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Dilma Rousseff and Foundational Crises

Dilma Rousseff and Foundational Crises

A vote in the lower house of Congress has brought Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff one step closer to being removed from office. But, during her time in New York to sign the Paris Agreement on climate change, Rousseff stated that there is “no legal foundation” for the impeachment vote, going as far as to call it a “coup.”

To start, President Rousseff came into the proceedings vastly unpopular, with an approval rate quickly falling below 12%. Brazil is in the midst of one of its worst economic recessions in decades, overseen by a government that is entrenched in corruption scandals that implicate over 40% of the current National Congress. Most legislators under investigation are suspected of taking bribes in relation to contracts with state controlled petroleum corporation Petrobras. Distrust and suspicion of the government abound in Brazil, a longstanding sentiment among Brazilians exacerbated by this recent scandal.

The economic crisis is similarly dire. The Brazilian economy last saw growth in 2014 and may be 8% smaller at the end of 2016. The GDP per person continues to plummet as the prices of Brazilian commodities like oil and iron ore similarly fall. Rousseff’s administration has not been effective in fixing the economy nor in countering its adverse effects. In fact, Brazil’s public debt is higher than Japan’s and almost double that of Greece. Inflation and stagnation have tainted Rousseff’s time in office, but current congressional efforts are all aimed at the impeachment case, rather than solving the country’s underlying economic issues.

The charges that threaten to eject Rousseff from office are a fatal mix of the country’s current crises. She is accused of manipulating public accounts and borrowing from state banks ahead of the last election in order to hide budgetary problems and pay for welfare programs, essentially ignoring federal fiscal responsibility laws. Lying about the fiscal deficit misrepresented the state of the economy, giving Rousseff an advantage over her challenger Aecio Neves in the 2014 presidential elections. Not personal corruption, but close enough to worry a public already suspicious of her administration. Rousseff does not necessarily refute these claims, but holds that this has all been done before and was a common practice among her predecessors, the only difference here being the fact that she is a woman. It is true that the charges against Rousseff are relatively minor and that her performance in relation to the recession most likely played a part in the decision to impeach. But the impeachment is not a coup, as she claims. Some do speculate, though, that the impeachment went through mostly because of dissatisfaction with Rousseff herself.  

Rousseff still has to face a vote in the Senate, but it is not likely that she will fare any better there than she did in the House. Many in the government are eager to see her replaced by her vice president, Michel Temer. If and when a majority in the Senate approve Rousseff’s impeachment, she will have to step down for 180 days and Temer will take her place while she defends herself in trial. But while polls indicate that 61% of Brazilians want to see Rousseff impeached, the numbers for Temer are not much more promising: 58% of people want him, too, removed from office.

Brazil is facing a crisis, not just of the presidency, but of the entire system. There is a certain measure of irony in the fact that the Congress will be overseeing Rousseff’s impeachment trial and holding her fate in their hands when many of its members are faced with corruption charges- charges much stronger than those against the president. The country is obviously ready for a change, but is unseating Rousseff the change that it needs? It is impossible to say with certainty whether or not impeachment would bring stability or further the chaos, but it is clear that Brazil’s stability is important for democracy in Latin America.

It is also important to look more closely at Rousseff’s claim that she is being held at different standards because she is a woman. The public often reacts much differently to accusations and evidence of corruption among men than they do to that of women. Women are less likely to be caught, for example, in sex scandals. This has nothing to do with personality and everything to do with expectations: women in office have to work much harder to prove themselves to their male colleagues and to the public that they serve. They have to be more serious, more productive. And when they deviate from this and are found corrupt, they are punished much more harshly than their male counterparts.

There is legal foundation for Rousseff’s impeachment, though it may be shaky. Her claim of sexism may not be a reason enough to dismiss the charges against her, but it is an important claim to consider when following the impeachment proceedings in the coming months. 

- Alexie Schwarz

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