Thoughts on the Immediate Fallout of Dilma’s Removal

As many by now know, last week, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff was temporarily removed from office to face trial and impeachment over allegations of corruption for budgetary maneuvers that her defenders argue were legal at the time. Of course, the fact that Dilma was removed temporarily does not mean that the process is over; if anything, it is only beginning.

This reality is due in no small part to the fact that Dilma believes the charges against her are trumped up and baseless, as she did nothing illegal at the time – a defense that has a strong basis.  As a result, unlike Richard Nixon in the US (who was facing overwhelming evidence of his own corruption and abuse of power), she has not gone quietly into the night. In an address to Brazil shortly after the Senate vote, she blasted the “injustice” of the proceedings and damned her opponents’ “treachery” and continuing to refer to her removal as a “farce” and as a “coup,” a term she’s used throughout the proceedings. However, she was anything but defeated; referring to her past as a guerrilla and leftist who fought against the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, she lamented that she “never thought I would have to fight against a coup again.” And she denounced her opponents to the international media, insisting (not unfairly) that she has “suffered all sorts of sabotage.” Collectively, these are not the words of someone who has given up the ghost, which should not be surprising – after all, this is a woman who suffered torture and political imprisonment to fight a military dictatorship that deployed far more physically and psychologically devastating tactics, and she did not give up then; there’s no reason to believe political chicanery will suddenly change her.

Of course, her defense is not limited to public addresses. Dilma’s defense continues to appeal to the Supreme Court on the illegality/impropriety of the proceedings, and the Supreme Court could at some point decide based upon evidence that the hearings should be stopped. To be clear, the Court has had multiple opportunities to do so and has not yet issued such a ruling, but that does not mean it is impossible in the next 6 months – especially when one considers that not only was the process begun by Eduardo Cunha in a move that appears increasingly like it was done to (futilely) prevent his own removal from office over his own massive (and far more substantial and substantiated) corruption scandals. Adding to the farcical nature of a corrupt body charging Dilma Rousseff with corruption is the reality that well over half of Brazil’s Senators are facing their own charges for or connections to corruption and illegal activities. Indeed, 44 senators tied to corruption voted to continue Dilma’s impeachment process last week, and 34 of those 44 were in favor of moving forward in impeachment. Again, the Supreme Court hasn’t made a ruling based on these realities yet, but given how eventful the past six months have been, who knows what the next six might hold.

Meanwhile, the removal of Dilma adds a new wrinkle to governance in Brazil. Michel Temer, her vice president, has assumed the office of the Presidency, but the path is fraught for him and his allies, too. Despite the superficially overwhelming vote of 55-22 to proceed with the impeachment, a final conviction will also require a 2/3 vote in the Senate. Even if only 77 of Brazil’s 81 senators vote in the final ruling, if the prosecution loses just 3 votes between now and the final ruling, the vote would be 52-25 – enough to keep Dilma in office. (Or, alternatively, if all 81 vote, and the opposition loses just 1 vote, a 54-27 margin would also be enough to return her to the presidency). Again, Dilma’s permanent removal from office is anything but a certainty at this moment.

And the PT, like Dilma, is not going without a fight, either. It is now the largest opposition party in Congress, returning to the role it played from 1989-2003. With a deposed president as a symbolic (and perhaps hands-on) leader, they will work not only to ensure Dilma remains in office, but will also likely make any governing difficult for Temer’s (for now-temporary) administration. And given the fact that Temer himself has already been convicted for electoral financial corruption and is tied to the same charges that the PMDB and PSDB brought against Dilma, there’s no telling if the PT might not be able to move toward impeachment of Temer as well.

As for how Brazilians feel about all this, attitudes are unsurprisingly mixed across a population of 200 million. Some have obviously celebrated her removal and are acting like the mission has been accomplished (primarily because, once again, for most who wanted her out, it was always about her removal and never about corruption – if it were, they wouldn’t have insisted that “we are millions of [Eduardo] Cunhas“.) Likewise, others have obviously resisted in various ways, including not just taking to the streets in defense of Dilma and/or democracy (because those aren’t not the same issue), but through everyday criticisms as well. At the Universidade de São Paulo, law students played an excellent prank with thumbtacks and a bulletin board in the class of Janaina Paschoal, one of the original authors of the impeachment request, calling her a “coup-monger” without her realizing it. And as bureaucrats in the (temporary?) Temer government tried to remove a portrait of Dilma as president, they were confronted with a pointed suggestion that “Conspirators and coup-mongers, History will not absolve them.” However, the general sense among many more seems to be a mix of embarrassment and sadness at what has become of Brazilian government and politics, a “cardboard republic” that has become a victim of its own self-sown instability.

What’s next remains unsurprisingly unclear, but two things are certain: for now, Michel Temer is leading the government in a very different direction than the one 54 million Brazilians voted for, and the impeachment process is nowhere near over.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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