruption has been missed

The real tragedy behind Brazil’s impeachment saga is that an opportunity for genuine progress has been lost to avarice and ego

James Young
Sunday 17 April 2016 17:47
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Demonstrators in Sao Paulo attend a protest against Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, part of nationwide protests calling for her impeachment
Demonstrators in Sao Paulo attend a protest against Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, part of nationwide protests calling for her impeachment

The day for which many Brazilians have been waiting – some with gleeful anticipation, others with apprehension and growing anger – is finally here.

By this evening, two-thirds of the country’s Congress are expected to have voted in favour of the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. If that happens, Rousseff will be suspended from office while the deliberative process moves to the Senate.

Rousseff is charged with having committed financial chicanery (“pedaladas fiscais”) in the run-up to the 2014 presidential elections, using money from public banks to mask the true state of the country’s finances and subsequently gain an electoral advantage. Her defenders say that such manoeuvres are common practice in Brazil, arguing that governments dating back to at least the 1990s have done the same.

Unfortunately for Rousseff, whether or not she is guilty of the pedaladas, and whether or not impeachment is a fitting punishment for such crimes, is of little importance. For Brazil’s political civil war sprawls over a much wider battleground.

If Rousseff and her governing Workers’ Party are removed from office, it will in part be because of Brazil’s parlous economic state – the OECD has said that it expects the economy to shrink by 4 per cent this year, while 1.5 million jobs were shed in 2015.

It will also be because of the billion-dollar corruption racket at state run oil company Petrobras, revealed through a sweeping police operation known as Operation Car Wash. Although Rousseff has not been personally implicated in the scandal, of the dozens of politicians suspected of involvement, many have come from the Workers’ Party.

Thrown into the mix is Rousseff’s predecessor as president, and Workers’ Party icon, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Credited for the social policies and minimum wage increases that carried millions of Brazilians out of poverty during his term in office, Lula’s reputation has since been battered by claims that he received benefits – including a ranch and a beachfront apartment –through his associations with engineering company executives involved in the Petrobras scandal. He denies the allegations.

These informal charges and suspicions – of economic incompetence and suspected, but as yet largely unproven, political corruption – rather than the pedaladas fiscais, are the unofficial drivers behind the attempted ousting of Rousseff.

That much was made clear in this week’s impeachment commission debates, as politicians blustered about thievery and corruption and Brazil’s economic meltdown as often as they mentioned the pedaladas. Sticking to the specific charges themselves proved an insurmountable challenge for many.

It has also been visible in opinion polls: 67 per cent of respondents in Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s third biggest city, said they supported Rousseff’s removal this week, but only 16 per cent could correctly identify the basis of the impeachment charges against her.

There are those that say that it doesn’t much matter why Rousseff is impeached, as long as she and her deeply unpopular government are sent packing. But they would be wrong.

The reasons for deposing a government matter a great deal – especially in a country such as Brazil, where the military dictatorship that governed the country between 1964 and 1985 still casts a shadow.

In calling for impeachment at any cost, political campaigners take a sledgehammer to the very concepts of democracy, decency and due process. At a time when Brazil should be celebrating the cleansing effects of anti-corruption efforts, debate has degenerated into a poisonous Fla-Flu – a local term for bitter political rivalry.

Such bitterness was evident from the moment Rousseff was re-elected last October. Back then, the opposition PSDB party immediately called for an (ultimately groundless) investigation into electoral fraud, while defeated candidate Aécio Neves sobbed that he had lost not to a political party but to a “criminal conspiracy”.

Brazil debates Rousseff's future ahead of impeachment vote

More worryingly, the Brazilian judiciary has also proved unable to adhere to its own high standards, committing a string of seemingly partisan blunders. One example was anti-corruption judge Sérgio Moro, whose work in pursuing shady businessmen and politicians has justifiably earned him hero status among Brazilians sick of corruption.

At least, that was the case until he publicly released wire-taps of phone calls between Lula and a number of friends and colleagues, including President Rousseff. While Moro claimed that release was intended to stop Lula accepting a post as Rousseff’s Chief of Staff – so earning himself certain legal privileges in the event of formal corruption charges – opinion among legal experts was divided, with many claiming the move was unconstitutional.

And then there is the media. Clear, impartial reporting is of paramount importance, but media outlets such as the giant TV Globo network and Brazil’s established newspapers have, as Glenn Greenwald described, acted “as de facto (anti-government) protest organizers and PR arms of opposition parties.”

The result of such fervent tribalism is twofold. First, at a time when clean hands are more important than ever in Brazil, it discredits those who wish to bring down the government and casts doubts over the legitimacy of their actions. Second, it has allowed a feeling to grow that what is actually happening in Brazil is a judicial or mediatic coup d’état – a theory happily seized upon by the Workers’ Party and their supporters.

Whether what is happening in Brazil truly constitutes a coup or not depends on personal allegiance and semantic interpretation. But it is clear that this is a brazen attempt to remove a democratically-elected president – whatever her failings – through a coming together of intense media hostility, questionable judicial and constitutional interpretation, and an eye-popping degree of plotting and malice on the part of the political opposition.

According to the corruption-monitoring group Transparency Brazil, 60 per cent of the 594 members of Brazil’s Congress face serious charges such as bribery, electoral fraud, illegal deforestation, kidnapping and homicide.

That, then, is the real tragedy that lies behind Brazil’s impeachment saga: the hunters are as debased as those they hunt; the bad could be replaced by worse; and an opportunity for genuine progress has been lost, once again, to avarice and ego.

It may be that whatever happens later this Sunday will make not much difference at all. And ordinary Brazilians, in a gesture to which they are sadly accustomed, will simply shrug their shoulders and try and get on with their lives – with no help whatsoever from their grubby elected representatives.

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