What is happening in Brazil? The President has not been removed, but the government as we have known it since Dilma started her second term in January has fallen apart. Some questions answered.
So Brazil’s president has been impeached?
Not exactly. The speaker of the lower house accepted a petition to open proceedings, which sets the gears in motion. Now both sides have to present their cases in Congress, and two thirds of the house must vote to continue with impeachment. This process could take months, and it’s quite possible – considered likely at this point – that President Dilma Rousseff survives. But things could change.
What did she do? It must be related to that multi-billion dollar corruption scandal at Petrobras, right?
Remarkably, it’s entirely separate. It’s a bit complicated but essentially she’s accused of violating fiscal responsibility laws by failing to get Congressional budget approval after government revenues dropped.
This is not a great thing to do, but at any normal moment in Brazilian politics, this would be very small potatoes indeed. But this is no normal time for Latin America’s largest country. The “Lava Jato” investigation uncovered a multi-billion dollar corruption scheme at the country’s state-owned oil company, Petrobras, and has led to arrests of top economic and political leaders, including in Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT).
Though she hasn’t been implicated personally, this has cast a big, dark cloud over her administration, and it hasn’t helped her dismal approval ratings that Brazil is going through its worst economic crisis in decades. Basically, a lot of people want her out, and some people are now trying to get her on a technicality. However, there’s nothing necessarily legally or politically illegitimate about using a small issue to impeach.
But my friend told me this is all the desperate, vengeful plot of a hated and corrupt politician trying to save his skin?
Well yes, a bit. This wouldn’t be happening, at least not now, if it weren’t for a man that many people in this country describe in exactly those terms. But Eduardo Cunha couldn’t do this all on his own. It only works because Dilma has lost control and is extremely unpopular. And most impeachment supporters want Dilma out, not to help Cunha.
Cunha, the speaker of the house that accepted the petition, is being investigated for large-scale corruption, hiding millions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts, and accepting bribes. But when it comes to dodging accusations like these, Mr. Cunha has a good deal of experience.
He’s considered a Machiavellian figure, and many progressives here consider the conservative evangelical leader their worst enemy. Some highlights of his recent rule have included a push to remove restrictions on corporate campaign finance, and a proposal to pass a law banning “heterophobia,” and throwing whomever commits whatever that is in jail. For a long time, he was technically in a coalition with Rousseff, while many in the center-left PT winced at everything he did.
So why did he start impeachment?
He’s in the hot seat. We have now entered the Brazil politics version of “Hunger Games.” He had threatened to impeach Dilma unless the PT blocked a current ethics commission investigation which puts him at real risk. The PT debated what to do for days. The fact that the PT – a party that swept into power with Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva in 2003 and promised to change a culture of corruption – even considered this at all is a testament to how much of a mess Brazil’s politics are these days.
As soon as the PT announced they wouldn’t save Cunha, he announced he was impeaching. The fact that the process started in such a seemingly craven manner is likely to help Dilma. But Cunha’s machinations would be impossible if Dilma’s numbers weren’t so bad.
How bad are they? I heard her approval rating is in the single digits! That’s crazy.
The reality is indeed crazy, but it’s not actually right to say her “approval rating” has ever dropped that low. Datafolha polling is tripartite – so recently 10% of the country thought her government is “good / great” while 22% called it “regular,” and 67% considered it “bad or terrible.”
What happens now? Does she step down during the proceedings?
No, she stays. But it would be a stretch to say we can expect a fully functioning government while all of this takes place. Either the Presidency changes course or the Legislature changes course, and for the time being these two teams will not be working together. This is not good. The government needs to function to fix the economy.
However, the stock market has had a great few days since the impeachment was announced. The theory is that whatever happens, at least this puts us on a path out of the current gridlock.
This must be personally terrible for Rousseff, right?
Weirdly not. The timing of the impeachment is in her favor, since most analysts think the economic crisis and scandals will worsen into 2016. And the whole thing now has Cunha’s stink on it. Right now, the impeachers just don’t have the votes in Congress. But if things got worse for regular Brazilians, that could change.
I saw that in São Paulo, student protesters have been clashing with police. Because of the impeachment?
Nope. Nothing to do with it. Those protests were against São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin, who had a plan to reorganize the school system. He’s on the other team. His party opposes Rousseff. There are 26 other parties in Congress, and their level of allegiance varies.
What really? 28 parties? Is Brazilian politics always this complicated?
Yeah basically. Have you ever heard that Tom Jobim quote?
“Brazil is not for beginners.”
Photo above: Eduardo Cunha, left, and President Dilma Rousseff
Note: This post written in haste, so it may be updated later. Find me on Twitter.