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The Coup that Overthrew Dilma

Brasília - A presidenta Dilma Rousseff e o vice-presidente, Michel Temer, participam da solenidade onde recebem os cumprimentos de oficiais-generais no Clube do Exército (Antonio Cruz/Agência Brasil)

Undemocratic coups come in many forms. Not all of them are violent, seemingly disorganized uprisings – the ‘standard’ coup, so to speak. Many (especially in recent times) are engineered from abroad. Still others are carried out through legal means. Legal structures are often twisted and abused to attain political ends. They are often used to justify removal of a democratic government, as they were haphazardly in Honduras in 2009, when the army overthrew the democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya.

Things that may be legal may not be democratic, which is the case with the overthrow of Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff, last year. Rousseff’s government was on the verge of launching an investigation into a number of corrupt government figures, when, fearing for their power, they turned on her and led impeachment proceedings to remove her, supposedly because of corruption. It’s ironic that Rousseff is one of the few figures in Brazil’s government not proven to be corrupt, despite claims to the contrary in impeachment proceedings. On August 31, Rousseff was impeached, and yet, even today, the attitude online and throughout most of the Western world is that the move was a standard and democratic use of legal process. That is not the case. The undemocratic removal of Dilma Rousseff stands as Brazil’s second right-wing coup d’état in little over fifty years. Ignoring the truth about Dilma’s overthrow is dangerous when it comes to fighting undemocratic efforts in the future. International silence lends legitimacy to the coup government and motivates groups considering similar moves elsewhere.

In March 1964 the Brazilian armed forces, supported by the United States, overthrew the democratically-elected government of President Joao Goulart, leading to over twenty years of oppressive military rule in Brazil. A few years later, Dilma Rousseff joined a group resisting the military dictatorship. She was captured, jailed, and tortured for her efforts. Rousseff became president of Brazil in January 2011, the second ‘Pink Tide’ leader of the country, cementing Brazil’s position as a left-wing force in Latin America. Her base was the non-white working class of Brazil, her victory ensured by compulsory voting. Her vice president was the corrupt and unpopular Michel Temer – so unpopular, in fact, that Temer broke with protocol and refused to have his name announced at the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympics, for fear of intense booing, which happened anyway when the crowd realized he was present.

In March 2014, the Brazilian government launched Operation Car Wash, aimed at investigating money-laundering and corruption of the state-controlled oil company, Petrobras. Two years later, right-wing attempts to remove Rousseff (and protests against her rule) began in earnest, which as journalist Glenn Greenwald notes were “incited by the country’s intensely concentrated, homogenized, and powerful corporate media outlets, and are composed (not exclusively but overwhelmingly) of the nation’s wealthier, white citizens.” Brazil’s largely white upper classes have a firm stranglehold over the country’s media outlets, and thus the information presented to Brazilians. As Greenwald writes, “Brazil’s corporate media outlets are acting as the de facto protest organizers and PR arms of opposition parties.” Protests against Rousseff were dominated by upper class Brazilians, despite being portrayed by Western media outlets of being democratically-spurred protests aimed at a corrupt and abusive leader.

Toward the end of May, leaked transcripts of several officials working to overthrow Rousseff surfaced, which put any debate of the events occurring in Brazil as being a coup to rest. They cemented that the goals of the impeachment process were to end the Car Wash Investigation and other investigations into their corruption. Although advertised as being a democratic move in the name of ending corruption, the transcripts showed that the actions of the perpetrators were instead aimed at maintaining their corruption. They also confirmed that the right’s actions aimed at removing Rousseff had the secondary goal of gaining power for themselves that could never be won at the ballot box, due to their incredibly low popularity and the strength of the working class’ role in the voting process.

The transcripts were released just a couple weeks after Michel Temer, Dilma’s former vice president, had replaced her as interim president. Temer’s interim government worked hard to roll back thirteen years of reform by instilling policies whichrepresent a shift toward a neoliberal economic policy by the old elite that ousted elected president Dilma Rousseff.” As Jonathan Watts at The Guardian notes, the interim government has made moves to “soften the definition of slavery, roll back the demarcation of indigenous land, trim house building programs and sell off state assets in airports, utilities and the post office. Newly appointed ministers also are talking of cutting healthcare spending and reducing the cost of the bolsa familia poverty relief system.” According to Greenwald, these moves serve as an effort to “impose a right-wing, oligarch-serving agenda that the Brazilian population would never accept.”

Rousseff was impeached on August 31, eight months ago. There is no doubt that the efforts by now-President Temer and his political allies constitute an ill-handled, yet successful effort at upstaging a democratically elected president, in other words, a coup. They jury-rigged the Brazilian political process to push the impeachment of Dilma, something that was ensured by the weight of the vote of corrupt politicians trying to protect their illegal actions by removing any investigation into themselves. The incredible irony of the entire situation is that Dilma was one of the few officials – possibly the only one – in that government not to be proven corrupt. Unfortunately, she and her working-class base were impotent against the hegemony of the Brazilian elite over information and the government itself. Yet, the worldwide response to an incredible breach of democracy and justice was ostensibly muted.

Other Latin American Pink Tide nations like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia recalled their ambassadors in condemnation of the coup. But as a whole, evidence of strong worldwide reaction to the events that took place in Brazil last year is almost nonexistent. Searching “2016 Brazil coup” on the internet yields a short list of mainstream media outlets questioning whether a coup took place, and a few left-wing media outlets detailing last year’s events. There are no online encyclopedia articles and no long lists of countries that pulled their public officials or halted transactions in the country – in great contrast to Honduras. US State Department spokesman John Kirby made it clear that the United States would continue working closely with Brazil and that the impeachment of Rousseff was well within Brazil’s democratic framework. As noted above, the dominant media in the United States painted events that took place in Brazil much the same as their Brazilian counterparts, with perhaps a little less venom toward Dilma.

But on closer inspection, the impeachment of Rousseff did cause some tremors within the United States’ political system. In July, forty-three Democratic members of the US House of Representatives wrote to then-Secretary of State John Kerry urging him to “exercise the utmost caution in [his] dealings with Brazil’s interim authorities.” They stated that “Our government should express strong concern regarding the circumstances surrounding the impeachment process and call for the protection of constitutional democracy and the rule of law in Brazil.” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont also waded into the discussion: “To many Brazilians and observers the controversial impeachment process more closely resembles a coup d’état.” These were strong words toward the Obama administration coming from members of closely-aligned political factions. Kerry ignored the warnings, however, and met with an official of the interim government, foreign minister José Serra. 

Kerry’s part in the meeting “shows support for an illegitimate government,” whose rise to power was probably attached in some subtle way to the United States. The actions of the Secretary of State continue the United States’ well-worn trend of trumpeting the tenets of democracy, and yet often aiding undemocratic efforts. There are many concerning conclusions that can be drawn from the overthrow of Rousseff, not least of which is the United States’ continued and unyielding devotion to crushing the left in Latin America, and eroding the gains they have made over the past three decades. But looking to Brazil itself, possibly the most dangerous result of the successful impeachment is the motivation it might lend to other efforts looking to employ legal structures in undemocratic efforts in the future. Kerry’s one small meeting that provides “legitimacy” to a questionable government pales in comparison to the volumes spoken by the paltry worldwide response to events in Brazil over the past year. The country’s democratic institutions have been overthrown by an oligarchic, monoracial group aimed at protecting corruption, gross income inequality, and at destroying the progress toward equality made by the previous two administrations. This was accomplished in an effort that has all the markings of a coup, but with the addition of legal sophistication.


About the Author

Alex Burdo '20 is a US Section Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.