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Generative Curses: Presidential Impeachments in Brazilian New Republic (1992-2016)

Carlos Frederico Pereira da Silva Gama1

Twice in the course of a generation, the Brazilian president got impeached.


Back in 1992, there were loads of accusations against the young Fernando Collor de Mello (from
the now-defunct National Reconstruction Party PRN). The first civilian president elected after
two decades of military dictatorship, his popularity fell from the skies as he hijacked peoples
savings in his first day in office. Comprising his attempt to stop inflation at any cost, a dire
neoliberal adjustment program followed the heterodox shock therapy. As national GDP and
unemployment skyrocketed, subsequent ballots provided only a rump parliamentarian base.
Apart from left-wing opposition from defeated Workers Party (PT), Collor alienated Brazils
major party PMDB guardian angels of the New Republic. Attempts to bring in moderate
reformist (Social Democrats PSDB) fell short of expectations. PMDB, PT and PSDB were at the
same side in 1989's presidential second round: against Collor.
In May, his brother Pedro become the nations whistleblower in a tell-all interview in the
countrys most popular magazine, Veja. Parliamentary investigations followed suit. Collor was
now embroiled in multiple accusations of malversation of public funds. In July, Presidencys
driver Eriberto Frana provided a key accusation in other major magazine, Isto: personal
expenses of first lady Rosane (including her FIAT car) were financed with public funds, cleansed
through dollar deals in Uruguay, under the supervision of presidential aide Paulo Cesar Farias.
In September, the Chamber of Deputies authorized an impeachment process on those grounds.
Lukewarm vice-president Itamar Franco was immediately hailed as a statesman able to bring the
country back together. PMDB railed in his favor, providing the backbone of a provisional
government (reminiscent of Jos Sarneys first cabinet in the wake of dictatorship and Tancredo
Neves sudden death2). Attempting national union, PSDB joined in. Even renowned PT
members (such as former So Paulo mayor Luiza Erundina) become provisional ministers.
In December, the Senate considered Collor guilty of responsibility crimes. The impeachment was
consummated. During the session, he resigned, in order to keep his political rights. The Senate
overruled his decision. Collor was considered ineligible until 2000. Ironically, by the turn of the
century the Brazilian Supreme Court (STF) considered the former president not guilty of any
of those accusations that motivated his political judgment and demise. The 1992 impeachment,
in juridical terms, was a precarious affair.
The tension-stricken process was followed by the Real plan which managed to stop inflation
on its tracks, making economic growth and social justice possible in terms compatible with
aspirations of the 1988 Constitution that enshrined the New Republic3. Those feats assured the
presidential election of Francos Economy minister Fernando Henrique Cardoso (PSDB) with
key PMDB support. The young Brazilian democracy had an impeachment and lived through this.

Professor of International Relations and Director of International Affairs in Universidade Federal do


Tocantins (Federal University of Tocantins UFT), Brazil
2
Gama, Carlos Frederico Pereira da Silva (2015). "Nas runas de Tancredo, um Brasil mais democrtico,
mas imperfeito". SRZD. Retrieved from: http://www.sidneyrezende.com/noticia/248386. Access in: April
21st 2015.
3
Gama, Carlos Frederico Pereira da Silva (2015). Tempos de Crise e Oportunidades. SRZD. Retrieved
from: http://www.sidneyrezende.com/noticia/247253. Access in: March 23th 2015.

As times and impeachments go by, in 2016 there is only a thin semblance to the 1992 drama.
If Collor was considered a spin-doctor with multiple party affiliations, sinking down the drain as
accusations go, Dilma Rousseff has a longer-lasting political pedigree. A former guerrilla leader
imprisoned during dictatorship, later on she was affiliated to Leonel Brizolas nationalistic trade
unionism (PDT). After several defeats, PT and PDT made a rapprochement in late 1990s and
Rousseff traded sides. With a new left platform, PT would win four presidential elections in a
row since 2002, with Luiz Incio Lula da Silva and then, with Rousseff, an improbable heiress.
Dilma was Lulas Energy minister before the 2005 revelations of a massive corruption scandal,
mensalo. It was announced, once again, in Veja, by a Collor affiliate, Roberto Jefferson, who
accused PT of buying political support from his party (incidentally, Brizolas first party, Brazilian
Labor Party PTB) with public funds cleansed through a marketing specialist, Marcos Valrio.
Parliamentary investigations showed that PT mobilized a rump parliamentarian base through
monthly payments to several representatives and parties.
Mensalo proved a deathblow to the aspirations of PTs major political operator, Jos Dirceu
(another former guerrilla leader). He was dismissed as Lulas chief of cabinet. Rousseff was his
replacement, endowed with the task of fighting corruption at all costs. She rode on the tail of
Lulas anti-cyclical measures to the 2008 international economic crisis. As Brazil suddenly grew
by 7.5%, she easily defeated Jos Serra (PSDB) in the 2010 elections.
A triptych marked Rousseffs first administration (2011-2014). Firstly, Brazil hosted a seemingly
endless series of international mega-events: World Military Games, World Youth Day, Rio+5
Conference, FIFA soccer World Cup and Summer Olympics. In all of them, public investment
remained a pervasive issue. Secondly, waves of civil society contestations since the June 2013
journeys shook the rump governing coalition4. PT and Rousseff were now openly challenged in
the streets, mostly by non-traditional political movements. Dilmas recurring promises of
political reform and plebiscites alienated PMDB. As promises fell by the wayside, she never
regained her popularity. Thirdly, STF considered key PT leaders guilty in the lengthy mensalo
trial. Some (including Dirceu) remain imprisoned to this day. PTs reputation was in tatters and
STF has become an intensively political arbiter. New Republic processes now run according to
judicial paces, surpassing any inputs from the ballots and the streets5.
Dilma dully conquered her reelection (promising deeper, broader democratization), at a high
price: PMDB become the major player of her unlikely conservative coalition. PMDB ministries
and representatives promised a quick fix to a stalled agenda. Vice-President Michel Temer
doubled as PMDB president and Dilmas political articulator. He was in a privileged position to
shift the balance. In 2015, Rousseff attempted an improbable bargain6. On the one hand,
borrowing time from her conservative allies with public austerity and economic adjustment. On
the other hand, promising to PT constituencies (which demanded more, deeper, broader
democracy) that Brazil would change more by 2017, after a brief readjustment.
4

Gama, Carlos Frederico Pereira da Silva (2013). Reordenao em Progresso no Brasil. Observatrio
da Imprensa. Retrieved from:
http://www.observatoriodaimprensa.com.br/news/view/_ed752_reordenacao_em_progresso_no_brasi
l. Access in: June 25th 2013.
5
Gama, Carlos Frederico Pereira da Silva (2016). Brazil's New Republic: from limited Democracy to
Aristocracy under judicial supervision. Medium. Retrieved from:
https://medium.com/@CarlosFredericoPdSG/brazils-new-republic-from-limited-democracy-toaristocracy-under-judicial-supervision-1ec865197d35#.ktmtjdlew. Access in: May 13th 2016.
6
Gama, Carlos Frederico Pereira da Silva (2014). Conquistas e Desafios da Poltica Externa de Dilma
Rousseff. Carta Maior. Retrieved from: http://www.cartamaior.com.br/?/Editoria/Politica/Conquistase-Desafios-da-Politica-Externa-de-Dilma-Rousseff/4/32244. Access in: November 16th 2014.

Shot from both sides, Rousseffs second term begins with dismal failures in the domestic front.
She fell out of favor with her constituency and PTs parliamentary base. Her popularity fell to a
historic low. Street protests now focused her economic and politic shortcomings. Their new
motto was IMPEACHMENT7. Temer enjoyed his Itamar Franco moment: he withdrew from
Rousseffs political coordination and protested against his cosmetic role among the ruling
coalition. In July, he made a pivotal speech in which he promised only pacification what
would become the motto of his interim government. A PMDB tag team backed Temer: speaker
of the Chamber of Deputies Eduardo Cunha opened the impeachment process in December and
Senate president Renan Calheiros assured enough votes for its approval in 2016. Those
prominent PMDB leaders had already been key Collor collaborators 24 years ago8.
As her foreign policy become more and more pragmatic9 (a taste of things to come) Rousseff
attempted appeasing PMDB. She courted Cunha with two ministries in a rushed-out reform
(including the powerful Health ministry) and Calheiros with another handful of high posts. PMDB
now had more ministry seats than PT and it presided over both houses of the Congress.
This is the context in which Car Wash operation lead by judge Srgio Moro prospered10.
The window of opportunity for Temer and PMDB presupposed that Rousseff be part of multiple
investigations something that proved far more difficult than bringing Collor to the table. Even
though there are widespread signs of corruption across the political spectrum, Rousseff proved
remarkably resilient to be directly associated with any of them. The major liability of her conduct
was her stint as president of Petrobrs council. As the oil company shrunk, she become an easy
target for major missteps (such as the acquisition of Pasadena refinery). Even though prominent
businesspersons and politicians were imprisoned through Car Wash (including bribery charges
in Petrobrs contracts) Rousseff was nowhere to be found. The impeachment process was
eventually based on controversies over budgetary rules and spending in social programs. The
2016 impeachment remains, in juridical terms, a precarious affair.
Rousseff was ousted in May 2016. Her shrinking base brought Temer good news and sealed her
fate. She recapped old promises of political reform and plebiscites, which PT promptly vetoed,
leaving a reelected president left for dead. By acquiescing to Dilmas scapegoating, PT
preventively attempts to preserve Lulas profile (under investigation in Car Wash) for the near
future. Still, a risky move. As New Republics machinery gears towards municipal elections (with
STF at the wheel) and public anxiety demobilizes streets, Temer put the Itamar mask on. His
interim government features PSDB prominently (Serra is his minister of Foreign Affairs).
Although no miraculous economic feat remains in sight, PMDB and PSDB got the upper hand.
Will the still young Brazilian democracy have a second impeachment on such terms, and live
with the outcomes?

Gama, Carlos Frederico Pereira da Silva (2015). As manifestaes de 2015 e a democracia no Brasil.
SRZD. Retrieved from: http://www.sidneyrezende.com/noticia/246846. Access in: March 13th 2015.
8
Gama, Carlos Frederico Pereira da Silva (2015). A crise de memria e a diferena que o PT pode
fazer. Carta Maior. Retrieved from: http://cartamaior.com.br/?/Editoria/Politica/A-crise-de-memoriae-a-diferenca-que-o-PT-pode-fazer/4/32937. Access in: February 24th 2015.
9
Gama, Carlos Frederico Pereira da Silva (2016). Fim do Ecumenismo Involuntrio? A Poltica Externa
do Brasil ps-Impeachment. NEMRI. Retrieved from: https://nemrisp.wordpress.com/2016/05/25/fimdo-ecumenismo-involuntario-a-politica-externa-do-brasil-pos-impeachment/. Access in: May 25th 2016.
10
Gama, Carlos Frederico Pereira da Silva (2016). Sob Judice: a Nova Repblica em Transio. SRZD.
Retrieved from: http://www.sidneyrezende.com/noticia/262141. Access in: April 17th 2016.