Brazilian Democracy at a Crossroads

For anyone following Brazilian politics in recent weeks, it may seem more like a TV drama than reality. But for those on the ground, it has been, well, confusing. With sentiments aside, let us focus on the mechanics of President Dilma Rousseff´s potential impeachment.

The details: President Rousseff is accused of committing what loosely translates to creative accounting. She has borrowed money, primarily to support a large increase in social programs. However she did so without the approval of the legislative branch, thus violating the Financial Responsibility Act, a law first enacted to restrict the President´s action in fear of falling into hyperinflation. Since then, both the Brazilian House and Senate have approved the investigation and judgment of President Rousseff.

In the mist of this process, there has been drama, so much drama. The chairman of the House of Representatives, evangelical front member Eduardo Cunha, has had his title removed due to ongoing corruption investigations. The new chairman vetoed the vote at the House of Representatives; only a day later to realize he had no power to do so. To complicate things further, a historic investigation, “Lava Jato” (Operation Carwash),  has revealed a variety of corruption schemes leading to Former President Lula. After audio of incriminating conversations between Lula and Rousseff was released, Lula was made chief of staff. By doing so, Rousseff prevented further investigation into his records by Operation Carwash, due to certain privileges that members of the executive branch receive.

So what happens now? The Brazilian Senate has 180 days to decide whether Rousseff is guilty or not. There will be speeches, evidence, and most certainly political turmoil.

"There will be speeches, evidence, and most certainly political turmoil."

The country is divided. First about the legality of impeachment, and secondly some are divided, mostly along class and regional lines, about the decisions made by Rousseff´s government. Many poor Brazilians, as well as many academics, champion her record on women´s rights, Bolsa Familia (welfare program), and Minha Casa Minha vida (Low-income housing program) that has lifted millions out of misery.

The opposition consists mostly of business and middle class families in the southeast and south of Brazil. Various corruption scandals, such as MensalãoPetrolão, and Operation Carwash, have resulted in tremendous anger. This is on top of unorthodox economic decisions, including overspending on unnecessary infrastructure for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

Brazil is a complicated place. The last impeached president is now a member of the House of Representatives. The senate leader, and the Vice President, are all embroiled in their own corruption scandals. Brazil elected Rousseff with almost 55 million votes, yet more than 10 million people recently took to the streets to call for her impeachment.

What is for certain is that Brazil is in a recession, unemployment is through the roof, international evaluations continue to give low rankings to our education system, and corruption has run rampant throughout its political system. Whether this impeachment process will become, as some fear, simply political maneuvering for an exchange of power, a coup, or growing pains for a young democracy, is yet to be seen.

Brazil is fascinating, Brazil is unique, and Brazil is dangerous. Our democracy is only 25 years old and there have been two impeachments. As I stand here, I fear. I fear for the future of democracy in Brazil, I fear for Brazil’s stability, and I fear for a return to a military government.

Brazil is fascinating, Brazil is unique, and Brazil is powerful. In its early years as a democracy, Brazil has already fought hyperinflation, financial crisis, and lifted millions out of poverty. So now I stand here and also hope. I hope this will be a growing pain for a maturing democracy, I hope for a Brazil without corruption, I hope for a Brazil with robust civic engagement,  and I hope for a more just Brazil.  

Stay tuned.

 -Naama Mendes is an economics professor at Unicesumar in Brazil