One of the things that distinguishes impeachment in Brazil compared to the US is what the president does during the hearing. Whereas in the US, a president facing impeachment continues to serve as president, in Brazil, the president is removed from office for 180 days, and the Vice President becomes President. In this context, then, the removal of Dilma last week means that her Vice President, Michel Temer of the Partido Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, PMDB) – the party that broke with Dilma’s government late last year, even with Temer as Vice President – has now assumed the office of the President for at least the next six months. Temer is not some upstart, either – he has a long background in Brazilian politics, having variously served in the São Paulo state government, as a Federal Deputy, President of the Chamber of Deputies during the neoliberal government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and Vice President under Dilma. While his past affiliations likely made him seem a poor fit for her policies (which is in hindsight increasingly clear), his status as a respected senior member in the PMDB made him an important figure in coalition-building with Congress – hence his selection as Vice President. And those political connections are not limited to domestic ties in Brazil. As Wikileaks documents have demonstrated, Temer has a long history with the US as a possible informant as well.
It’s likely that long history in politics that suggests that, at least rhetorically, Temer knows he’s not exactly operating with a mandate. Upon being sworn in, he semi-implored Brazil’s public to “trust him” and promised that he would govern “without rancor” (though whether the tens of millions of Brazilians who voted for Dilma are willing to be governed without rancor remains to be seen). He even framed his administration as focusing on a “national salvation” from the political turmoil of the past year – an ironic move, given that the previous governments that most regularly framed themselves as “saving” the nation were, as Steve Stern and others have demonstrated, the military dictatorships of the twentieth century.
That’s a lot of hopeful talk, but obviously, the real test will be in his policies, and when looking at them, his government is much more conservative and far less conciliatory than his speeches indicate. Though Temer said he would leave intact social programs of the PT that have gone a great distance in eliminating hunger and reducing inequality in Brazil, Wellington Moreira Franco, who is seen as one of the top advisors to Temer, has suggested that social programs will be cut under the new government. The Temer government has already announced that it is eliminating 4 Ministries – the Ministry of Culture; the Ministry for Women, Racial Equality, and Human Rights; the Ministry of Communication; and the Ministry of Agricultural Development. It is worth noting that a majority of these ministries addressed social issues, be it the question of gender and racial equality and basic human rights, the cultures of historically marginalized groups (Ministry of Culture), or rural populations (Agricultural Development), even as the Ministry of Sport and the Ministry of Tourism survived. Certainly, one could argue that Brazil’s ministerial bloat could be reduced, but that the reduction fell on areas that helped those who are historically disenfranchised politically and economically is likely not an accident.
Additionally, the government has already announced that it is cutting over 4,000 government jobs, which some praise as helping Brazil’s budget issues; however, the Temer government has also admitted it does not even know how much money it will allegedly save by eliminating those jobs. Nonetheless, it has already begun jettisoning public jobs with little objective beyond the vague goal of reducing government, a project that is neoliberal to its core.
Indeed, to fully appreciate just how neoliberal Temer’s project is already shaping up to be, one need look no further than Temer’s decision to reconsider and expand tercerização, or outsourcing, something that Dilma had effectively tabled by not making it a priority. And despite his pledges to work to bring people together and preserve social programs, Temer himself seems to be moving away from such promises already, saying there are vague “sacrifices” the Brazilian people will have to make going forward. Of course, when the government says it will need to make “sacrifices,” the first things sacrificed are often the basic necessities that affect the majority of the population, even while business and political elites’ interests remain untouched.
Of course, the Vice President assuming a circumstance where the President may return may not seem so unusual to some. What is more unusual is that, in Brazil, should the President be removed from office to face trial in the Senate, not only does the Vice President rise to the presidency -s/he also gets to create a new cabinet. This is part of the reason why some consider the removal of Dilma a “coup” – her removal is not just about replacing her with Temer; it’s about replacing her entire governmental program and cabinet with a more conservative one that lost the 2014 election. And it’s in looking at Temer’s cabinet where the real long-term effects of the impeachment might be clearer.
As I and many others have noted, the Cabinet is already a massive step backward for the sheer fact that, in a country with a majority population of women and a majority population of Afro-descendants, Temer’s new cabinet is made up entirely of white men – not exactly indicative of a government that actually represents its population (nor of a meritocracy).
And while that’s the most immediately visible problem of Temer’s cabinet, it’s far from the only problem. At least seven members of Temer’s cabinet are directly implicated in the Lava Jato corruption scandal that has highlighted the networks of kickbacks and bribes between politicians and corporations in Brazil – quite a high number for a president who came to power due to the alleged corruption of his predecessor. Further eliminating any notion that this was about anything other than partisanship, nearly half of the new ministers – 11 out of 24 – supported the PSDB’s presidential candidate, Aécio Neves, in the 2014 election. Neves, of course, ran against (and lost to) Dilma, and his party, the PSDB, has long been the main antagonist to the PT, objecting to the latter’s social programs and advocating a neoliberal platform that it implemented under Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003). That those who supported Neves in 2014 are now in office reveals just how problematic Dilma’s removal is, and adds fire to those who view this as a coup. Unable to have their candidate win a popular election in 2014, they now serve in the cabinet of a new president who came to power upon the removal of Dilma, representing the political views and platforms not of the PT that the majority voted for, but of the man who lost the democratic election.
And who those ministers are is also far more telling than any of Temer’s pledges to work “without rancor” or to defend social programs. For example, the new Minister of Agriculture, Fishing, and Supply is none other than Blairo Maggi – the “king of soy” behind one of Brazil’s largest corporations, the industrial agricultural giant the Amaggi group, which has played no small part in reducing land rights for peasants and in deforestation. [Conveniently, just last week, the Supreme Court decided to shelve an investigation into Maggi for money laundering.] The new Minister of Justice is Alexandre de Moraes, the São Paulo Secretary of Public Security who has openly said that left-leaning social groups like labor unions or the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Homeless Workers’ Movement) should be repressed and who just last week said that Brazilians’ protests against the impeachment were “acts of guerrillas.” José Serra, who twice lost a presidential election to the PT (in 2002, and again in 2010) and who since 1995 has left every job he was appointed to or elected to before his mandate was up, is the new Minister of Foreign Relations. The new Minister of Health, Ricardo Barros, previously advocated reducing the massively-successful Bolsa Familia program that reduced poverty by 10 billion reais (roughly a $3 billion dollar cut to one of Brazil’s most successful socail programs). The Minister of Education and Culture (the two have been merged, in a move that undoes the separation of the two ministries when Brazil returned to democracy in 1985), Mendonça Filho, has historically opposed affirmative action and funding programs that provided aid and access to universities for Brazil’s marginalized populations.
Meanwhile, in addition to Maggi, the new Ministers of Planning (Romero Jucá), Defense (Raul Jungmann), and Cities (Bruno Araújo), together with the Secretary of Government (Geddel Vieira Lima), and the Chief of the Civil Cabinet (Eliseu Padilha), have all been tied to corruption and fraud, including allegations that Jungmann was involved in illegal bribes and contracts between 1998 and 2001 when serving in the cabinet of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Nor are those cabinet members the only ones tied to corruption, directly or indirectly. Indeed, just yesterday, Temer announced that he was hiring Gustavo do Vale Rocha to work in the Casa Civil (Civil Cabinet) as Subchief for Juridical Matters. While that name not jump out, who Vale Rocha worked for before does – he was none other than Eduardo Cunha’s lawyer. That Temer is hiring a lawyer who previously represented one of the more visibly corrupt politicians in Brazil’s Congress and a man who initiated the path toward impeachment is not a good look. Given that Congress voted to remove Dilma over allegations of “corruption,” the fact that so many in the new government are tied to corruption and even having their investigations archived now that Dilma is out of office only further strengthens the argument that this was never about corruption, and that investigations into what is very much a systemically and endemically corrupt system, particularly in Brazil’s legislature, will be slow-moving or halted going forward.
Indeed, there’s already an indication that the corruption hearings will not proceed under Temer’s own will. For example, a close ally/actor in the impeachment of Dilma was Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes, who, within 24 hours of Dilma’s removal, tabled the corruption investigation into her 2014 opponent and opposition leader, Aécio Neves. At the risk of belaboring a point I’ve made repeatedly here, this is the action of a blatantly partisan attack, and not of an institution genuinely interested in combatting corruption in politics more generally. Temer can insist the extant investigations will continue, but again, despite his rhetoric, there are real questions about whether anything positive will come of his government’s actions.
And this is the Temer government that is taking office – one that is not exactly operating with a great sense of legitimacy or a mandate, one whose cabinet does little-to-nothing to address that credibility gap. And it’s not like the Temer government isn’t facing real issues. In addition to corruption (which seems to be minimally important, based on his appointees), there are still the questions of small matters like the shrinking economy, Brazil’s dependence on exports, the Zika virus outbreak, and of course, the Olympics (which seem to be what the world is most focused on, but which is least relevant of these issues in the grand scheme of things). And let’s not forget – Temer, who’s already been convicted of corruption to the point that he’s serving as president even while he’s barred from running for public office for the next 8 years – could still face impeachment himself for his own ties to corruption and to the pedaladas fiscais that were the basis of Dilma’s removal (and that Temer, as a member of her government, also approved of).
All of this is to say that Temer can promise to be “saving” the nation. However, in less than a week, his embrace of corrupt politicians and neoliberal policies runs completely against the vision of government and its role in society that a majority of Brazilians voted for in 2014 (or even took to the streets by the millions for in 2013). Time will tell how long he has to implement his policies – after all, it’s still conceivable that Dilma could return to the presidency. It seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened in the past several weeks. What is clear is, through institutional and legislative fiat, Brazil’s Congress has managed to greatly weaken democratic stability in Brazil by removing a popularly-elected government and replacing it with one that is neither representative of the majority of the population or of the policies a majority supports.