Brazil: Why do Latin American protests so often call for impeachment?

Tens of thousands protested against President Rousseff on Sunday – the third time this year. Some fear a threat to democracy.

Nacho Doce/Reuters
People are silhouetted through a Workers' Party (PT) flag as they shout slogans during a demonstration supporting President Dilma Rousseff, amidst nationwide protests calling for her impeachment, in front of the Lula Institute in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Sunday.

As Brazil faces a struggling economy and one of the largest corruption scandals in its history, people are growing increasingly impatient with the person they say is ultimately responsible: President Dilma Rousseff.

On Sunday, tens of thousands of Brazilians spilled into the street in protest. In Sao Paulo, citizens toted bright yellow placards reading, “Impeachment now.” In Rio’s Copacabana neighborhood, protesters marching along the beach carried banners comparing Brazil to communist Cuba – and perhaps more ominously, some called for military action. 

Marcelo Couto, wearing a red beret and camouflage pants, says he does not favor a military dictatorship. But, he argues, “It’s for the armed forces to interfere on behalf of the masses and the majority of the population.” 

Marching alongside those in favor of military action – a fringe perspective, observers say – are people like Antonio Jorge. Wrapped in a Brazilian flag, he says, “What I think we need is to take the [ruling Worker's Party] out of power and have an election again.”

Large-scale popular protests are often lauded as a positive sign in Brazil, which suffered through 21 years of dictatorship. But the growing pressure on Rousseff and calls for her ouster are raising concerns about potential political upheaval and the strength of Brazil’s 30-year-old democracy.

Latin America has a long history of popular protests leading to changes in political guard, sometimes by skirting legal institutions or regulations: Argentina changed presidents three times in the span of three weeks during its 2001 economic crisis, while Ecuador impeached four presidents in one decade starting in 1992. Over the past 12 months, similar calls to remove presidents have echoed out of citizen-led protests in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and Ecuador.

Personality politics still reigns supreme across much of Latin America, says Christopher Sabatini, associate professor at Columbia University’s School for International and Public Affairs in New York. 

Government “is pinned to an individual, and that’s what we see when things go well – ‘reelect [former Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez until he dies,’" he says. "And when things don’t go well – ‘throw the bums out.’”

What concerns Mr. Sabatini and others is that in the past, it was largely countries with weakly developed institutions pushing for – and succeeding in – the removal of an unpopular leader. “It will say a lot about Brazil, a more solidified democracy, if the government succumbs to this kind of short-term populist rejection,” he says.

The counter-argument

As calls for Rousseff’s removal grow, some are stepping in to object. The head of the Senate – implicated in taking bribes, though not currently charged in the so-called "Car Wash" scandal – spoke out against impeachment last week. And the business community has been active in pressuring politicians to keep the situation from advancing. And though protests are overwhelmingly antigovernment, not all participants are in favor of impeachment – and few favor military intervention.

“It’s only worth taking Dilma out if it’s done legally. And there’s no legal way,” says Maria Luiza Leão, a visual artist protesting in Copacabana, who grew up during the dictatorship.

An impeachment proceeding would require support of two-thirds of the lower house of Congress. If Rousseff were tried on criminal charges, the case would next go to the Supreme Court, and if tried on corruption charges, it would be up to the Senate. In either case, the charges would have to be related to crimes committed as president.

That means all eyes are on the still unfolding Car Wash corruption scandal for potential evidence.

The probe, in which prosecutors allege a colossal kickback scheme between construction companies, the state oil company, and politicians, has led to the arrests of suspects since March 2014. But recently, the investigations have reached new heights: Top executives at two of the country’s largest construction companies, which have contracts with the state oil company, Petrobras, as well as infrastructure projects for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, were arrested in June. The chief of staff of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Rousseff’s predecessor and mentor, was arrested this month. He was already under house arrest for the da Silva-era vote-buying scheme, referred to as “the big monthly payoff.”

Investigations have also begun looking into possible irregular campaign contributions to Rousseff’s successful 2014 reelection. Even though all of the donations from construction companies cited in the Car Wash were declared to the court, several executives have testified that they were coerced. Prosecutors are expected to make more revelations in coming weeks.

“That’s the thing everyone is worried about,” says David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasília, referring to upcoming plea bargains. Rousseff has so far escaped implication, despite serving as the chief of Petrobras from 2003-2010, while the scandal was allegedly going on.

Consumers' bills are rising

According to official tallies, an estimated 800,000 people took to the streets across the country this weekend, not only expressing their frustrations with corruption and dissatisfaction with Rousseff, but with the government’s management of the economy overall. Energy bills have increased since Rousseff’s 2014 reelection victory, and some allege she held electricity prices artificially low while campaigning.

The idea that this level of popular discontent doesn’t merit an impeachment or resignation is condescending, says Heloisa Pait, associate professor of sociology at São Paulo State University.

There are “legitimate” calls for impeachment, “not because Brazilians are flaky and want to get rid of the government, but because people have patience only until a certain limit,” Ms. Pait says. “And not all mechanisms of representation are efficient, so many feel the need to present their discontent in other forms. It’s completely rational.”

This isn’t Brazil’s first attempt at an impeachment – in 1992, then-President Fernando Collor de Mello resigned amid impeachment hearings over corruption. Although few questioned the now-senator’s corrupt behavior, there was a fissure between those who felt the impeachment was conducted out of concern for democracy and those who saw it as an attack on his policies.

Three decades into democracy, key institutions in Brazil, including the police, public prosecutors office, and comptroller, have improved greatly. But an impeachment attempt that's not grounded in legal wrongdoing could have long-term ramifications.

“Another impeachment, particularly if done for political or popularity [rather than rule of law] reasons, could weaken Brazil’s thirty-year-old democracy,” Shannon K. O’Neil, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a July blog post.

The size and scale of demonstrations confirm the unhappiness people feel toward the government, writes columnist Merval Pereira in leading daily O Globo today. “But that alone is not enough in a democracy like ours, to bring down a president elected by popular vote.” 

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