Early Thoughts on What a Temer Administration Looks Like

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).

The distinction between Dilma's cabinet (top) and Temer's cabinet (bottom).

The distinction between Dilma’s cabinet (top) and Temer’s cabinet (bottom).

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.

Posted in Brazil, Corruption, Latin American Politics, Neoliberalism, The "Right" in Latin America

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.

Posted in Brazil, Impeachment, Latin American Politics, Legal Issues in Latin America | 1 Comment

Dilma Removed from Office for (at least) 180 Days

As has become typical of Brazilian politics in the last 6 months, the last two days have proven eventful. On Tuesday, the interim president of the Chamber of Deputies, Waldir Maranhão, attempted to annul the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, saying the Chamber of Deputies’ April 17 vote was full of irregularities. My initial reaction on Tuesday was that the move was inconceivable, and the Senate may proceed anyway. Some argued (probably correctly) that Maranhão did not have the power to annul the vote of 367 Chamber Deputies (though one could also argue that 367 Chamber Deputies shouldn’t have the power to annul the votes of 54 million Brazilians), and they may have been right, but the point was rendered moot by the fact that, by Wednesday, Maranhão annulled his annulment.

Of course, that annulment was just the sideshow yesterday, as the Senate proceeded to hold its hearings on whether or not to vote to remove Dilma from office for 180 days so that she could be tried. After being given 15 minutes each to talk, the senators would then vote. The math was already problematic – there were 76 senators present at the beginning, adding up to the possibility of 19 hours before even reaching a vote (it took a little longer than that). Each Senator could vote (including Fernando Collor, whom, it is worth remembering, was also impeached in the 1990s and forced to resign due to actual corruption, was suspended from holding public office for years, returned to politics and is again tied to corruption scandals, and yet was present to vote on Dilma’s impeachment yesterday). While the absurdity of the demonstrations did not quite reach those of the April 17 vote in the Chamber of Deputies, familiar causes for voting for removal, including “God” and “family,” were still frequent. Of course, more like the Chamber of Deputies, out of all of the 81 senators who could vote yesterday, roughly 60% of them are under investigation for their own ties to corruption, criminal activity, and fraud, even as they voted to remove a president without any substantive ties to corruption (and the pedaladas fiscais really don’t count here, for reasons elaborated upon below).

The final vote ended up being 55-22 to remove Dilma and begin the trial (as the New York Times notes, she’s only technically impeached if convicted, though no doubt that’s of small comfort). The result is that Brazil’s first woman president, democratically reelected just under 2 years ago, has been temporarily removed from office over dubious charges. Of course, the process itself isn’t technically over, as yesterday’s vote just confirms that a trial will now begin. In this circumstance, there’s still a technical possibility that Dilma could return to power, but it won’t happen. The Senate needs a 2/3 vote to permanently remove her from office; given that yesterday’s vote to suspend her for 180 days was 55-22, Dilma’s permanent removal seems highly probable. If/when that’s the case, it will mean that the only time in Brazil’s history that three democratically-elected presidents consecutively finished their terms was from 1894-1906 in Brazil’s First Republic (when elections were extremely oligarchic and weren’t exactly uncorrupt).

So what now?

Well, for starters, Vice President Michel Temer takes office for the next 180 days and, in an unusual practice, gets to form his own cabinet to govern. Representing the PMDB, which has moved right to form an alliance with the PSDB, he has already committed to neoliberalism at a much greater pace than that under Dilma. However, he also remains an acting president with little legitimacy, representing a party that was a part of Dilma’s coalition when she (and he) won, but then switched sides last year, making him a member of the opposition and implementing policies that over half of the country voted against in the previous election. Temer himself is tied to numerous corruption scandals, including signing off as a member of the cabinet on the pedaladas fiscais that have led to Dilma’s impeachment process. Additionally, Temer has actually been convicted of misappropriating campaign donations, and the courts have ruled that he cannot run for reelection for public office for the next 8 years. So now, Brazil has a president who was not elected president and who could not run for re-election for any office, even if he wanted to, due to his own conviction on corruption charges.

And if the symbolism of what this impeachment did to the vote of the marginalized and disenfranchised in Brazil wasn’t fully clear, there’s this reality: women are over half of the country’s population, and Afro-descendants are also over half of the country’s population. Temer’s cabinet, meanwhile, is 100% white men.

That cabinet makeup is indicative of the realities at play here – primarily, that this was never about corruption, but about traditional power elites whose inability across 13 years to win the presidency made impeachment the only viable alternative. Indeed, if you thought it was about the pedaladas fiscais, the Senate itself did a fine job of making clear that that was not the case – none other than PSDB Senator Antonio Anastasio, former governor of Minas Gerais, put together the case for impeachment. Of course, while he was governor, Anastasio had used pedaladas fiscais in his own budgeting.

Meanwhile, the PSDB after Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was president from 1995-2003, has been unable to win a presidential election since; meanwhile, the PMDB’s status as a “big-tent” party made it difficult to find its own serious presidential candidate, and the party settled historically for being king-maker in the 1990s and 2000s via party alliances. The inability of either party to win presidential elections in recent years (due in no small part to their inability/unwillingness to foster policies that address real inequalities in Brazil), led to them collaborating to rise to the presidency through institutional, but not democratic, means.

Is that a coup? Not as we’ve often thought of coups, but it’s time to reconsider what the word means in the 21st century, and how coups can and do operate. It’s not an old-school coup of the 20th century, with sudden, violent, physical overthrow. What it is is much what it was in Paraguay in 2012, albeit in a different national context: one branch of the government – the legislative – dominated by elites who are the traditional power-brokers, bristling at the executive branch’s ability to disrupt the elites’ traditional monopolization of power by improving the lives of the marginalized and the masses. Being unable to win the presidency themselves in this new context, they have reacted by using institutional mechanisms to remove a democratically elected president.

So what happens now?

As I commented in April, the dynamic of the power of vice presidents in future elections has fundamentally changed. I wrote after the Chamber of Deputies vote:

Since 1988, presidents had selected vice presidents in the hope of coalition-building in Congress (due to the parliamentary system of the legislature, where the numerous parties mean presidents rely on coalitions to get their programs approved). […] from this point forward, presidential candidates are going to have to keep in the back of their mind the possibility that their vice president may ultimately work against them to become president, with the aid of Congress. This could dramatically transform the role of the Vice President in Brazil and alter the balance of power not just between President and Vice President, but between political parties and alliances themselves, as coalitions may have to rethink whom they select for presidential/vice-presidential candidates. And the public may consider whom the Vice President is more strongly going forward, given the potential that yesterday’s vote seems to open the door for Congress helping the Vice President become President more easily.

I think this will still hold true, and the process of selecting Vice Presidents for all future candidates will be much more fraught and have to take in new considerations that go beyond mere questions of coalition-building.

Ultimately, this may not be the death of democracy in Brazil, but it’s absolutely a massive blow against democracy. A popularly elected president in a system where people’s votes are supposed to determine the outcome  has been removed before her mandate on charges that are at best selectively-applied, at worst, a naked naked power-grab. One can say that this is just the “parliamentary” side of the presidential parliamentarism in Brazil, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a blow against democracy. If it were an actual parliamentary system, then the Senate could remove the prime minister, and then the people would go to the polls to determine whether to keep or remove the current government. Brazil’s electorate has no such democratic choice here. Instead, they must now sit through a government lacking any sense of legitimacy, even as it imposes neoliberal policies that Brazil’s electorate rejected in 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014.

And who knows what the 2018 elections will look like? The removal of Dilma certainly won’t fix the economy immediately, nor will it end the question of corruption. After all, it’s worth remembering, the list of those tied to, or convicted of, corruption includes: the now-acting President of Brazil, Michel Temer; the PSDB’s 3 presidential candidates from the last 4 presidential elections; around 60% of current Senators; and around 60% of the current Chamber of Deputies. As the Odebrecht Papers indicate, corruption is endemic and crosses party lines.

One can hope that Brazilians keep this all in mind as they go to the polls in 2 years, opting to sweep out everybody in power and just try to wipe the slate clean. That would be nice, and its not impossible. But fatigue and inertia seem more likely, as it is clear that voting does not mean that the Brazilian people’s will will be fulfilled electorally. Certainly, the fact that all Brazilians are obligated to vote means turnout will not dip in the way that perhaps it did in the US in the 1970s, but that’s of small comfort. How the Brazilian electorate reacts – whether they use this blow to democratic processes in 2016 to fight back, or whether they take it as a harbinger of things to come – remains to be seen. What can be said is that the events of this year have been incredibly damaging to democracy in Brazil, and when we look back on this period historically, it will be a black spot with many “villains” in historical narratives and analysis.

Posted in Brazil, Coups in Latin America, Impeachment, Latin American Politics, Legal Issues in Latin America | 1 Comment

Impeachment of Dilma Takes Inconceivable Turn

In a stunning development, the acting President of the Chamber of Deputies, Waldir Maranhão, has annulled the Chamber of Deputies’ vote to impeach Dilma Rousseff last month. It’s not so much that this is unexpected as it is something almost nobody seriously even imagined could be a possibility, as most expected the process to continue through the Senate without any interruptions.

Of course, Maranhão is the interim President of the Chamber of Deputies because the former president, Eduardo Cunha, was forced to vacate his position after Brazil’s Supreme Court unanimously upheld his removal for charges of corruption (charges with much greater basis than anything the opposition has ever brought against Dilma). And certainly, when nearly everybody (with the exception of about 10 or so deputies) who voted for impeachment did so without even considering or addressing the charges brought forth, the vote was, suffice to say, irregular indeed. (And that’s ignoring the reality that over half of those who voted are themselves tied directly to their own political, fiscal, and legal scandals.)

That’s not to say this means the whole thing will grind to a halt. Perhaps the Senate decides to move on with the process, saying what’s done is done, and Dilma faces impeachment still. It seems more likely that the Supreme Court will be involved one way or another, be it to weigh in on the possibility of annulling an impeachment hearing over what irregularities in the Chamber of Deputies vote, or on the Senate’s ability to proceed of the Chamber wants to revoke its actions, or on any other number of accounts.

These are just preliminary thoughts, and I’ll likely have more as this continues to unfold. That said, this possibility was entirely inconceivable up until about an hour ago, and yet here we are, with another impossible wrinkle in the ongoing process in impeachment of Dilma. One thing is certain right now: Brazilian politics are never dull.


Posted in Brazil, Latin American Politics | 2 Comments

RIP – Patricio Aylwin

Patricio Aylwin, the man who became the first democratically elected president of Chile after the end of the Pinochet regime in 1990, has died at the age of 97.

As most people are, Aylwin was a complex figure. He had opposed the government of Socialist president Salvador Allende from 1970-1973, and even signed a document requesting military intervention a week before the September 11 coup that overthrew the Allende government and ushered in the Pinochet regime. However, his role as leader of the Christian Democrats party in the 1980s made him a key figure in the institutional political opposition to Pinochet, and a strong choice for the presidential elections of 1990 that ushered him into office.

As for his presidency, it too had peaks and valleys. On the one hand, he navigated a political scenario where the military (and Pinochet himself) remained remarkably powerful, managing to transition to democracy without having the military re-intervene. His establishment of the Chilean National Truth Commission (aka the Rettig Report) immediately forced Chileans to confront the systematic human rights violations of the military regime. At the same time, for reasons that are still debated, he did not pursue prosecution of human rights violators, and his embrace of the neoliberal econoimc policies first established under Pinochet led some to accuse Aylwin (not unfairly) of illustrating continuity with the dictatorship outside of the realm of human rights. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, the fact remains that Aylwin, while not immune to criticism, played an important and in many ways positive role in post-dictatorship Chile and was a monumental figure in the history of Chile. Que descanse en paz.

Update: Greg has more reflections on Aylwin and what Chile in the 1990s was like.

Posted in Chile, Deaths

Thoughts on Brazil’s Impeachment Vote Yesterday

As mentioned last night, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies (Brazil’s lower house in the bicameral Congress) voted to move forward with impeachment proceedings against Dilma Rousseff. The final tally was 367 in favor of impeachment and 137 against impeachment, with 7 abstentions and two absences. All that was needed to move forward was a 2/3 vote – in this case, 342 votes in favor – so the vote was not close. Perhaps fittingly, a representative from the center-right PSDB (Brazilian Social Democrat Party), historically the PT’s (Workers Party) main opponent, cast the deciding vote.

The voting took nearly six hours, and was quite the spectacle. Each deputy was given the chance to briefly state why they were voting, and the responses were….various. The causes cited for voting to impeach Dilma included, but were not limited to: for their wives; for their mothers; for other family members (including grandchildren whose birthday it was yesterday); God; because they didn’t want (and I’m quoting here) his “kids to learn about sex in school;” for “peace in Jerusalem” (no, really); and against “children changing their sexes in school” (no – really). The racist, misogynistic, and homophobic dictatorship apologist Jair Bolsonaro went so far as to dedicate his vote in favor of impeachment to the late Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, one of the military regime’s worst torturers who from late 1970 to 1974 oversaw the very center where Dilma, and hundreds of other Brazilians, were tortured.

Suffice to say, none of these issues actually addressed the actual issue at hand in impeachment – the pedaladas fiscais, or “fiscal maneuvers” in describing the federal government’s financial situation in 2014. Of course, as I discussed here, this was not an impeachable offense – it was not made illegal until last year, and both the center-right PSDB’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003) and PT’s Luis Inácio Lula da Silva had used the practice, as had well over a dozen sitting governors in 2014.  Some deputies voted in favor of impeachment “against corruption,” but even that was not the issue at play here. Yes, there are numerous corruption scandals involving Petrobras, the Lava Jato investigation, and kickbacks, but the pedaladas fiscais are not a part of the actual corruption scandals. Dilma herself has not been tied to any of the corruption scandals; indeed while her name is absent from both the Lava Jato investigation and, more recently, the Panama Papers, the opposition is rife with politicians directly tied to both, including Eduardo Cunha, President of the Chamber of Deputies who led the impeachment campaign. That’s not to say there may not be something uncovered later, but impeachment is a reactive, not proactive, political action. Ultimately, fewer than 10 deputies actually addressed the issue at hand – the pedaladas fiscais. Perhaps Dilma’s use of them was unconstitutional (though given the historical precedent, that seems unlikely), but nobody bothered to really make that case.

It was a difficult six hours to sit through for a number of reasons. One reason was because of the sheer demagoguery on display. Many of those voting for impeachment took time to sign each other’s flags, which they (literally) draped themselves in, wearing the flag as a cape, as if they were superheroes saving the nation. There was also a hint of sexism on display, as some were carrying signs that said “Tchau, querida” (roughly: “Bye, sweetheart”) in a move that was patronizing to Dilma. As one person sardonically commented on Twitter, the sign could refer to Dilma or to democracy in Brazil.

In addition to demagoguery, hypocrisy was on full display as well. Numerous men voted for impeachment in the name of their “family”; when it was announced that one Congresswoman was absent (and thus her vote would count as “no”) because she was pregnant, the opposition roundly booed her, effectively because she was not present due to having a family.

More systematically, the hypocrisy was on display over the issue of corruption itself. Corruption is a real issue in Brazil, as evident yesterday – not in the actual impeachment vote of Dilma itself, but in the fact that around 300 of the people voting yesterday are directly tied to corruption, criminal activity, fraud, money laundering, etc., but remain in office either due to parliamentary immunity or to a more general climate of impunity in which investigations into and punishment of very serious cases of electoral fraud and corruption move at a snail’s pace and rarely lead to any real punishment. The fact that the sitting president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros (also of the PMDB) has been tied to multiple corruption scandals and even briefly resigned (only to be re-elected), and that Cunha was discovered to have millions of dollars in a secret Swiss bank account (something he vehemently denied until the evidence was incontrovertible) is evidence of that fact. As for the unequal move toward justice, Cunha oversaw yesterday’s impeachment of Dilma while he himself is a defendant in the Supreme Court over that very corruption scandal and his ties to Lava Jato. As one deputy put it, “I have never seen so much hypocrisy per square meter,” and she wasn’t really being unfair.

In all of this, it’s worth recalling that 137 did vote “no” (with 9 more abstentions/absences counting toward “no”). Many voting “no” against impeachment pointed out Cunha is directly tied to/named in Lava Jato. Indeed, there is fear among some sectors that Congress will impeach Dilma and pretend it has “solved” corruption without actually dealing with the branch of government where corruption is most endemic – namely, Congress itself. Indeed, many in the opposition celebrated Cunha yesterday, and it’s increasingly looking like his move to break with the PT government and impeach Dilma was intended to redirect attention and anger away from his own corruption scandals. While he’s not out of the woods himself, he’s definitely managed to take a major step toward taking Dilma, who’s not connected to any of those scandals, with him.

Of course, now the question is – what happens next? The immediate political process I described yesterday, but the effects on Brazilian politics will likely last long beyond the impeachment of Dilma. One thing that seems quite probable is that the very nature of executive politics has transformed. Since 1988, presidents had selected vice presidents in the hope of coalition-building in Congress (due to the parliamentary system of the legislature, where the numerous parties mean presidents rely on coalitions to get their programs approved). If the Senate decides (by a simple majority) to proceed with impeachment, Dilma must step down during the proceedings, and Vice President Michel Temer will become president. Temer, of course, is from the PMDB – the biggest party in Brazil, and the party of none other than Chamber of Deputies President Eduardo Cunha, who has led the charge for impeachment. Some allege that Temer has directly undermined and worked against Dilma (technically, his boss/supervisor) in the hopes of becoming president (the PMDB has never had a directly-elected president). Whether or not those allegations are true is in a way immaterial; from this point forward, presidential candidates are going to have to keep in the back of their mind the possibility that their vice president may ultimately work against them to become president, with the aid of Congress. This could dramatically transform the role of the Vice President in Brazil and alter the balance of power not just between President and Vice President, but between political parties and alliances themselves, as coalitions may have to rethink whom they select for presidential/vice-presidential candidates. And the public may consider whom the Vice President is more strongly going forward, given the potential that yesterday’s vote seems to open the door for Congress helping the Vice President become President more easily.

Meanwhile – was it a coup? I’m still not inclined to use that term, and not just because Dilma still is in office, but because of what past coups have looked like, and how different this situation is. I’m somewhat sympathetic to the nuanced idea that this might be a “legal coup” in the sense of removing a president out of partisanship but doing so through institutional mechanisms, a la what happened in Paraguay in 2012, but I think it is important to understand how 2016 differs from 1964 (or 1889, or 1930, or 1937), when the removal of a president (or empire, in the case of 1889) led to a very real transformation in the very state itself. That said, I understand some of the arguments for the term as well.

Either way, whether or not it is a coup, it is certainly a major step back for Brazilian democracy. It’s not just because the President has been impeached without doing anything evidently impeachable (and again, if the use of pedaladas fiscais was impeachable, nobody bothered to seriously make that case yesterday). It’s because yesterday’s impeachment vote is effectively a vote of no confidence in a system that relies on four-year terms. As I’ve mentioned several times, there is much debate over whether a presidential parliamentary system like Brazil’s could even work in theory, much less in practice. Yesterday’s vote reveals another crack in the system, as a majority of people can effectively vote in a president, only to have Congress attempt to remove that president. Some may counter, “well, Dilma is unpopular!,” which yes, currently she is (though let’s not pretend media narratives that shape public attitudes are somehow impartial). However, it’s still a system in which the public elects the president, and barring any evidence of overt corruption, treason, or abuse of power (which, at the risk of redundance, is not immediately evident in the actual impeachment charges), elected leaders should serve out their terms, because that strengthens the legitimacy of the democratic instituions themselves and illustrates the importance of participating in electoral processes. Put another way: if Brazil wants to remove a leader due to unpopularity, it should just become a parliamentary system; unfortunately, that’s not what it is, and it can’t be transformed quickly, primarily because presidential parliamentarism is the reality of the 1988 Constitution’s establishment of governance. Any transformations would require a fundamental rewriting of the Constitution, and that seems unlikely at best (and, given the current crop of Congressional representatives, it’s not clear it’s even desirable).

All of this is a very long way of saying that there are real systemic and structural issues remaining in Brazilian politics and democracy, and yesterday’s vote has greatly complicated the scenario in Brazil not just in the coming months, but for the coming years. Yesterday perhaps was not the first step in the end of Brazilian democratic institutions and democracy, but it was definitely a step in the wrong direction.

Posted in Brazil, Corruption, Coups in Latin America, Impeachment, Latin American Politics, Legal Issues in Latin America | 5 Comments

Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies Votes to Impeach Dilma Rousseff

Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of Congress) has voted to impeach Dilma Rousseff. This was the first, and arguably most difficult, step in the process.

That said, it’s not the final step in impeachment, though it may be the most difficult. Now, the process goes to the Senate, where senators will decide whether to proceed with the impeachment hearings. Whereas the Chamber of Deputies needed a 2/3 vote, the Senate just needs a simple majority to continue the process. If they vote to continue the impeachment process, Dilma will have to step down for 180 days as the Senate conducts the trial. It will take a 2/3 vote in the Senate to remove her from office. In the event the impeachment continues, Vice President Michel Temer (who faces his own allegations of corruption, with much more evidence than there ever was against Dilma) now assumes the presidency.

And of course, given how many voted for impeachment for things like “my family,” “god,” “against children changing sexes in school” (really), “for peace in Jerusalem,” (no – really), and many other causes not remotely related to the pedaladas fiscais that were (supposed to be) the basis for impeachment, it’s not impossible that an appeal to the court system could lead to an overturn of the vote, given how few addressed the actual issue behind the impeachment charge.

I’ll have more tomorrow, but for now, suffice to say, all those who voted “yes” likely thought they were making history, and they weren’t wrong; what side of history their vote will fall on remains less certain.

Posted in Brazil, Impeachment