By Alex Cuadros
Widespread anger over corruption helped to bring about Rousseff’s downfall, but in getting rid of her the Congress has swapped one President tainted by scandal for another.
Early last Thursday morning, after Brazil’s senators voted to begin an impeachment trial against President Dilma Rousseff, fireworks crackled in cities around the country. Rousseff was out at last. During her five and a half years in office, she had presided over the country’s deepest recession since the nineteen-thirties, and had been caught in the middle of a giant corruption scandal. Thursday’s vote forced her to step down for the duration of the impeachment trial, and no one expects her to return to power. But by the standards of the recent mass protests against Rousseff, Thursday’s celebrations were muted. In Brasília, the capital, a news photographer’s lens captured a plume of smoke from fireworks rising above the vast lawn of the Esplanade of Ministries, near the National Congress building, where a small group of demonstrators had gathered. Most Brazilians had wanted to see Rousseff go—but now they had to worry about what comes next.
Brazilian politics suffers from chronic dysfunction. More than two dozen political parties hold seats in Congress, and because most of them lack a recognizable ideology governing coalitions are stitched together through patronage—a ministry here, a state bank there. This system explains how Rousseff originally came to team up with Michel Temer, her Vice-President, who is now Brazil’s acting President. Temer was not a member of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, and never bought into its declared aims of social justice. A lawyer and career politician, Temer was a member of the old political establishment, and Rousseff relied on his skills as a power broker to help her projects get through the legislature. But when public opinion turned against her, so did he. In recent months, he had been openly plotting to take her place.
For more than a decade, Brazil, a deeply unequal society, has been governed by leaders who claim to speak for the poor. Temer represents a break from that approach. At seventy-five, he has sunken cheeks, wears his gray hair slicked back, and speaks a stilted Portuguese associated with the old, urban upper class. A political rival once compared him to a “butler from a horror movie.” On Thursday afternoon, when he made his first televised Presidential address, he promised to deliver “national salvation” and announced a plan to put up millions of billboards around the country that read “Don’t speak of crisis; work!” His voice caught twice during his remarks. When he paused to take a sip from a glass of water, his lips curled into an awkward smile.
Widespread anger over corruption helped to bring about Rousseff’s downfall. But, in getting rid of her, the Congress has swapped one President tainted by scandal for another. Temer leads the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, which, like the Workers’ Party, has been implicated in the petrolão (or “big oil”) scandal that saw billions of dollars funnelled from the state oil company to off-the-books campaign coffers and Swiss bank accounts. And while Rousseff is not suspected of direct involvement in the scheme, Temer is—as are several of his newly appointed cabinet ministers.
Many Brazilians wanted Rousseff out, but they weren’t calling for Temer. Surveys show that just two per cent of Brazilians would vote for him for President, and that sixty per cent want to see him impeached, too. So far, though, few outside Rousseff’s base on the left have made any public show of disapproval. Some Brazilians are tempted to blame the country’s age-old corruption problems on the Workers’ Party alone, and many others, after a period of bitter political polarization, are simply tired, and have given up on politics altogether. A few small but vocal groups have even called for the military to take over and rule, as it did from 1964 to 1985.
Like many of her supporters, Rousseff considers her impeachment a coup masquerading as legislative procedure. She has made allusions to the military dictatorship, during which she was imprisoned and tortured for her role in an urban guerrilla group. Her rhetoric hasn’t helped her case, but there’s no question that the impeachment process has been essentially political, more about her record as a leader than about the technical issue at hand: whether she committed a “ crime of responsibility” when she authorized spending without congressional permission.
The more urgent issue now, though, concerns Temer’s rise to power. His path to the Presidency may have followed the letter of the law, but he was not directly elected, and he has made few gestures toward representative government. In a country where more than half the population is black or mixed race, his new cabinet is all white and all male. Three of his new ministers are the sons of regional political bosses. Many worry that he might undercut the country’s recent advances against political corruption and graft. But the empresariado—the business class—likes Temer. He has promised to stabilize the economy without asking the wealthy to carry more of the tax burden. To close a gaping budget deficit, he has proposed amending the constitution so that the government is allowed to spend less on health care and education. His advisers have even spoken of limiting the scope of Bolsa Família, the welfare program that pays fourteen million families a dollar or two a day if they send their kids to school. These proposals are far more radical than any put forward by Rousseff’s conservative opponent during the 2014 election.
A majority of Brazilians want a bigger say in the future course of their country. “The country should have the chance to choose its President,” Robério da Costa Oliveira, a thirty-one-year-old shipping-company employee, told me last month, at an anti-Rousseff rally in São Paulo. His dream candidate was Joaquim Barbosa, an Afro-Brazilian who grew up poor and went on to serve as chief justice of the Supreme Court, where he presided over a groundbreaking corruption case against the Workers’ Party. But new elections would require Temer to resign, or be impeached himself. And with the political class now coalescing around him, both scenarios look unlikely: unless those who marched against Rousseff take to the streets again, Temer may be here to stay. Three decades after the military ceded power to a civilian government, Brazil’s latest experiment with democracy is facing yet another identity crisis.
Alex Cuadros is the author of “Brazillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence, and Hope in an American Country,” published by Spiegel & Grau.