How One Big Scandal Could Take Down Latin America's Most Powerful Woman Leader
This week is make or break for Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's first female president, as moves to impeach her come one step closer. Halfway through her second term, she's currently the most powerful woman leader in Latin America and arguably the most powerful in the world after Germany's Angela Merkel. And yet her presidency could come to an end two years early.
Brazil, Latin America's largest country, is home to the world's seventh-largest economy and, in August, host of the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Just a few years ago, things couldn't have been going better. Things were improving domestically and in the international arena. When Rousseff took power, unemployment was down, growth was up — and Brazil internationally wanted a seat at the big kids' tables, including the G-8 and the U.N. Security Council.
And now, just five years later, the nation's in the midst of its largest political tumult since the country returned to democracy. The problems began more than a year ago when a huge scandal involving the country's partially government-owned oil company came to light. Ever since, the country has been roiled by scandal after scandal, which ultimately reached her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Shortly after charges were brought against Lula, as the ex-president is called, Rousseff appointed him to her cabinet. That made him not only her chief of staff, but also safe from prosecution, given that the president's cabinet members are among the 700 top representatives and officials that can only be tried in Brazil's Supreme Federal Tribunal. Cases in front of the court take years.
Since Rousseff can't be brought up on corruption charges — of which she is accused, and flat-out denies — the opposition has tried to impeach her on a claim of budgetary manipulation. They counter that she used funds from state banks to cover budget shortfalls in order to put off needed budget cuts until after she won re-election, which she also denies.
On Monday, a congressional committee recommended her for impeachment, and the big vote in the country's lower house of Congress will begin on Sunday. This next week could have enormous ramifications for Rousseff as months of protests in the street come to a head. On Tuesday, she accused her vice president of trying to orchestrate a coup for her ouster. Meanwhile, her now-chief-of-staff Lula tried to muster enough votes to win the upcoming vote.
An audio message was released the previous day by Vice President Michel Temer to his supporters — supposedly by mistake — in which he called for a "government of national unity" to overcome the crisis. Then, on Tuesday, he said he would be ready to take the post of president if it came to that. "If destiny takes me to that position... I will be ready," he said on Globo, Brazil's biggest television network. His party, which was part of her coalition government until March 29, largely voted to recommend impeachment in the committee vote Monday.
"They now are conspiring openly, in the light of day, to destabilize a legitimately elected president," President Rousseff said in a speech Tuesday. "The conspirators have been unmasked," she added, not naming Temer or his party by name. Even if he took over, he could soon face impeachment himself. He too has been accused of corruption, in an ethanol purchasing scheme. The next guy in line has been too. Moving up elections might be the only way of getting an untarnished politician to take her place.
Some have argued the impeachment crisis is a good sign that Brazil's democracy is reaching maturity. Brazilians won't put up with claims of corruption anymore, and no politician is safe from the rule of law — and from the people who voted them in in the first place. That may be true, but what comes next is a big unknown. Could largely successful social programs like Bolsa Familia that brought 50 million Brazilians into the middle class be undone by a new "business-friendly" administration?
Whatever the solution, it must happen soon. The economy shrank 3.8 percent last year and, it's looking as though the two-year recession could be the worst in more than a century — not to mention the Zika virus ravaging the country's northeast. If Rousseff can hold on, she will have quite the challenge.