The house of lower cards: the international repercussion of President Dilma’s impeachment.

By Daniel Teixeira da Costa Araujo[i]

The opening scene: once upon a time…

‘No one understands these days why people are still interested in House of Cards. Don’t they receive any news about Brazilian politics?’[ii] (FISCHERMANN, 2016). So begins Thomas Fischermann his article on 12th March 2016 for the German Zeit. For many, struggling against the worst economic crisis since the Stock Market Crash of 1929 Brazil – one of the most important developing countries – was the focus of attention worldwide on April 17th and on 11th May 2016 because of the Congress voting to open impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff and has been observed since then. At the same time the country is facing its most serious political crisis since the new Constitution approval in 1988 and is dealing with its largest known corruption scandal striking the whole party spectrum even though the local media insist on targeting Rousseff’s party, Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). Viewed about seven years ago as a taking off economy byThe Economist, Brazil is now paralyzed and divided between the President’s supporters denouncing a constitutional coup d’état and her opponents claiming about the legality of the process. The Brazilian Congress approval was just the first step to impeach Rousseff, a process that required the reached two thirds of votes in the Lower House on April 17th and a simple majority in the Federal Senate on May 11th starting a trial removing her for up to 180 days before the final decision that needs the qualified majority of two thirds of the Senate.

The current paper has as its main purpose presenting the international repercussion of Rousseff’s impeachment process covered by the international press after the Brazilian Congress gave its agreement to open the trial. It is useful to bring to view how this case has been covered abroad to see the international perception about it and to escape from local media’s passions and their own interests. It does not mean international agencies are totally independent and impartial, maybe it could be said more accurately they are less engaged in the inner context and its social and economic pressures. At the same time, while the Brazilian press is committed in showing each everyday brand-new information, international agencies tend to summarize information avoiding details to highlight key-points indicating crucial changes. However their ideological tendency – once at times it shows clear value judgements – has also to be taken into account to understand critics and solutions offered such as it can be seen in The Financial Times statements like “Investors welcomed the impeachment process as it promises to remove a president whose interventionism they say has driven Brazil’s economy into the doldrums’ (LEAHY; PEARSON, 2016) once investors might be also scared away by political instability as seen in Brazil. As observed by Perry Anderson, that is part of a process in which ‘the local media – amplified by the business press in London and New York – [vituperate] the dangers of statism’ (ANDERSON, 2016). Anyway it is worth to dissolve the manicheaist polarization of opinion currently existing in Brazil using the international press coverage.

The screenplay: the charge of the accusation

The charge of the accusation is based on crime of responsibility of having tried ‘to cover up budget gaps with money from government banks’ (PHILLIPS; MIROFF. 2016) and that is presented with total consensus by the different newspapers, as well as the contradiction due to deputies concentrating their votes on attacking corruption on 17th April, while the senators on Rousseff’s administration economic disaster on 11th May. That’s why Le Mondeopens its editorial on 18th April asserting ‘Rousseff is accused of having embellished the public accounts, but she is paying speacilly for her political mistakes’[iii] (Le Brésil au bord…, 2016), and ends up giving apropos some reasons for her loss of political support: ‘an expansionary fiscal policy at inopportune moment, manipulation of the calculations of the primary surpluses fostering mistrust, artificial control of electricity and oil prices, which will contribute afterwards to rising inflation’[iv] (Le Brésil au bord…, 2016).

Phillips and Miroff observed that ‘[t]he specifics of those charges were barely referred to during Sunday’s proceedings’, that comes to say in Phillips and Miroff’s opinion that vote ‘turned into a visceral repudiation of the 13 years that she and Lula have been in power’ (PHILLIPS; MIROFF, 2016) while for Jacobs of the New York Times, corruption scandal, shrinking economy and spreading disillusionment would be the hidden factors to impeach the president, once ‘[…] the government lost legitimacy, credibility and the ability to govern’ (JACOBS, 2016). This is mightily problematic once it shows the accusation seems to be just an excuse to impeach a president democratically elected who did lose political support, what will probably undermine the young Brazilian democracy that has not been considered fragile anymore. That is such a dangerous behaviour because one cannot legally include accusations not being part of the original denunciation under risk of harming the President’s defense and weakening the legality of the process. Also as stated Jacobs ‘the move to impeach Ms. Rousseff would cause lasting damage to Brazil’s young democracy, because from now on, any moment that we have a highly unpopular president, there will be pressure to start an impeachment process’ (JACOBS, 2016).

On the other hand Le Monde highlights Rousseff is not the first Brazilian president to use the proceeding she is accused of. However The French newspaper itemizes other factors susceptible to blame her such as the corruption in the Brazilian Oil Company Petrobras, a politic class implied in multiple wrongdoings, and the desperate decision of nominating Lula to a minister position supposedly to escape from judge Sergio Moro’s legal proceedings in the Car Wash operation. The New York Times also emphasizes experts and political analysts are divided about the juridical basis of the impeachment drive and notes ‘the budgetary sleight of hand that Ms. Rousseff is accused of employing to address the deficit has been used by many elected officials, though not on so large a scale’ (JACOBS, 2016). In that sense Le Monde’s editorial goes straight to the point of denouncing the budgetary sleight of hand as a simple pretext. Following the idea of a pretext The Guardian affirms in its editorial on 12th May Roussef started losing control due to the economic decline, but also to the independence granted to police and prosecutors whose consequence was ‘the realisation by many politicians that prosecutors could soon catch more and more of them in its net’ (The Guardian view on…, 2016). So pursuing the impeachment of the President according to the British newspaper would be a way to take control of the political process, avoiding that possibility and distracting attention from public opinion.

A slapstick comedy: the votes justification in the Lower House

Something that impressed negatively worldwide any person interested in this voting was – as showed the US News – the fact that in the Lower House ‘[i]mpeachment supporters invoked God, family and Brazil to justify their votes, often saying impeachment would help put an end to endemic corruption in the country’ (BARCHFIELD; SAVARESE. 2016), the real reason for the voting having been forgotten, as said María Martín from El País: ‘Gone are fiscal maneuvers, the real reason to open the process, completely forgotten by the noble members’[v] (MARTÍN, 2016). Martín does not hide her sarcasm comparing the lawmakers’ behaviour with children in a Brazilian popular 80’s TV show: ‘Parliamentarians reminded viewers of Xuxa, taking advantage of their direct participation in the program to greet eternally their mother, their husband, their lover, their cousin, their grandson, their neighbour, their friends and doorman’[vi] (MARTÍN, 2016).

For the Brazilians it was such a clear example that their representatives work for their own interests rather than for the purpose they were elected for. Another negative aspect was the atmosphere in the Congress on 17th April classified by Der Taggespiegel as a play [Theaterstück] or by El País and New York Times as a circus, that at times exposed according to Jonathan Watts from The Guardian ‘[…] the farcical side of Brazil’s democracy, such as the Women’s party that has only male deputies’ (WATTS, 2016). Admittedly the negative repercussion of the atmosphere in the Lower House influenced the Senate to be something more civilised on 11th May. Joe Leahy for the Financial Timeson 17th April painted an emblematic image of Brazil when he described the carnival-like atmosphere that could be seen in front of the house of congress whose front area divided by a metal grid was guarded by riot troops: ‘In spite of an oppressive sun, the atmosphere was carnival-like, with organisers mixing live entertainment with political speeches and some protesters drinking beer’ (LEAHY, 2016). In effect, although this appearance of relaxation, there is no consensus about that issue with the country living in a mood of political tension in the streets.

The main characters: the good, the bad and the ugly

The irony is until now Rousseff has not been accused of stealing – at least not yet, what is important to say regarding the Brazilian current events’ complex plot – although the Petrobras scandal implicated important members of her party, whilst ‘[…] the lawmakers leading the impeachment push, more than half of whom are under investigation themselves on suspicion of corruption, bribery and other misdeeds, including Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the lower house’ (PHILLIPS; MIROFF, 2016). About Cunha the Argentinian La Nación mentioned on 17th April that he seemed to have acted by revenge against the government. The Argentinian newspaper explained why Cunha strategically indicated the current accusation voting and not another of the nine other denunciations based for example on illegal campaign funding: ‘Vice President Michel Temer, first in the line of succession of Rousseff, belongs to that party [PMDB] and could fall along with her, since the campaign involved both’[vii] (De qué acusan exactamente…, 2016). Nonetheless even if Rousseff has not been charged with any crimes or implicated in any corruption scandals, ‘[…] she failed to secure the support she needed in Congress’, as affirmed Barchfield and Savarese in an article for The Independent. The two of them, as well as James Hider from the British The Times, brought the information that the vice president Michel Temer ‘could conceivably also face impeachment proceedings because he signed off on the some of the same fiscal maneuvers as Rousseff’ (BARCHFIELD; SAVARESE, 2016), showing in Brazil corruption seems to be spread everywhere, however the use of it comes across as responding to a political selectivity.

Charles de Saint Sauveur for the French Le Parisien described Temer, fed up of playing second fiddle, as a conspirator, a seemingly too strong word but at the same time suitable to that context: ‘This man of discreet appearance wants his part of light and does not hide it anymore. It was he who rang the victory bells pulling his centrist party of the Government coalition’[viii] (SAINT SAUVEUR. 2016). Philipp Lichterbeck from the German Der Tagesspiegel also refers to Temer’s actions as an open conspiracy against the President, ‘[…] Vice-President Temer has been openly conspiring for weeks against her’[ix](LICHTERBECK, 2016), and highlights the fact Temer – whose name appears associated with corruption cases – has pitiful voting intentions in recent surveys, ‘a man, two percent of Brazilians would choose and whose name appears in connection with the corruption scandal’[x] (LICHTERBECK, 2016). That’s why the General Secretary of the Organisation of American States, Luis Almagro, revealed on the 4th May he is consulting the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, alleging juridical insecurity due to the fact of the amount of Brazilian representatives implied in cases of corruption and the legality of the causes presented against the president.

That shows this trial is mostly political even if also juridical once it appears to be happening because she lost her support basis in Congress admittedly by the reason of her lack of political negotiation skills that ‘[…] hampered her ability to work with opposition members in Congress as well as key figures in her governing coalition’ (JACOBS, 2016). In that sense Le Monde sharply said president Rousseff will never gather a Congress she has not been able to talk to and delineated her personality in derogatory terms: ‘The one who is described as curt and arrogant does not have the talent of his mentor, Lula, for political articulation, as say the Brazilians’[xi] (Le Brésil au bord…, 2016), an indispensable skill for a political system dealing with 26 parties represented in Congress from a total of 37 existing nowadays in Brazil. That’s why The Guardian’s editorial on 12th May states the failed Brazilian political model should be on trial instead of President Rousseff once the system allows an election result with ‘a president who has received a majority of the popular vote faces a legislature in which his or her party is lucky if it has 20% of the seats’ (The Guardian view on…, 2016) giving rise to a plethora of political parties and reducing the Congress efficiency.

A hameletian drama: a coup or not a coup?

Many different newspapers mentioned the process has been referred as a coup specially by Rousseff’s defense. Le Monde for example considered that term resulted in an effective politic marketing for the government, permitting it to mobilise the support of its militants; on the other hand, President Rousseff had recourse to juridical instruments ensuring her defense in respect to the law. Nevertheless there is no consensus if the budgetary sleight of hand is a crime of responsibility specially punishable with such a heavy sentence. The idea of coup makes sense when we see claims of the process legality pointing out to the respect of the constitution, to the right of defense, and to the regard to the rite of impeachment process, however we have not seen a plausible juridical justification of any crime perpetrated by the President – more specifically with intention to damage public accounts. That is the point questioning the legitimacy of this process; also we cannot accept any claim towards the struggle against corruption to justify this process, because it is all about removing a president legitimately elected without congress support whose process is driven by many representatives accused of or even already responding for corruption in justice. Once the public opinion as well as the jurists arguments are divided in their understanding and Rousseff’s party has still a strong force among social movements there is a high risk of violence in the streets and no agreement for the government that will replace her in power. In that sense Le Monde foresees a hardened politic climate once ‘the leaders of the opposition in the front line in the procedure for removal are not best placed to wash the disgust that seized the Brazilians for their political class’[xii] (Le Brésil au bord…, 2016), what places Brazil in a zone of uncertainty at high risk.

In general the international media has been critic to the impeachment process against Rousseff highlighting the overspread corruption without avoiding showing the government mistakes. The exception would be Mary Anastasia O’Grady from The Wall Street Journal with some unwarranted opinions. O’Grady accuses Rousseff to be as corrupt as her adversaries what comes to pass sentence on a President who has not yet had any confirmed charge against her. Then O’Grady dishonestly and ridiculously considers the Congress voting to take over Rousseff from power ‘a national referendum on the PT effort to bring bolivarianism – both its socialist economics and its political absolutism – to Brazil’ (O’GRADY, 2016). From a journal with neoliberal basis O’Grady criticizes the Brazilian constitution for giving ‘the government almost unlimited power to intervene in the economy’ (O’GRADY, 2016) seeing a causal link with Brazil’s political system being riddled with conflicts of interest.

Epilogue: an open work

For eyes like mine, used to analysing novels, all these turnabouts might be seen as a good way to keep the plot tension in a high level holding the public opinion’s attention, a strategy used by Sérgio Moro inspired by the Italian Mani Pulite operation of using selective leaks to keep the subjects always fresh in the press. That is important for the Brazilian young democracy, because it promotes more interest in the population and a wish for more political participation, something that the Brazilian elite, very traditional, is definitely not about neither to understand nor to accept. At the same time, such a strategy has been accused of a partisan use to weaken Rousseff’s mandate, adding Justice as a parallel party as well as Brazilian press.

This process is not about defending Rousseff’s mandate, it is rather all about defending Brazilian democracy. It is important to say that the respect to the law and to the Constitution is not enough to grant legitimacy to this process, once the lack of massive popular and international support is an evidence of the danger of pushing it up to the last consequences. Also the popular claim to a fight against corruption is not being respected by provisional President Temer who nominated as ministers seven politicians responding in justice for wrongdoings. In this respect the journalists of The Intercept advises against a hidden purpose in impeaching Rousseff which is ‘to provide a cathartic sense for the public that corruption has been addressed, all designed to exploit Temer’s newfound control to prevent further investigations of the dozens upon dozens of actually corrupt politicians populating the leading parties’ (GREENWALD; FISHMAN; MIRANDA, 2016). Accordingly Francis Franca for Deutsche Welle warns that a massive hangover will come after along with sobriety once the euphoria wears off and Brazilian people will still have to deal with an economic crisis, unemployment and inflation, not to mention ‘that all these reforms [political, fiscal, and social insurance systems] will have to be decided by a largely corrupt Congress’ (FRANCA, 2016). The editorial of The Guardian on 12th May claims also for reforms in order to make politics more workable and honest in Brazil, but it considers ‘the new government that the vice-president, Michel Temer, is assembling will be capable of such a leap is, unfortunately, very doubtful’ (The Guardian view on…, 2016).

In any story that takes into account an impeachment process there is no conceivable happy end, because it causes a social trauma. Moises Costa comes up with a third alternative gaining some congressional support that could reduce such a trauma: calling an early election. In this case people would decide who should lead, however it is not a simple measure, requiring Congress approval once ‘[t]he Brazilian constitution doesn’t include provisions for such a process’, also it is unclear which effects there could be ‘since there is no clear alternative political leadership capable of mustering enough popular or parliamentary support to pass the necessary legislation to engineer an economic or political turnaround’ (COSTA, 2016).

The plot of this script is still an open work that has been performed on backstage of Brazilian politics. For now the critics opinion has been divided and it is still unsure if the Brazilian audience will applaud such a spectacle or will instead occupy the stage. As far as we can see Brazilians have not been talented for a brechtian theatre.

Bibliografic references

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FRANCA, Francis. With Rousseff suspended, what’s next for Brazil? 12.05.2016. Disponível em: http://www.dw.com/en/opinion-with-rousseff-suspended-whats-next-for-brazil/a-19252422

GATINOIS, Claire. Au Brésil, la descente aux enfers de Dilma Rousseff. 18.04.2016. Disponível em: http://www.lemonde.fr/ameriques/article/2016/04/18/les-deputes-bresiliens-se-prononcent-pour-la-destitution-de-dilma-rousseff_4903914_3222.html

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GREENWALD, Glenn; FISHMAN, Andrew; MIRANDA, David. After vote to remove Brazil’s president, key opposition figure holds meetings in Washington. 18.04.2016. Disponível em: https://theintercept.com/2016/04/18/after-vote-to-remove-brazils-president-key-opposition-figure-holds-meetings-in-washington/

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LICHTERBECK, Philipp. Rousseff wehrt sich gegen Amtsenthebung. 19.04.2016. Disponível em: http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/brasilien-rousseff-wehrt-sich-gegen-amtsenthebung/13464942.html

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[i] PhD in French Literature at UFRJ and Bachelor’s degree in International Relations in PUC MG.

[ii] ‘Man versteht in diesen Tagen nicht, warum sich Leute noch für House of Cards interessieren. Kriegen sie keine Nachrichten aus der brasilianischen Politik?’.

[iii] ‘Mme Rousseff est accusée d’avoir enjolivé les comptes publics, mais elle paie surtout ses erreurs politiques’.

[iv] ‘une politique budgétaire expansionniste à contretemps, une manipulation des calculs des excédents primaires suscitant la défiance, un contrôle artificiel des prix de l’électricité et du pétrole, qui contribueront après coup à faire galoper l’inflation’.

[v] ‘Atrás quedaron las maniobras fiscales, verdadero motivo para abrir el proceso, completamente olvidadas por los nobles diputados’.

[vi] ‘Los parlamentarios recordaban a los telespectadores de Xuxa, que aprovechaban su participación en directo en el programa para saludar eternamente a su madre, a su marido, a su amante, al primo, al nieto, a su vecino, a sus amigos y al portero’.

[vii] ‘El vicepresidente Michel Temer, primero en la línea de sucesión de Rousseff, pertenece a ese partido [PMDB] y podría caer junto con ella, ya que la campaña involucró a ambos’.

[viii] ‘Cet homme d’appareil discret veut sa part de lumière et ne s’en cache plus. C’est lui qui a sonné l’hallali en retirant son parti centriste de la coalition gouvernementale’.

[ix] ‘Vize-Präsident Michel Temer konspiriert seit Wochen offen gegen sie’.

[x] ‘einem Mann, den zwei Prozent der Brasilianer wählen würden und dessen Name in Verbindung mit der Korruptionsaffäre auftaucht’.

[xi] ‘Celle que l’on décrit comme cassante et arrogante n’a pas le talent de son mentor, Lula, pour ‘articulation’ politique, comme disent les Brésiliens’.

[xii] ‘les dirigeants de l’opposition en première ligne dans la procédure de destitution ne sont pas les mieux placés pour laver le dégoût qui s’est emparé des Brésiliens pour leur classe politique’.

Sobre grupopotenciasmedias

Professor de Relações Internacionais http://lattes.cnpq.br/9222226371192929
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