How the Impeachment of Brazil’s President Moved From Crazy to Possible


São Paulo’s sky lit up on Friday night as some 95,000 Brazilians took to the streets of their country’s largest city with balloons, banners, flags, and smoke in the bright red of the left-wing Workers’ Party. They came out to support President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, after one of the most politically charged weeks Brazil has seen since the country succumbed to a military coup in 1964.

Today, many Brazilians are saying what is happening now has strong parallels to the 1964 events that led to a 21 year military regime.

“I was there. It started just the same,” Paula Abreu, 74, a teacher who lives in São Paulo, said at the protest. “The threats of impeachment, the accusations of corruption. It wasn’t that long ago. How can people forget?”

In 1961, João Goulart was vice president when President Jânio Quadros resigned. Goulart was on a diplomatic trip to China when Quadros made his announcement, however, and right-wing militants barred Goulart from taking the presidential reins upon his return, accusing him of being a communist.

Goulart eventually managed to negotiate his return as Brazil’s head of state and he regained full presidential powers in 1963. But soon after, military and right-wing activists branded him a socialist threat for his Basic Reforms Plan (Reformas de Base), which aimed to aid Brazil’s poor through agricultural, educational, financial, and electoral reforms.

The reform plan, as well as other planned moves like granting the vote to illiterate Brazilians, drew the ire of the country’s conservative upper and middle classes, and a military coup began on March 31, 1964. Many of those who supported the coup felt it was a victory for Brazil because it removed a corrupt, populist regime that was using presidential power for its own benefit.

For some, today’s dispute bears eerie similarities to that era. Anti-corruption protesters are now fighting for the impeachment of Rousseff, who was one of the many left-wing guerrillas who was imprisoned and tortured by the military regime after the 1964 coup. Anti-Dilma and Lula organizers brought out 1.4 million Brazilians—largely members of the country’s more conservative wealthy and middle classes—five days before Friday’s protest, in the name of fighting corruption.

Once a distant possibility, the removal of Brazil’s current president is now moving much closer to becoming a reality. Rousseff has long been suspected of involvement in the corruption scandal dubbed Lava Jato, a scheme involving R$1.5 billion (around $415 million) in kickbacks paid by some of Brazil’s largest construction companies for contracts with the state-run oil company Petrobras. Rousseff chaired the board of the oil giant from 2003 to 2010, when a large portion of the graft is thought to have taken place—and when Lula was president of Brazil.

Solid evidence, however, has yet to be presented against either Dilma or Lula. While other members of government and construction-company heads have been arrested and jailed, both Rousseff and Lula’s involvement in the scandal remains unconfirmed, at least legally.

“We are not moving toward a dictatorship or anything of that kind. We are living a highly polarized period from a political point of view. Positions are radicalized and political tolerance has fallen to zero,” says Fernando Limongi, a professor of political science at the University of São Paulo. “[Impeachment] is not the best solution to the crisis. It will make the process routine, trivialize it, making it so that the majority of circumstances could make any opinion on election results valid. The opposition is opening a dangerous precedent.”

Initial calls for Rousseff’s impeachment were related to public accounts and misspent funds. Money that was allocated for specific government programs was borrowed to pay down debt in what critics say was an election year attempt by Rousseff to make it look as if she had left Brazil in a better economic situation than she really had. This type of spending is illegal in the country, making it a legitimate reason to call for the president’s ouster. At the time, Rousseff denied she had committed wrongful acts.

Lower house speaker Eduardo Cunha accepted the call to open the impeachment process against Rousseff, but many have suggested that he was moving it forward in order to take the focus off of himself and his own link to the Lava Jato scandal.

Evidence of secret Swiss bank accounts in his, his wife’s and his daughter’s names, as well as accusations that he accepted bribes worth millions for himself and others had put him in the headlines until the focus shifted to Rousseff.

The drumbeat for impeachment faded with time, however. That is, until Lula was again thrust into the spotlight when the former president was brought in for questioning earlier this month in the Lava Jato investigation and police raided his home and the headquarters of the institute that bears his name.

He was released hours later and no charges were made, but what happened after the raids laid the groundwork for the following protests. Rumors began to circulate that Rousseff had offered Lula a ministerial post. Ministers in Brazil have special legal standing and, as a minister, Lula’s arrest would have to be approved by the country’s Supreme Court.

Lula reportedly declined the offer at first, saying he did not want to appear as if he was running from the law. But last Wednesday, Rousseff announced Lula would be her new chief of staff. That evening, Lava Jato judge Sérgio Moro released nearly 50 audio recordings from wiretaps of Lula’s phone. One was with Rousseff, and it appeared as if the two were discussing his appointment as a way to avoid prosecution in the corruption scandal.

Lula was sworn in last Thursday, to both cheers and boos. The former president’s appointment was then suspended by a judge. Then the suspension was overturned. And then the overturning of the suspension was itself overturned, putting Lula’s role as chief of staff on hold.

In the meantime, Cunha called a Friday-morning plenary meeting to push Rousseff’s impeachment process forward. Making Lula—who started the Workers’ Party and is known as the voice of Brazil’s working classes—a member of government again was seen as one more reason to remove the president from her post.

Both Rousseff and Lula continue in a state of limbo. What will happen next is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: Brazil is divided, and for many it feels like déjà vu.

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