Scoundrel Time

The Real Problem With Dilma Rousseff’s Impeachment

The impeachment process isn’t over, but the shape of things to come looks bad for Brazil’s female and black majorities.

05.12.16 10:30 PM ET

SÃO PAULO — Following a long night in the Brazilian Senate, where the House voted 55 to 22 to subject President Dilma Rousseff to an impeachment process, Brazil awoke today to a new interim president, former Vice President Michel Temer—and to what critics are heralding as a new phase in the long-running saga of Brazil’s political troubles: a deepening crisis of political representivity.

As President Dilma Rousseff stepped aside to face the impeachment process, a list of members of Temer’s new cabinet was released, with critics immediately noting its entirely male, white, avowedly heterosexual make-up.

“It represents an immense step backwards for Brazil,” said Isabela Goes, national Women’s Sector representative for Brazil’s Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL). “In a society that is majority female, majority black, yet again we see a government composed entirely of white, heterosexual men.”

Indeed, the lineup of Temer’s newly announced cabinet, the result of weeks of behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing on the part of the canny interim president, looks more than ever like that of a southern European country, rather than the large, racially and socially diverse Latin American republic that Brazil is.

“Congress has always failed to reflect Brazilian society’s make-up and diversity,” said Goes, “but the lack of representivity we see in Temer’s government truly compounds that failure.”

Critics were also quick to point out that of the 22 members of Temer’s new administration, a number of the ministers are under investigation or accused of serious wrongdoing, including alleged wrongdoing, including seven under investigation by federal police as part of Operation Car Wash (“Lava Jato”), for alleged corruption. As members of the government, they will now benefit from ministerial privilege restricting how and where they can be investigated.

Temer himself, as listed by a report on the website Agência Pública, has been cited four times in plea-bargain testimonies made to the Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) investigation, though he has not as yet been targeted for investigation himself.

Addressing the nation in a video released at midday via her Facebook account, Rousseff repeated her long-standing allegation that the process against her amounts to a coup, and warned that the democratic sovereignty of the 54 million votes cast for her in 2014 was in danger. She reiterated her status as one of the few current occupants of high office in Brazil not to have been accused of corruption of any kind, and called her ouster “a fraudulent impeachment, a coup against democracy.”

Speaking at a press conference before exiting Planalto, the presidential palace, Rousseff said, “Those who could not reach this palace through the support of the people are taking power by force.”

At the same press conference, Rousseff expressed her pride at having been the first woman to have been elected president of Brazil.

Yet her own administration, with just four female cabinet ministers, and, as of 2015, just one black minister in a 39-strong cabinet, was scarcely more reflective of Brazil’s population. Of the country’s 204 million people, 51 percent are female, and 52.3 percent describe themselves as ethnically other than white.

“Representivity is something we need to discuss urgently, seriously, as a country,” said Goes. “It’s a problem that runs deep. How we effectively include women, black people and the scope of our society in politics is one of the most pressing of all of our problems.”

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Following a long, drawn-out process, President Rousseff is now suspended from office for a maximum of 180 days while she is tried by the Senate on charges that she committed a “crime of responsibility”—akin to the category of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

That charge stems from accounting sleight-of-hand she carried out in the run-up to her re-election in 2014, when she manipulated the budget in order to cover up a shortfall in state funds, in a widely used, albeit irregular, fiscal practice.

Should Rousseff be found guilty of the charges, she will be definitively deposed as president, with Temer, leader of the center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) serving out the remainder of the term for which they had run together.

In power for the time being, interim President Temer, a seasoned political player, 75 years of age, is making little pretense of continuity with the Rousseff government of which he was, until this morning, a member. But in his inaugural speech as president this evening, he promised to maintain the Bolsa Familia and Minha Casa, Minha Vida social benefits and housing programs that are hallmarks of the PT era.

Audio of the former VP rehearsing a speech for this moment—which Temer himself leaked, claiming it was an accident, at the very moment the initial impeachment vote was taking place in Congress in April—includes a range of measures that depart dramatically from the social and labor-rights aspects of the PT’s agenda. He focused instead on creating a considerably more market-friendly administration.

Brazil faces a raft of urgent problems, including widespread corruption, economic recession, and a Zika-driven health emergency. Rousseff, an unpopular politician, has been blamed for many of the country’s woes and, indeed, her impeachment is considered by many to be taking place, effectively, on a technicality, with her detractors bent on impeaching her one way or another ever since she took office for the second time at the start of 2015.

Rousseff first came to power in January 2011, following in the footsteps of her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. A video of Lula and Rousseff sharing an emotional, exhausted embrace today, following the president’s departure from office, is being shared widely on social media.

Lula—who has been targeted in recent months by police officers working on the major corruption investigation, Operation Car Wash (“Lava Jato”)—is expected to run for the presidency again in 2018.