Dilma Rousseff: A Strong Woman Brought Down by Brazil’s Meek Men
Brazil’s first woman president refused to be bowed during a 14-hour Senate interrogation. She will be impeached anyway.
SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Dilma Rousseff is expected to be formally removed from the Brazilian presidency this Tuesday or Wednesday, despite a tireless last stand against the charges of fiscal irregularities brought against her, which many in Brazil see as a smokescreen for her removal at almost any cost.
“We are one step closer to achieving a real coup,” she warned during a grueling 14-hour Senate showdown.
After delivering a statement in her own defense Monday morning, Rousseff kept the clock running late into the night to answer questions put to her by a list of senators, disputing each of the charges and insinuations that have brought her presidency to its knees.
Almost two years after her re-election as president in 2014, this is the final phase in a political drama that has been playing out since December 2015, when the impeachment process against Rousseff was authorized by then-Congressional Speaker Eduardo Cunha.
Rousseff was suspended from office in May, as the impeachment investigation got underway.
In the trial that began in Brazil’s capital, Brasília, on Aug. 25, Rousseff is charged with using unauthorized loans from state banks to make up budgetary shortfalls, and with decreeing payments without securing the necessary congressional approval.
Following her defense statement and questioning in the Senate on Monday, the vote widely expected to remove her from office definitively is set to take place late on Tuesday or early Wednesday morning, with the two-thirds of Senate votes needed to impeach her apparently already secured.
Inside Brazil’s white, modernist parliament over the past days and weeks, the voting intentions of most senators have long been declared, with some analysts predicting a comfortable 61 votes against Rousseff—7 more than the 54 votes needed for her removal.
On Aug. 27, one prominent opposition senator, Senator Álvaro Dias, interviewed by the Senate radio station, called witness evidence in defense of Rousseff in her impeachment trial merely a “formality.”
“Those details don’t matter, because there are already convictions [held] in relation to the crimes practiced, or not, by the president.” He added, “This is a political tribunal, and the judgment is political.”
As a result, Rousseff’s detailed responses to questioning over many hours on Monday may do little to halt her expulsion from office, in a process opponents of her impeachment fear has little to do, at heart, with the technical budgetary maneuvers of which she is accused.
Rousseff maintains that she has committed no “crime of responsibility,” as required by the Constitution in order for impeachment to take place, and has repeatedly, controversially, called the process against her a “coup.” She returned to the theme on Monday as she defended herself against the accusations of fiscal wrongdoing.
“We are one step from the consummation of a serious institutional breakdown,” she said.
Rousseff’s impeachment has exacerbated deep political divisions in Brazil, where opposing groups of protesters have taken to the streets in large numbers over the past year to demand Rousseff’s impeachment, or to denounce it. Protesters from Brazil’s landless movement raised barricades and set fires on key São Paulo avenues Tuesday morning, aiming to halt the flow of traffic. On Monday night, as Senate proceedings unfolded, anti-impeachment protesters bearing “Fora Temer” (“out with Temer”) signs were cleared from São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista by police equipped with tear gas and stun grenades.
Others point out that although financial manipulations similar to those practised by Rousseff have been widely used by state as well as federal governments, including by former presidents Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and his predecessor Fernando Henrique Cardoso (“FHC”), Rousseff took the practice to a new level, committing 35 times more pedaladas, as the budgetary sleight of hand is called in Brazil, than Lula and FHC put together.
New laws that came into force during Rousseff’s presidency also placed the practice more clearly outside the bounds of legality, although Rousseff, in her defense, claims she is being retrospectively judged for acts that took place before the law came into force.
In Rousseff’s appearance before the Senate on Monday, she addressed arcane details of fiscal law late into the night, answering the questions directed at her by a list of 40 senators in meticulous detail.
Her approach flew in the face of earlier predictions that she was resigned to her defeat and would be speaking mainly for posterity. There was little doubt that she was doing that, too—not least since at least four documentary film shoots dealing with Rousseff’s impeachment are underway, including one by Anna Muylaert, writer and director of the award-winning film The Second Mother (“Que horas ela volta?”).
In the viewing gallery given over to Rousseff’s supporters on Monday, former president Lula looked on, absorbed, as she laid out her defense, speaking stiltedly at first but finding passion and conviction in her delivery as she warmed to her theme.
In a series of passages in the 45-minute written speech, Rousseff addressed the charges against her; expounded on the dangers facing Brazil’s democracy as a result of what she called a “coup d’état”; and recalled her lifelong political struggle, including her torture and three-year imprisonment at the hands of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship:
“In the struggle against the dictatorship, I received the marks of torture on my body, and suffered the anguish of prison for years.” She went on, “I never gave up. I resisted.”
Rousseff went on to invoke a famous trial photograph from 1970 in which, at 22 years of age and as a member of a revolutionary Marxist group, she gazes ahead implacably while in the background, two military judges presiding over her interrogation cover their faces.
Unconsciously echoing that image, as Rousseff returned to her seat to take questions a few minutes later in the Senate on Monday, an aide sitting behind her covered his mouth with his hand as he muttered into his phone. In Brazilian politics, as in politics everywhere else, the walls have eyes, as well as ears.
Leaked information may have played a key role in the president’s impeachment, most suggestively in the case of Congressman Romero Jucá, then Minister for Planning in the interim government set up on Rousseff’s suspension by former vice president Michel Temer. Temer, leader of the center-right PMDB party that governed in coalition with Rousseff’s Workers Party until a split in March, will serve out the remaining 2½ years of Rousseff’s presidential term if she is impeached.
In leaked wiretap audio released in May by the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, Juca tells Sérgio Machado, former president of a Petrobras subsidiary, that a change in government—widely interpreted as referring to Rousseff’s ouster—is needed in order to “stem the bleeding” from the Operation Car Wash corruption investigation that, he said, he feared might damage him.
Leaked audio also included wiretapped telephone conversations between Rousseff and Lula, released to the press in March under the orders of anti-corruption judge Sergio Moro, head of the far-reaching Car Wash investigation, which started out as a probe into high-level corruption at state oil giant Petrobras, and which has gone on to implicate dozens of politicians of all parties.
In an investigation stemming from Car Wash, Lula has been accused of corruption for personal gain related to a luxury beach apartment, and a country estate. Lula denies ownership of both properties.
Rousseff, on the other hand, has never been implicated in Car Wash, nor accused of corruption for personal gain. She has, she claims, been affected obliquely. In her defense on Monday, she stated that her attempted ouster began as an act of “explicit blackmail” following a failed attempt by Cunha to pressure her into interfering in a vote over his own corruption trial.
Cunha was suspended from office in May to face legal proceedings over alleged perjury, corruption and money-laundering, and is not alone among Rousseff’s accusers to be facing investigation and, in some cases, charges. Fourteen senators have so far been implicated in wrongdoing as a result of Operation Car Wash, with many more under investigation, or charged with offenses.
In a statement that caused uproar in the Senate on Friday, Rousseff supporter Sen. Gleisi Hoffmann said the Senate had “no moral authority” to judge Rousseff, adding that she included herself in that statement.
Hoffmann and her husband, a former minister, have both been accused of corruption relating to Petrobras. “If I point one finger, there are three pointing back at me,” she said.
New calls for charges in the corruption investigation against Lula, which led to his excruciatingly public detention for questioning in March, were resuscitated by federal police on Friday, just as Rousseff’s impeachment got underway. Should he prevail against those charges, Lula, who was Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2011, is in the running for re-election in 2018.
If Rousseff is impeached, on the other hand, she will be banned from running for office for eight years—just like interim president Michel Temer, who despite having assumed the presidency temporarily during Rousseff’s suspension, and despite being liable to become full president by the close of play Wednesday, is also under an eight-year ban on running for office, as a result of electoral donation violations.
Temer, who was booed at the 2016 Rio Olympics Opening Ceremony and chose not to attend the Closing Ceremony, has been preparing to definitively assume the presidency by delaying good news until after the impeachment trial. He postponed Brazil’s ratification of the Paris Accord, originally scheduled for this week, as well as delaying the announcement, now expected on Sept. 2, of a major Chinese infrastructure loan that had initially been offered to Brazil under Rousseff.
In a pronounced swing to the right following 14 years of center-left Workers’ Party government, Temer’s raft of policies includes a constitutional amendment that would limit state spending on health and education as part of a 20-year austerity program; and the part-privatization of prisons, hospitals and crèches.
In the Senate on Monday, as the questions continued late into the night, Rousseff defended her government’s record on policies ranging from social housing to trade and investment, delving into the nitty-gritty of the economics around her policies tirelessly, and with relish. Although advised of her option, at the outset of the day’s proceedings, to claim an Article 5 constitutional right to remain silent, she answered all the questions put to her, making the most of her chance to speak in what may be her parliamentary swansong after more than five years as leader of Brazil.
Under questioning, Dilma, as she is best known in Brazil, displayed the kind of level-headed precision that made her not a popular, but arguably an efficient, as well as an honest president—and one with a long, arduous history that made coming under new political attack, she said, just one more challenge.
“It’s not now, at nearly 70 years of age and as a mother and a grandmother, that I’m going to abandon the principles that have always guided me,” she said, in a relatively rare reference to her status as a woman.
Later on Monday evening, in response to a question from fellow party member Sen. Regina Sousa, Rousseff remarked that she has often been described as a “hard woman.” Yet, she said, “I’ve never heard a man described as being too hard.”
She continued: “I’ve always described myself as being as a tough woman among meek men.”