Three weeks ago, the Olympic Games began in Rio de Janeiro with great expectations for the city and for Brazil. Since then, the worst predictions have proven baseless and Brazil delivered one of the most exciting Games ever. Rio’s stunning landscape made the cycling, marathon, and beach volleyball competitions particularly exciting to watch. Now that the Olympics are over, what is next for Brazil?
Before the Olympics, Brazil was in the midst of a political crisis that is now reaching its peak with the impeachment of seated President Dilma Rousseff. If Rousseff is found guilty of breaking budget laws she will be forced to step down from the Presidency. In this case, the current interim President Michel Temer will complete Rousseff’s term until 2018. Temer became acting president when Rousseff was suspended from her duties last May. The Brazilian senate began the trial against President Rousseff last Thursday, 08/25. On Monday, 08/29, Rousseff will appear before the senate to defend herself against the charges of fiscal irresponsibility in her executive duties as Brazil’s president. Rousseff is accused among other things of using money from state-controlled banks to fund her popular social programs among which the Bolsa Familia or Family Allowance, a program which has been widely praised as lifting millions out of abject poverty.
Most political analysts in Brazil are reporting that President Rousseff will be impeached. What is at stake here is not just the presidency of Dilma Rousseff but the end of the Worker’s Party ― the Partido dos Trabalhadores or (PT)- dominance in Brazilian Politics since 2002. In 2014, 51.4% of the electorate reelected Rousseff to the presidency. Their vote will be swept away in a dubious impeachment process.
President Rousseff has accused the opposition of using the impeachment proceedings to forge a political coup against her presidency. She is mostly correct since using money from state-controlled banks to bridge budget gaps are nothing new in Brazil. President Rousseff has not been found guilty of using state funds for personal gains as was President Collor who was impeached in 1992 when he used government checks to pay for personal expenses. Rather, Rousseff’s impeachment is the culmination of more than eight years of a surging right wing opposition to the PT. Many Brazilians have also lost faith in the Worker’s Party since it was found embroiled in a widespread corruption scheme that led to the indictment of many PT officials. The impeachment of President Rousseff is in that respect a thinly disguised attack against the PT by the opposition using the flimsiest of legal bases.
Dilma Rousseff was a surrogate of ex-President Lula da Silva who was a founding member of the Worker’s Party (PT). In 2002, Lula was elected to the presidency with 61.3% of the vote. He formed a powerful coalition with other leftist parties and delivered on the most important promises of the PT. His government created a series of social programs, among them the Bolsa Familia, the Minha Casa, Minha Vida which is a public housing program, and established an ambitious affirmative action program to ensure that Brazilians of color gained access to the country’s public universities and in the job market. During Lula’s Presidency, Brazil was riding a wave of economic success that allowed the government to pay for these programs while paying off the country’s loan to the IMF and convincing FIFA and the OIC that the country was ready to host the 2014 and 2016 competitions.
But in 2005, a journalistic investigation found that the Worker’s Party supported its program in the Brazilian parliament by paying deputies to switch parties and to strengthen the government. Though Lula was elected with 61% of the national vote, his Worker’s Party only won 17% of the vote in the parliament which put his governments in a weak position to the opposition which controlled 26% of the vote. Middle size parties had a number of seats that if joined with the Worker’s Party’s share could only strengthen Lula’s government. Brazilian laws allow politicians to switch parties and in 2003 a number of legislators from the middle size parties were observed switching to the PT. This was not illegal. But the fact that money from state companies was used to pay deputies to switch parties certainly demonstrated widespread corruption in the PT. At the time, President Lula was never directly linked to the corruption scheme but his then chief of staff, José Dirceu, was found to be the main coordinator of the mensalão – kickback - scheme and was sentenced to a seven year prison term. Dirceu was later found guilty in the Lava Jato ‘Carwash’ corruption scheme in 2015 and sentenced to 23 years in prison.
The Mensalão rightly tarnished the PT and Rousseff when she was elected to the Presidency in 2011. Still, she was elected with 56% of the vote and continued Lula’s social programs with new vigor. However, Brazil’s economy was in recession which made it more difficult for Rousseff to deliver on her ambitious social programs. Her reelection in 2014 was a close vote with Rousseff reelected with 51.4% of the vote in a second round against candidate Aecio Neves. The call for Rousseff’s impeachment began as soon as she was reelected when Neves’ sympathizers took to the streets accusing the president of corruption. Neves’ supporters accused Rousseff of using her social programs such as the Bolsa Familia and the Minha Casa, Minha Vida to get votes from the poor. That these programs made the PT and Rousseff popular cannot be denied but they are not corruption in and of themselves. One cannot also deny that the PT has lost the popularity that it enjoyed ten years ago. What we are observing now in Brazil is a definite return of the right at the political helm and this does not bode well for Brazil’s poor and the country’s advances in the cause of racial equality and women’s right.