As trial ends, Brazil's president makes one last bid to shape story

Dilma Rousseff was suspended pending the outcome of her impeachment trial, which some see as democracy in action but others decry as an attempted coup. 

Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters
Sen. Ronaldo Caiado speaks next to suspended president Dilma Rousseff during a final session of debate and voting on Ms. Rousseff's impeachment trial in Brasilia, Brazil, Aug. 29.

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, who was suspended pending an impeachment trial, testified before the Senate Monday in her last defense before politicians vote on her permanent removal from office this week. The proceedings, which have officially been under way since April, have divided Brazilians. For some, this is a coup masquerading as democracy. But for others, it’s evidence of a robust democracy at work, holding the leftist leader, whose party has been in power for more than 13 years, responsible for what they see as bending the law to maintain control.

Q. What is Rousseff charged with and what’s her defense?

Ms. Rousseff is charged with breaking federal budget laws in an attempt to conceal Brazil’s economic troubles. She and her supporters contend that manipulating the budget is a common practice used by politicians at all levels of government in Brazil – including by her predecessors, former Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

“I am here to look in your eyes and say with the serenity of someone who has nothing to hide that I haven’t committed any [crimes] and that these accusations are unfair,” she said, testifying in the Senate against the backdrop of the Brazilian flag. She spent roughly 45 minutes defending herself, and touching on topics that included Brazil’s nearly 21-year dictatorship.

She contends that she was democratically elected and that the attacks against her amount to a coup, adding that the future of Brazil is at stake.

“I ask you to vote against impeachment and for democracy,” she urged senators this morning. 

Rousseff was reelected in a close race in 2014, but her popularity plummeted as the economy tanked in the worst recession Brazil has seen in nearly 100 years. The impeachment proceedings were launched amid a high-profile corruption scandal that has implicated hundreds of sitting congressmen and business elite. That kickback scandal, known as the Car Wash, has so far left her untouched.

The last Brazilian president to face impeachment was Fernando Collor de Mello in 1992, but he stepped down before his case went to a final vote. Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president and a former guerrilla tortured under the military dictatorship, told supporters last week that she intends to fight until the bitter end. 

“The only thing that kills anti-democratic parasites is the oxygen of debate,” she said.

How is this last hearing in the impeachment trial expected to proceed?  

If past hearings are any indicator, Monday is expected to get rowdy. Rousseff arrived at the Senate building in Brasilia accompanied by her mentor, former President da Silva, before delivering her final testimony. Now, her political opponents will grill her as the Senate decides whether the charges against her merit dismissal from office.

It’s expected to be a late night of testimony and questions, and although an official post on Rousseff’s Facebook page this morning read, “feeling confident,” she may be the only one expressing such hope.

Most see her impeachment as a done deal. The Senate needs two-thirds of the votes – or 54 ballots – in favor of impeachment to officially remove her from office. A poll conducted by daily Folha de Sao Paulo found that ahead of the hearing, 52 senators plan to vote for her impeachment, while roughly 11 are undecided.

Even some of those who don’t necessarily agree with the grounds for impeachment have said they will still vote for her removal due to her low approval ratings and the difficulty she will face in governing.

"I will vote against her even though I think it is a tragedy to get rid of an elected president. But another 2-1/2 years of a Dilma government would be worse," centrist Sen. Cristovam Buarque told Reuters.

The final vote is expected as early as Tuesday.

What happens if she’s impeached this week?

If this months-long ordeal indeed ends in Rousseff’s removal, her vice president and Brazil’s current interim president, Michel Temer, will be sworn in to serve the rest of her term, which ends in December 2018.

In Rousseff’s testimony this morning, she alleged that Mr. Temer and his center-right supporters would work against the progress her leftist Worker’s Party has made. Millions of Brazilians have been lifted out of poverty, thanks in part to a well-performing economy, and due to cornerstone social programs such as Bolsa Familia, where families get cash payments conditioned on their children's school attendance and medical care. 

The suspended president Monday warned that Temer plans to limit public spending and act in the interest of the economic elite. Others fear that steps taken over the past decade-plus to advance such issues as gender equality could be eroded under his leadership: for example, one of his first moves as interim president was to appoint an all white, all male cabinet.

And although financial markets have rallied recently in anticipation that Temer will be able to push through economic reforms needed to address Brazil’s slumping economy, he is also extremely unpopular. Supporters of Rousseff allege that he could be taken to task for the same budgetary maneuvers that she’s under fire for today. While Rousseff was traveling out of the country during her presidency – thus making Temer acting president – he authorized similar budgetary measures, reports The Associated Press.

Is this a victory for democracy?

It depends on whom you ask.

For Rousseff's camp, the impeachment is aimed at distracting attention from the Car Wash scandal. Some see even more nefarious intentions of opponents trying to halt the investigation entirely by removing Rousseff from office.

Leftist international politicians and academics, including Bernie Sanders and Noam Chomsky, have come out in recent weeks to denounce the proceedings as a mark against democracy.

But with the military in its barracks and the impeachment taking place through democratic channels – starting with the lower house of Congress’ initial vote to launch the process back in April – the stability of Brazil’s democratic institutions is on display.

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