Five years after the coup against Dilma in Brazil, historians take stock

Process that ousted Dilma Rousseff sparked an institutional meltdown and revealed the country's democratic disabilities

Translated by: Ítalo Piva

Brasil de Fato | Brasilia |
Dilma Rousseff was Brazil’s president from January 1st 2011 till August 31st 2016 - Wilson Dias/Agencia Brasil

The historical, social and political interpretations of the impeachment of former Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, which took place in 2016, are still in a critical phase of elaboration.

Even so, historians heard by Brasil de Fato point out that the traumatic departure of the Workers' Party (PT) from the Presidency resulted in an institutional and political meltdown that affected Brazil’s already fragile democracy.

"In practice, what these years have shown is that mistrust of the political class has only increased, and moreover, the institutional breakdown that the impeachment caused ended up worsening. Thus, today we are in a scenario with completely dysfunctional institutions", says historian Murilo Cleto, one of the writers of the book "Why do we scream Coup? To understand this impeachment and the political crisis in Brazil".

Cleto adds that "the political class made it very clear that anything was worth doing for its interests to prevail in the game of politics. In a democracy, it doesn't work that way. I think it strengthens authoritarians and demagogues as they realize that at any time, they can test the limits of institutions and thus, wear out these institutions".

For Osvaldo Coggiola, professor of Contemporary History at the University of São Paulo, although the impeachment process may not fit into the category of a classic military coup d'etat, the definition of a coup in contemporary times should be more comprehensive. According to him, in the case of Dilma's removal, it is possible to assert that the Armed Forces acted to legitimize it. "There was direct interference by the military in the outcome of this coup, both in the impeachment of Dilma and in Lula's arrest", he says.

Coggiola says that as an immediate objective, the perpetrators of the coup against Dilma wanted to remove the Workers’ Party (PT) from the leadership of the governing coalition, in order to create a different type of political coalition, in addition to preventing the left from returning to power.

"The social objective, and we could say historical [objective], goes far beyond that. The objective was to replace 15 years of a government of class conciliation with a neo-liberal political agenda. To replace this government of class conciliation with a government that directly attacks workers' societal achievements, the people’s [achievements] in general. Not only those that were obtained during the Lula administrations, but all those accumulated in Brazil through a series of legislative conquests, such as labor rights", he affirms.

Brasil de Fato will now explain the context, and point out the key figures and phases of the periods before, during and after impeachment.

Dilma's victory and the reaction of the traditional right

The re-election of Dilma Rousseff and her vice-president, Michel Temer, in 2014, was obtained in a second round of voting with 51.64% of votes, the tightest margin in a presidential election the country had ever seen. Brazil was already experiencing a process of social dissatisfaction, with a reactionary bias that arose mainly after June of 2013. Defeated right-wing candidate, Aécio Neves, began questioning the electoral results and even filed a motion with the Superior Electoral Court to erode and remove the legitimacy of the re-elected president.

Economic crisis and bombshell policies

The economic crisis that began in 2008 started to worsen in Brazil right after Dilma’s re-election, at the end of 2014, a foreshadowing of what would become a deep recession with repercussions felt till today. Unemployment, which hitherto hovered around 4%, rose the following year to 8%, reaching 13% in 2017. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) suffered consecutive declines in 2015 and 2016 which in cumulative terms, represented a decline of almost 7%.

To contain the government's fiscal problem, Dilma abruptly changed her economic policy and adjusted to decrease public spending under the tutelage of banker Joaquim Levy. Despite that attempt, the government was met with retaliation promoted by Eduardo Cunha, then president of the Chamber of Congress. Instead of promoting the budgetary changes, Cunha started to put forth so-called bombshell policies, which were bills that increased public spending. In this tug of war, the government became more and more politically worn out.

Popularity and protests

Beginning in March 2015, a few months after re-election, several protests against the federal government brought together hundreds of thousands of people across the country demanding, among other things, the president’s impeachment or resignation. The combination of an economic crisis with political instability, made Dilma's approval rating drop to just 9%.

The Lava Jato operation, blackmail and the start of the process

A key element in the build up to impeachment was the emergence of the Lava-Jato operation, which began in 2014, but intensified in 2015, by carrying out police operations with strong media coverage mainly targeting members of PT, in addition to other parties and politicians. Among them was Eduardo Cunha, who behind the scenes began threatening to move forward with the impeachment request against Dilma, if he could not count on PT’s support in the impeachment inquiry against him.

When the Workers’ Party decided not to give in to Cunha's blackmail, he announced the opening of the impeachment process on December 2nd, 2015. One of the main arguments used in the request was that Dilma committed a fiscal crime by editing budgetary decrees without prior authorization from Congress, in what became known as “fiscal pedaling”.

Fiscal Pedaling

For Osvaldo Coggiola, fiscal pedaling was just an excuse to attribute a non-existent crime to Dilma. "If it were for the so-called tax pedaling, not only the president of the Republic, but all the governors of Brazil should have been removed, because they were practiced systematically", he says. In addition to this, other presidents had also utilized this type of measure.

The downfall

On April 17th, 2016, the Federal Chamber of Congress approved the motion for Dilma's impeachment by 367 votes in favor and 137 against, in a session that was ingrained in the country's political memory due to the succession of politicians giving demagogic speeches in support of family and Christian values. There was even a tribute by Bolsonaro to dictatorship era torturer Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, who was responsible for the torture of dozens of prisoners during the military regime, including President Dilma herself.

The Chamber's decision was then sent to the Senate, which moved forward with the impeachment rite that led to Dilma's removal from the presidency. At that time, vice president Michel Temer temporarily took over the role of President.

On August 31st, 2016, with a Senate vote of 61 in favor and 20 against, Dilma Rousseff definitively lost her position as President of the Republic.

Other key figures

In 2015, coverage of the protests calling for Dilma's impeachment was a central talking point in several radio and TV stations, who were calling for the protests themselves. In addition to the active role of the business media, individuals and bodies of the Judiciary would later further the Lava Jato operation, which today is known to have acted in a partial and illegal manner, aggravating the political crisis and impacting the future of Brazil for years, as exemplified by the case involving former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Edited by: Vivian Fernandes