A False Sense of Democracy: Dilma Rousseff as a Scapegoat in Brazil


As Dilma Rousseff steps down from her position as the first female President of Brazil, some speculate that this is a victory for democracy and a step in the right direction. The removal, instigated by an impeachment trial and shrouded by rumors of corruption and fiscal violations, comes after a two-year process headed by the former president of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha. Rousseff was the primary choice of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a man now facing corruption charges of his own. And at the time, she had taken up the mantle as leader of the leftist Workers’ Party, her election proving to be an enormous exercise in democratic election.

By appearances, Rousseff is being brought down from a legacy of corruption during a period of significant economic turmoil and a lack of consistent popularity—so what’s the issue? Perhaps this victory is only a superficial one; although Rousseff is not a pure or innocent figure in this mess, she is hardly the larger culprit—and what does it mean for the future when the bigger criminals in the game are the ones orchestrating the legal efforts?

A Troubled Foundation

Although Rousseff’s election was democratic, it was hardly a unanimous event. According to a Huffington Post account of the vote, she won with 54.5 million votes of the 143 million possible; however, competition against candidate Aécio Neves of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party lost her roughly another 50 million votes. According to that same report, if one accounts for abstentions, blank, null, and protest votes, as well as those voting for Neves, then Rousseff did not win by a majority at all.

At the same time these voting numbers were taking place, Brazil was under the impression that, following Rousseff’s term, the Workers’ Party would continue to see dominance in the 2018 campaign of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is Rousseff’s predecessor and arguably one of the biggest icons of the Workers’ Party. 2014 has since passed, however, and the situation is far darker. Currently, Lula da Silva—affectionately known as Lula—is now the subject of his own investigation. Federal prosecutors have filed corruption charges against him on several accounts, and in particular corrupt kickbacks and donations in relation to the Brazilian oil giant, Petrobras.

Lula and Rousseff have quite a bit in common when it comes to problems with Petrobras. Prosecutors in Lula’s case claim that he did not pocket illegal funds during his presidency, but rather gave it to oil executives, Workers’ Party leaders, and lawmakers, all with the intention of sustaining the strength of the Party. Rousseff, on the other hand, has claimed that the nature of her impeachment is uncalled for, and akin to a coup; her crime was a series of budgetary tricks to hide the growing economic deficit. These allocations amounted to some $11 billion borrowed from state banks to fund social programs associated with the Workers’ Party.

Rouseff’s involvement with Petrobras is a bit more complicated, and requires a timeline. Rousseff was chairman of Petrobras between 2003 and 2010, when plenty of the corruption in Petrobras recently revealed by Operation Car Wash took place. Operation Car Wash, pursued by Brazilian law enforcement to pursue and discover bribes in R$6.2 billion, is currently leading to massive internal upheaval in Brazil as dozens of significant figures are implicated. In the larger picture, Rousseff’s fall is far, but she is one of many.

Behind the Curtain

The question is not whether or not Dilma Rousseff has done anything wrong—that is almost certainly true. Although her impeachment rests on the grounds of her decisions surrounding budgetary reallocation, Petrobras’s vast corruption allegations also largely took place under her purview. What makes the impeachment trial tenuous, and subsequently makes its value and contribution to the advancement of democracy questionable, is the driving force behind it. The face of the impeachment trial thus far has been Eduardo Cunha, an evangelical Christian radio commentator and former speaker of the lower house. Accompanying Cunha is Mr. Michel Temer, the interim president and former vice president of Rousseff, a member of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party.

Since his vigorous assault of Rousseff’s qualification to retain her position, Cunha has faced legal charges of his own. The lower house of Congress in Brazil, of which Cunha is a former speaker, has since voted to expel the lawmaker on the grounds of graft charges. The vote was perilous to Cunha, coming in at 450 to 10; this sudden change means that, amongst other things, Cunha will lose the legal privileges of a federal legislator and can now face imprisonment. Mr. Temer, meanwhile, has so many ties to Rousseff and the Workers’ Party that he already stands on a perilous edge, and holds approval ratings as low as Rousseff’s due to his conservative inclinations and racial biases.

In fact, the men who have accompanied Mr. Temer in his rise to power have already begun to resign: his anticorruption minister and his planning minister, ironically, have forcibly resigned due to allegations that they attempted to use their powers to stifle investigations surrounding Petrobras and Operation Car Wash. Mr. Temer is technically set to hold his position for the duration of Rousseff’s original term, through 2018, but with the increasing scandal it is unclear if he will stay in power.

But Wasn’t This Democratic?

Brazil’s current situation is representative of a few things. The first, that when a state has a significantly diverse population, multiple candidates, and a voting populace who also submits null or blank votes in droves, the democratically elected candidate is not necessarily always the one that the greatest majority of the state actually desired. Now, this is as much a criticism on the system as it is the behavior of the people. Voter apathy is nothing new, though—nations around the world who identify as democratic regularly contend with the struggle to elect the most largely desirable and representative candidate, and to combat issues such as voting numbers, turnout, and legitimate nominations (i.e., null votes over fake names, fictional people, etc.). Brazil’s situation is critical because, amidst these democratic struggles, hidden layers of corruption are constantly shifting and maneuvering to take control of resources.

Eduardo Cunha’s position as a leader in Rousseff’s impeachment immediately calls it into question not only because of possible political machinations (rather than simple integrity-based questioning), but because Cunha himself is a culprit of corrupt dealings. And although Rousseff has made mistakes, her errors are by no means the most damaging—she is but a fish in the sea, so far as corruption in Brazil is concerned. However, the time for questioning the validity of Rousseff’s impeachment is past; Mr. Temer has taken up her seat, so to speak, and now the future of Brazil is in question, particularly given the fragility of its economy.

The curiosity here is that this has all been regarded as democratic. If we define democracy in general terms, in that it promotes majority rule with prioritization of values such as justice and liberty, and a representation of equal minority rights, then it is hard to say that any of this has really been democratic. By numbers, it is exciting to say that a country with 143 million eligible voters engaged in a democratic election to vote for a woman to be president. However, the reality is far more complicated: Dilma Rousseff was the pre-selected choice of former president Lula de Silva, a man who had championed the Workers’ Party, a larger body that has dominated much of Brazilian politics over the last decade. That Rousseff won, then, was no real shock; although she clearly had competition, it would be foolish to say that she won standing on her own two feet, or that her efforts were purely her own.

Furthermore, Mr. Temer’s failure to name a single woman or Afro-Brazilian to his cabinet of ministers, as well as his own recent legal troubles—having been found guilty of violating campaign finance limits—is hardly a nod in the right direction either. Rousseff did not have a significant or decisive victory, but it seems unlikely that Mr. Temer would be president at all had he not succeeded based on the claims afforded him as vice president. What ought to be a purification of corruption from the leading ranks of Brazil is instead a very tired case of ‘more of the same’.

The trouble with Brazil’s corruption is not simply a question of judgment by the people, a case of apathy in the voting populace, or even any grand exercise in stealth by corrupt financiers in the biggest companies in industries such as oil. Rather, the issue is that the degree of corruption, and its incessant presence, is practically old-hat to the people of Brazil. Rousseff’s impeachment and Operation Car Wash ought to be a sigh of relief felt around the world, and particularly amongst the Brazilian people, but it is not. There is a sense of complacency amongst those in charge in Brazil where corruption is concerned, and those who might claim to feel relief that Rousseff is on her way out are only fooling themselves—Rousseff’s absence offers no real relief, because her impeachment solves very little in the grand scheme of things.

The very man who urged on Rousseff’s impeachment has undergone his own trial, and the man who has replaced her as president has also been convicted of a campaign finance crime that makes it illegal for him to even attain the presidency via proper election. It is, in some ways, a stroke of luck for Temer that these circumstances came to be.

That Dilma Rousseff was caught borrowing funds to support social programs that largely benefited the poor so early into her presidency is simply unusual in a country where corruption so often goes unnoticed. Petrobras’s belated investigations, and Rousseff’s implications in it, are just one example of that chance likelihood. And although arranging funds for social programs seems altruistic—if altruistic politics are an accepted concept—the method behind the action was certainly illegal. Rousseff borrowed money from public banks, such as the Banco do Brasil and the Caixa Econômica Federal; this type of loan is illegal according to fiscal responsibility law in Brazil. Why? These loans can, unfortunately, be used to manipulate public accounts—which, on a governmental scale, can be critical. What does seem to ring true is that, by allowing Rousseff to be the face of this slew of anti-corruption efforts, people are being potentially misled as to the intentions of the government. The implication here is that Rousseff is not a political heavyweight being brought to justice; she is, instead, a scapegoat to distract from everything else happening around her. Men like Temer and Cunha are not rare finds in Brazilian politics, after all—they are entirely typical.

Where Is This Coming From, and Where Are We Going?

Corruption is hardly new in Brazil, both internally and concerning its international reputation. Ultimately, although Rousseff did make a mistake, it is important to note that her impeachment is not a victory against corruption. That false sense of security some may sense—though it is important to note that disillusionment is no stranger to the Brazilian people—is at the cost of incredible political maneuvering. Rousseff was left vulnerable by the Petrobras investigations, as well as economic downturn, and opposition such as Cunha saw a golden opportunity to take her down, as well as the Workers’ Party, from the leading position.

When a majority of Brazilian Congress is facing corruption charges, it is foolish to assume that good intentions rest anywhere in between. A problem with dynasties is that people can rest too much confidence in the value of a name. For example, it seems likely that former president Lula, when he backed Rousseff, put too much confidence in his own national affections, as well as the strength of the Workers’ Party, rather than on Rousseff’s genuine qualifications as president. This possibility is certainly plausible, given that Rousseff’s primary previous experience is with Petrobras, not with major governing. Furthermore, intimate reflection on her character reveals further problematic qualities unsuitable for a tense position: “her blustery arrogance, her refusal to listen to even her closest aides and her apparent inability to understand just how much trouble she was in, right to the very end.” In many ways, Rousseff was a downfall waiting to happen in Brazilian politics.

If one considers the number of corruption charges in current government, as well as the sheer depth of it all, it is hard to see a cheery future. These problems are not new to Brazil, but the intensity of the spotlight on them is something newer: people go on trial, yes, but often are able to get by under-punished and unnoticed. It may not be the case this time for everyone, which is not a perfect outcome, but is certainly a step in the right direction. Corruption itself is not the most critical concern for Brazilians, but its outcomes are—the people face economic peril, governmental incompetence, and with the current leadership of Mr. Temer, racial tensions. In a country wrought with complicated racial diversity based around notions of equality dating back to the colonization of the New World, and economic tensions between extremely divided classes, it is hard to see a future that doesn’t put the endurance of corrupt politicians to the ultimate test.


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About Laura Thompson

Laura Thompson is a political theory staff writer for The World Mind. She is pursuing a BA in literature with a double minor in history and international studies. | Her focuses and primary studies include 18th & 19th century literature, human rights as it relates to genocide, and the study of the rise of alternative right politics historically. | Contact her at: lt3857a@student.american.edu