Brazil protests: Do calls for Rousseff impeachment signal progress?

The rallying of hundreds of thousands of people could be a sign that Brazil's democracy is hitting its stride.

Nelson Antoine/AP
Demonstrators march to demand the impeachment of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sunday, March 15, 2015. Brazilians are demonstrating amid an inquiry into a kickback scheme at state-run oil company Petrobras, which prosecutors call the biggest corruption case yet uncovered in Brazil.

With hundreds of thousands of demonstrators across the country Sunday calling for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and protesting the corruption-plagued ruling Workers' Party, Brazil may have hit a political low point. 

Galvanized by an economic slowdown, rising unemployment, and inflation, animated crowds dressed in the yellow and green of the Brazilian flag rallied against their leaders, some carrying signs calling the government a "dictatorship of the left" and comparing Brazil to Venezuela and Cuba.

Public distrust was on full display as well, the result of a vast corruption probe that implicates the top construction firms and the state oil company Petrobras, and has placed more than 50 current and former politicians, mostly linked to the center-left Worker’s Party coalition, under investigation. 

“The party has been in power for almost 13 years,” complains Walter Leiras, a university student at the march Sunday. He adds that "It’s a legacy of decadence” – a reference to charges that the Workers’ Party effectively buys votes through populist welfare programs and that the middle class is suffering high taxes and poor public services.

But for some, Sunday’s protests underscore a positive step forward for Brazil.

Barely three decades after the country transitioned to democracy, some say the street demonstrations are keeping the government on its toes. Rousseff’s justice minister responded to the demonstrations by promising a new package of anticorruption measures. And the legal proceedings around the corruption probe highlight that democratic institutions are more autonomous than ever, observers say.

“If you look at middle income countries around the world today, [where] is democratic accountability this strong?” asks Matthew Taylor, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute in Washington. He’s referring to top business executives and government employees facing jail time, and points to other signs of progress, such as a constitutional amendment passed in 2001 allowing Brazil’s Supreme Court to investigate politicians without first receiving permission from Congress.

“Brazil is in a really different place than it was during the transition to democracy, and there has been a sea change,” Mr. Taylor says. Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship ended in 1985, and the country held direct elections in 1989.  

Repeated corruption

The current scandal hits uncomfortably close to Rousseff, but she has not been officially fingered in the investigation. A former Petrobras executive told a congressional inquiry committee last week that he had arranged $300 million for Rousseff’s 2010 election campaign. Rousseff was Petrobras’s chief from 2003 to 2010. The company has lost roughly $30 billion due to the bribery that allegedly took place for more than a decade.

The "Car Wash" investigation, as it's known, implicates the heads of both houses of congress and Rousseff’s former chief of staff, who is now a senator. The current Rio de Janeiro governor and his predecessor are under investigation, and former President Fernando Collor – impeached in 1992 for corruption charges – is also named in the case. He returned to politics as a senator from the northwestern state of Alagoas in 2006.

Rousseff’s government said it will not interfere with the investigations, and the president acknowledged Sunday’s protests with subtle approval.

“I’m from a time when it wasn’t possible to protest, no. People who protested went straight to jail or were called subversive, or even worse names,” Rousseff said in a post on her official Facebook page last week.

But this isn’t Brazil’s first confrontation with high-level graft, which likely plays a role in the public’s frustration with its leaders.

A dozen elected officials, political appointees, and their accomplices were convicted of corruption and money laundering in 2012 and received prison sentences in a vote-buying scandal nicknamed Mensalão, or the “big monthly payout.” The crimes took place during the government of Rousseff’s predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Last year Brazil’s formerly richest man, Eike Batista, went on trial for insider trading. Mr. Batista had his belongings, including a yacht and multiple luxury vehicles, seized in February by the federal police. In a twist – and a sign that there’s still plenty of anti-corruption work to be done – the judge in charge of Batista’s case, who animatedly presented himself as an anti-corruption crusader, stepped down the same month when he was discovered driving a Porsche seized from the former billionaire. Last week, the judge also confessed to embezzling about $265,000 in drug money that came through his Rio de Janeiro court.

Time to 'face the music?'

Some protesters Sunday alarmed the public with radical signs like “military intervention now!” However, most slogans were more vague, including, “out with the Workers’ Party” or messages supporting the current graft investigations.

Despite widespread public anger, many analysts say impeaching Rousseff isn’t realistic – and may not be what the opposition actually wants.

Taylor, the political scientist who specializes in corruption in Brazil, says the opposition may prefer to see the Workers’ Party “face the music” rather than be “rescued” from dealing with an unfavorable political and economic period.

The Workers’ Party has increased transparency and strengthened agencies like the Federal Police and Comptroller General during its past 12 years in power, and Taylor calls the corruption probe a “really ironic outcome” of this progress.

For others, the corruption charges and investigation have less to do with the strengthening of institutions and more to do with the fact that the Workers’ Party is in its fourth consecutive presidential term. It’s accumulated more opportunities for graft, says Miguel Angel, a physician who runs a popular Facebook page dedicated to updating readers on the Mensalão trial.

And many on Brazil’s left worry that while the graft investigation is valid, opportunistic members of the opposition are using it as an excuse to bring down a left-leaning government.

“It’s not just today and it’s not just Petrobras,” says João Roberto, a professor at UniRio and the coordinator of the More Democracy Institute, which studies the relationship between Brazil’s largest construction companies and the government.

But, in the end, the "Car Wash" crisis may be mobilizing society because it hits close to home.

“Now the economic situation is ugly and it is being felt in people’s pockets,” Mr. Angel says. “People are seeing that the dream is over.”

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