Pro-impeachment deputies at the April 17, 2016 session. Photo courtesy Brazil's Democratas party on Flickr.
Watching last Sunday’s televised impeachment proceedings from Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, was like watching another democracy grow up. It was also great television.
The modest amount of Portuguese I have come to understand after two decades of visiting the country on business allowed me to capture the flavor and appreciate the spectacle as one legislator after another stood up to state (or shout, often while wrapped in national or party colors) the case for or against impeaching President Dilma Rousseff. The full session of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, the nation’s lower legislative house, was broadcast live and is available online. If you want to watch it, be ready for a lengthy session, because the video lasts nearly 10 hours. It takes a long time for more than 500 lawmakers to state their case one by one.
The comments of Deputy Remidio Monai, a member of the Republican Party from the far northern state of Roraima, were typical of the 367 who voted in favor of impeachment, though maybe a little briefer than average. Translated to English, he declared: “With my conscience, for my family, for Roraima and for Brazil, I vote yes, Mr. President.” Some added that they were voting for impeachment to bring good fiscal management to the nation; others said they were opposing endemic corruption. Still others cited both reasons.
Those few deputies who supported Rousseff, mostly members of her own Workers Party, cited mainly one defense of the president: Impeachment would disenfranchise the electorate, especially the workers who had been among the president’s biggest supporters. Most echoed a slogan that Rousseff’s backers plastered on posters and banners across the country: “Impeachment Without a Crime is a Coup.”
The proceedings in Brazil are no coup. Coups occur via the use or threat of force outside a nation’s constitutional process. The Brazilian military, which did overthrow the government and ruled for 20 years until 1985, has had no role whatsoever in the process currently underway. The impeachment proceedings have, in fact, followed Brazil’s constitutional rules as interpreted by its courts, exactly as they should in a modern democracy.
The fact that the process played out live on TV and video screens across the world, rather than in back rooms or military barracks or the streets – though Brazilians have taken to the streets for months – showed how far the country has come, despite its manifest problems. What these impeachment proceedings really reflect is the long-overdue arrival of transparency and accountability in South America’s largest country.
Nominally the reason for Rousseff’s impeachment is that she cooked the national books, hiding the country’s mounting fiscal problems ahead of her re-election campaign last year. Her defenders point out that juggling fiscal figures this way happens in a lot of places, and that it happened within Brazil under previous administrations.
Rousseff’s supporters also observe that, while 60 percent of the deputies voting on the president’s impeachment are themselves under investigation for corruption, the president is not personally accused of having received either personal or political funds from Petrobras, the state oil company that was the locus of a vast graft scandal that has resulted in the arrests of 100 people for their alleged involvement. Among those taken in for questioning was Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known within the country as “Lula,” Rousseff’s popular predecessor.
But the defense that Rousseff is not personally accused of receiving bribes misses the point. At the time of the massive diversion of funds, Rousseff was the head of Petrobras, put there by Silva himself. And many of the alleged kickbacks flowed straight into the coffers of the political party to which Silva and Rousseff both belonged.
In any mature industrial democracy, the fact that this enormous malfeasance occurred on Rousseff’s watch would be enough to force her to step down. Her credibility as a leader and a manager is destroyed, even before you consider that Silva hand-picked Rousseff as his successor in office. Rousseff has no credibility left with which to govern, which is why her approval ratings have fallen into the single digits.
Any leader who truly respected her country and democracy would step down in these circumstances. Rousseff, however, has made clear in no uncertain terms that she has no plans to go anywhere. At a televised news conference, she said of the Chamber of Deputies’ vote, “This is just the beginning of the battle, which will be long and drawn out.” As long as Rousseff resists stepping down, the national legislature will move ahead with the impeachment process.
I suspect this episode will end much as a similar one did in 1992. Ahead of a trial in the country’s Senate, President Fernando Collor de Mello resigned three months after the Chamber of Deputies voted to impeach him. Though Collor had steadfastly denied his intent to step down, he changed his mind when it became clear that the Senate would remove him regardless. I think Rousseff, too, is likely to step down just prior to the final vote to force her out of office for good.
The longstanding gag about Brazil is that it is the country of the future – and always will be. The boom times under Silva’s administration were led by China’s then-insatiable demand for commodities and the expansion of Brazil’s national oil industry. That temporary prosperity did not address Brazil’s big underlying problems of poor infrastructure and inadequate education, which keep the country low on the global value-added chain. But while money was rolling in, the country pursued prestige projects such as hosting the World Cup or this summer’s Olympic games instead of fixing these fundamental issues. When the party ended, the public was outraged by the country’s overhanging debts and failure to lay a solid foundation for a better future.
Impeaching Rousseff will not, by itself, address these problems, nor is it enough to purge the corruption in Brazil’s political class. But the impeachment process and the independence of the judges and prosecutors who are forging ahead with their investigations are promising signs that today’s transparency may pave the way for tomorrow’s prosperity.