Brazilian Senate ousts President Dilma Rousseff

On August 31, after six days of sometimes raucous debate, the Brazilian Senate voted to remove President Dilma Rousseff from office.  Her former vice president, Michel Temer, who has been the acting president since Rousseff was suspended in May, now will be president until the next national elections in 2018.  This action essentially punishes President Rousseff for trying to protect government programs that have helped to bring 30 million Brazilians out of poverty since 2002.

In the short period in which Mr. Temer has been “acting”, he has made clear that his full accession to power would be a victory for Brazilian elites, their right-wing political allies, and for multinational corporations.   But Brazilian workers, students, minorities, women and the left intend to mount such an opposition to Temer, whom they characterize as an “illegitimate” president who has come to power through a coup which ignores the will of the people, that he will not be able to impose his program.

A pretext to impeach

The impeachment and, now, removal of Dilma Rousseff from the presidency was carried out with the  pretext of punishing her for budgetary adjustments she made in 2014, which her enemies characterize  as a “crime of responsibility”.  Brazil at that time had entered into a bad economic recession, and Rousseff had moved budgetary items around, making temporary use of state bank funds, so as to protect social program initiated under her predecessor, President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, and continued under her administration.

These programs have pulled 30 million poor Brazilians out of poverty, but they are resented by the rich elites and especially by the right wing caucuses in the Brazilian Congress, who think that such things are too good for poor, largely non-white people, and that the money that goes to them should be used to pay off domestic and foreign creditors instead.

So they claim that her budgetary adjustments amount to a “crime of responsibility”, a legalistic formula that has to be invoked to impeach and remove an incumbent Brazilian president.  Rousseff and her supporters say that the budgetary adjustments in question were not illegal and follow the precedent of similar actions by former presidents.

But many of Rousseff’s supporters think that the budgetary issue was a pretext.  There is strong evidence that the real reason for removing Rousseff was to put Temer into power so that he could shut down corruption investigations being carried out under “Operation Lava Jato  (Jet Car Wash).  This is the nickname for an investigation of a vast scheme of bribery and kickbacks involving subcontracting with Brazil’s immense national oil company, PETROBRAS. It is a scandal which has ensnared a huge number of politicians, officials and businessmen and women already.  Most of the people in Congress who worked for Rousseff’s impeachment are implicated.  Indeed, Rousseff is one of the few major Brazilian political figures who has not been accused of corruption of this type. Temer is also credibly accused of major corruption, and may be a target for impeachment himself in the not-too-distant future.  The former and present speakers of the Chamber of Deputies and the President of the Senate are also being investigated.

The struggle continues

After both Houses of Congress had moved to impeach Rousseff, her trial in the Senate began last week. The first two days were taken up with preliminary maneuvering. On Monday, August 29, Rousseff made an impassioned speech in the Senate in which she justified the legality of her actions and denounced the plan to remove her as a “coup”.  On Wednesday, the Senate took the vote.

To remove Rousseff from power, the vote went 61 for and 20 against; evidently all 81 Senators voted. Support for Rousseff came from her own Workers’ Party, from the Communist Party of Brazil and a few others.   The whole of the right voted to remove her.

But a second motion, to forbid Rousseff from holding public office for eight years, fell short of the 54 votes that would have been needed; 16 senators who voted to remove the president voted “no” and another three abstained on this second vote.  This guarantees that Rousseff will continue to play a leading role in Brazilian electoral politics.

In a post-coup speech, Rousseff indicated that she aims to do just that.   “[I ask my supporters] not to desist in the struggle. They think they defeated us, but they are deluded.  I know that we are all going to struggle. There will be [organized] against them the firmest, inexhaustible and energetic opposition that a coup government could undergo.”

The grassroots steps up

Mass organizations and movements in Brazil immediately took up the challenge.  The National Students’ Union (UNE) issued a statement committing itself not to recognize the coup government and called for massive street protests against the reactionary program of austerity and privatization that Temer’s regime was already implementing before Wednesday’s vote in the Senate.

Brazilian organized labor has been organizing and demonstrating against Rousseff’s removal since the issue first arose.  Vagner Freitas, President of the Central Workers Union (CUT), the country’s largest labor federation, announced that ‘CUT is in mourning” because of the deposing of Rousseff.  He laid out a detailed explanation as to what workers can now expect from the Temer administration in terms of revocation of workers’ rights, austerity, cutbacks in social welfare and massive privatization of Brazil’s state enterprises, natural resources and infrastructure, including in the all-important petroleum industry; now transnational corporations will have full access to Brazil’s petroleum reserves.  But Brazilian unions are also not going to take all this lying down.  Freitas announced continued mass mobilizations and a general strike for September 22.

How will the United States government react?  There has been action in this country to demand that the Obama administration not lend any aid and comfort to the people who impeached and now have deposed Rousseff.  The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the AFL-CIO leadership and 40 members of the  U.S. House of Representatives, including the veteran representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) have all spoken out strongly against Brazil’s constitutional coup.  Efforts to keep our government from recognizing Temer as president of Brazil will continue, though initial signs are that the State Department will recognize the change in government; a State Department spokesperson hastened to comment that the Brazilian Senate’s action was in conformity with the Brazilian Constitution and that the United States looked forward to working with the Temer government.

At writing, Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela have withdrawn their ambassadors.  Cuba has denounced today’s actions in Brazil’s Senate.

Photo: AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.