Given ancient Rome’s delight in all things Hellenistic, it’s perhaps surprising that it took until 1960 for the Italian capital to win its turn hosting the Summer Olympic Games.
Those 1960 Games, however, showcased a Rome that, in barely more than a decade, rose from the ashes of World War II’s devastation. Under the guidance of U.S. and western allies and under the aegis of the Catholic, conservative Democrazia Cristiana (Christian Democrats), the 1960 Games forecast a competent and determined Italy that would, for the next three decades, leap forward economically in surprising and creative ways.
Though Italy today seems often trapped in sclerotic and tradition-bound ways, it wasn’t outlandish to say that Italy in 1960 was still a country of the future.
That evergreen label, too, is affixed to Brazil. It’s the country of the future, the old chestnut goes… and it always will be.
When Rio de Janeiro was awarded the Olympic Games in 2009, it looked like that future, always just beyond the horizon, was finally within reach. In 2010, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva marked the last of eight years in power. With GDP growth of 7.5%, the frothiest Brazilian economy in a quarter-century, and with extreme poverty nearly eliminated across Brazil through a series of social welfare, transfer and educational programs, it was a victory lap for a figure who had become the most mythic colossus of the Latin American left. Though Brazil’s 2010 boom was part of a short-lived emerging economies bubble, things were still looking up for Brazil as recently as 2014, when Lula da Silva’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, narrowly won reelection – the fourth consecutive term for the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party), defeating both Marina Silva, a charismatic third-way economic leftist and evangelical Christian who would have been Brazil’s first leader of African descent, and conservative Aécio Neves, a telegenic and well-regarded senator and successful former governor of Minas Gerais.
Even then, it was still possible to regard the historic 2016 Games, the first to be held in South America, as notice that at long last, Brazil would be a country of the present. Instead, the country today is in political and economic crisis. Far from announcing Brazil as a major economic power, the Rio Games themselves have become a symbol of economic inequality and government misrule. At best, they have been an opportunity (as much for Brazilians as for Trump-weary and Clinton-fatigued Americans) to forget politics for two weeks. Continue reading What Italy’s Tangentopoli in 1992 political trauma can teach Brazil in 2016→
No one has accused Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, of any personal impropriety in the sweeping investigations of kickbacks to politicians in Brazil from the state oil company, Petrobras.
Nevertheless, a two-thirds majority of the Câmara dos Deputados (Chamber of Deputies) decided to impeach Rousseff anyway, based on an obscure theory — that Rousseff fudged the budget numbers in the lead-up to the 2014 election to hide the precarious condition of Brazil’s budget deficit and reduce the need to cut spending in an election year.
No one had any doubts in 2014 that the country’s increasing debt burden was weighing down its economic outlook and even Rousseff, after her reelection, shook up her cabinet, bringing in Joaquim Levy as finance minister, and Nelson Barbosa, now Levy’s successor, to introduce greater budget discipline as the country sinks further into recession.
In reality, it’s the Petrobras scandal that’s swept up Rousseff, along with nearly 320 members of the Brazilian congress. Operation Car Wash has uncovered a wide-ranging scheme whereby leading politicians accepted kickbacks on the basis of inflated public contracts granted from Petrobras. The scandal implicates Rousseff’s own Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers Party), but it has also snared politicians from across the ideological spectrum. The scandal took an even sharper turn this spring when former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Rousseff’s mentor who first won power in 2002, was also accused of taking kickbacks. The speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha, among many, many others, are also under investigation. Brazilians refer to the scandal as the petrolão, which translates to the ‘big oily.’
The battle moves to Brazil’s Senate
Complicating the impeachment vote is the fact that Rousseff herself is personally and politically unpopular. A collapsing economy has left her with an approval rating in the teens. In one sense, Rousseff was impeached on Sunday because she’s so widely reviled by Brazilians. Rousseff’s opponents, even though many of them are under investigation themselves, blatantly admit that they supported impeachment just to remove her from office for political reasons. The Brazilian right has lost four consecutive elections to either Lula or to Rousseff, though Rousseff only narrowly won reelection in October 2014.
The nakedly political considerations involved explain why Rousseff and her left-leaning supporters have been quick to label the impeachment vote as an undemocratic coup. But it’s more complicated than either side would like to admit. Rousseff is correct when she argues that the Brazilian media is, largely, anti-PT, and the business elite has increasingly turned against her and Lula.
But Rousseff herself served as the chairwoman of the Petrobras board between 2003 and 2010, and her critics believe it’s risible that she knew nothing about the kickbacks. Moreover, she blatantly attempted to appoint Lula to her cabinet last month as a way of offering him immunity from prosecution. (Rousseff’s supporters subsequently attacked the lead prosecutor, Sérgio Moro, for releasing the audio recording of a conversation between Lula and Rousseff).
Rousseff is now almost certain to face a prolonged trial before the upper house of the Brazilian Congress. With just a majority vote in the 81-member Senado (Senate), she can be suspended for office for 180 days. Her vice president, Michel Temer, the 75-year-old leader of the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), will almost certainly take over temporarily and, if not impeached himself, will take over if Rousseff is formally removed. The next elections are scheduled for 2018.
Temer and the PMDB broke with Rousseff earlier this month, in a step that now seems likely to have doomed Rousseff’s fate. Temer has already indicated that, as Brazil’s new president, he will pursue a much more center-right orientation that will look to assure markets and business elites. He has also indicated that he might attempt to rein in the Petrobras investigations that have thoroughly discredited a country’s worth of institutions. The PMDB is a ‘big tent’ party whose sole ideology seems to be proximity to power — it has provided support to every sitting Brazilian government, of the center-right or the center-left, since 1994. Temer, Cunha and other leading pemedebistas are under the same clouds of corruption as many of the leading petistas, so a Temer presidency would not wipe the political slate clean.
Rousseff will, however, survive if she can muster more than one-third of Brazil’s senators in a trial that might not begin until May.
Her removal isn’t a fait accompli.
Note, however, that Rousseff (and Temer, as her 2014 running mate) still faces the possibility that her reelection will be vacated by Brazil’s supreme electoral court, which is reviewing whether the Rousseff campaign received illegal campaign funds. If the court decides to vacate the election, Cunha (the scandal-plagued speaker of the Chamber of Deputies) will temporarily replace Temer as president before a fresh presidential vote later this year.
Brazil’s hyper-partisan future looks grim
Even if Rousseff survives the Senate trial, she will have virtually no power as a wildly unpopular lame-duck president — just the second in modern Brazilian democracy to be impeached. Rousseff will continue fighting to protect the legacy of lulismo and the PT’s four terms in power, most notably the massive programs that have reduced extreme poverty and inequality that have made Lula, Rousseff and the PT extremely popular among Brazil’s poor. Moreover, even as Lula himself faces criminal liability for his own possible role in the Petrobras scandal, he remains extremely popular in Brazil (much more so than Rousseff) and on the Latin American left, generally.
Indeed, if an election were held today, Lula would be competitive to win, as incredible as it seems. He’s essentially tied with the other top-tier contenders from the 2014 election, Marina Silva (an alternative leftist with socially conservative positions on abortion of LGBT rights and with roots in Brazil’s green movement) and Aécio Neves, a Brazilian senator and the former two-term governor of the state of Minas Gerais. Neves today is the leader of Brazil’s main center-right opposition party, the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB, Brazilian Social Democracy Party), which has long supported Rousseff’s removal.
But the impeachment process and its aftermath are already making Brazil’s hyperpartisan divide even worse. A small glimpse of the ugliness came on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies Sunday night when one member, Jair Bolsonaro, who also hopes to run for president in 2018, dedicated his vote in favor of impeachment to the leader of a torture unit during Brazil’s military dictatorship whose victims included, among others, Rousseff herself. Other far-right deputies also voiced praise Sunday night for some of the leaders of Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964 through 1985.
Though a majority of Brazilians (including both wealthy and poor Brazilians) supported Rousseff’s impeachment, the battle has left many voters divided sharply. Moreover, a compromised Temer-led interim presidency also seems unlikely to unite a country that still faces incredible challenges, including a nasty economic downturn, the rising threat of the Zika virus and the difficulty of hosting the first Summer Olympics in South American history later in 2016.
Brazil’s democracy has already survived one impeachment, when former president Fernando Collor resigned a day before the Brazilian senate voted formally to remove him from office in December 1992. But Collor, at the time, was more personally and, potentially, criminally implicated in the corruption scandal that spurred his impeachment, which the Chamber of Deputies passed in a near-unanimous vote. In contrast, the impeachment battle against Rousseff has been far more colored by partisan opinion.
It’s looking increasingly likely that Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff might not make it through the end of her term in January 2019.
On March 12, Rousseff’s main coalition partner, the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) announced that it would take a full month to reconsider its support for Rousseff, currently in her second term and what amounts to the fourth consecutive term of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers Party) that began with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s 2002 election victory.
Since mid-March, the drive to impeach Rousseff has only intensified, with prosecutors seeking to interview and possibly detain Lula da Silva himself, the godfather of not just the Brazilian left but the entire Latin American left. Rousseff attempted to appoint Lula da Silva as her chief of staff to give him the kind of ministerial role that he would need to evade potential investigation, though Brazil’s supreme court blocking the appointment in short order. Though Rousseff herself has not been personally implicated in the Petrobras scandal (whereby officials gave kickbacks to politicians in exchange for inflated construction contracts), investigators believe that Lula da Silva might be more deeply involved.
Lula da Silva, incredibly, might be arrested at any moment, which would almost certainly accelerate the push to impeach Rousseff on obscure charges about obfuscation of Brazil’s state finances during the 2014 election campaign. Also, incredibly, impeachment isn’t the only way that Rousseff might be forced from office. If it emerges that she won the 2014 presidential election through illicit money, she and the vice president could be removed through the cassação process that could vacated the election altogether.
Either way, the presidency would end up in either the hands of the PMDB: in the case of impeachment, vice president Michel Temer or, in the case that the 2014 election is annulled, the speaker of the Brazilian congress’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies (Câmara dos Deputados), Eduardo Cunha.