That Brazil’s Congress overwhelmingly voted to officially remove President Dilma Rousseff from office Wednesday came as no surprise: It was widely speculated that the beleaguered leader, suspended in May, would be forced to step down by a two-thirds vote.
But according to one expert, it’s a watershed event in a series of developments illustrating the South American country’s fatigue with its corrupt and unwieldy political system, which has functioning institutions but needed a hefty dose of justice.
In this struggle lies the hope for Brazil’s future, says Paulo Sotero, head of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, who addressed a World Affairs Council of Atlanta audience Tuesday night as Ms. Rousseff stood trial.
“Brazilians are fed up with impunity. There is a new attitude toward this, that you are going to pay for what you do,” Mr. Sotero said, predicting the exact 60-21 margin by which Ms. Rousseff would be voted out.
The former president was accused of using money from state banks to hide budget deficits, though she called the probe an attempt to justify a “constitutional coup” removing her from power against the will of the people — concerns shared by protesters that marched in Sao Paulo the days after her ouster.
The controversial vote was carried out against a backdrop of extreme political drama — even by the standards of Brazil’s sometimes tumultuous democracy.
Over the last two years, many members of Ms. Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, as well as high-ranking officials from other parties and leaders well-known of construction firms, have been implicated in a kickback scheme involving state-run oil giant Petrobras. As energy minister, Ms. Rousseff chaired the company at the time but has avoided being directly accused of involvement.
The Lava Jato investigation (translating to English as “Car Wash”) has netted even some of the most prominent families in Brazil’s political and business scenes, an unprecedented development in a country where power is heavily concentrated among the privileged, Mr. Sotero said.
“For the first time in Brazil wealthy, white well-to-do people were sentenced to jail time,” Mr. Sotero said in impassioned remarks in conversation with CNN Espanol business journalist Gabriela Frías. Brazil, a country where more than half of the population is black or mixed race, is mostly governed by white men.
When they had a corruption problem in the past, the joke was that elites would get together over a proverbial pizza to hash out how they would avoid the backlash, Mr. Sotero said. Lava Jato has changed that game, as presiding federal judge Sergio Moro emerged as an unlikely hero of Brazilian society.
“This time, the pizza thing didn’t work,” Mr. Sotero said. “For the first time we had an X-ray of corruption in Brazil. We knew it was happening, but we did not know how. Now we know it and we know one thing: It’s systemic.”
Ms. Rousseff’s Vice President, Michel Temer, a 75-year-old professional politician with his own baggage, will serve out the two-plus years of Ms. Rousseff’s term as president. Like his former boss, he is deeply unpopular and has “one task,” according to Mr. Sotero: reviving a Brazilian economy that is in its second straight year of recession.
That’s easier said than done. Brazil’s budget deficit has ballooned to 10 percent of its GDP, interest rates are eclipsing 14 percent, and unemployment has nearly doubled to more than 11 percent, with more than 12 million people out of work.
Reforms aimed at restoring the confidence of foreign investors have been slow in coming, and it’s unclear that Mr. Temer will have the political clout in a fractious post-Dilma environment to enact spending cuts and open the economy to outside investment.
“To become competitive, you have to compete,” Mr. Sotero said. “You have to open up.”
Though struggling to find specific names, Mr. Sotero repeatedly pointed out that a new class of young politicians is looking to the future. He also said that “statist” economic policy is no longer an option as the government swims in red ink.
In the discussion titled “Don’t Bet Against Brazil,” he was frank about the challenges facing Brazil’s poor and uneducated populations, its floundering state governments and the uncertainty budget cuts will introduce to social programs credited with helping lift some 40 million people out of poverty.
But he did find some room for optimism: Brazil is a manufacturing country replete with skilled technical labor and brilliant researchers. It brought the world Embraer, the business jet powerhouse, through collaborations between business, government and institutes of higher learning.
It’s also a bastion of cultural and biological diversity, an “environmental power” where the cash-strapped-but-creative Olympic opening ceremonies focused on giving 3 billion TV viewers a glimpse of the implications of climate change.
The Rio de Janeiro games were a welcome distraction from the political drama. They signified hope and joy, despite the fact that most Brazilians believed they brought more costs than benefits at an uncertain time.
A country boasting huge Carnival celebrations and choreographed street operas never foresaw a problem showing its hospitality to outsiders, Mr. Sotero said, but the welcoming the world did help Brazil’s own people once again prove their capabilities to themselves.
“It is changing,” Mr. Sotero said of Brazil, “and you have to keep saying that.”
The talk came nearly two years to the day after Mr. Sotero spoke on Brazil’s elections at another World Affairs Council of Atlanta event.
Read that story here.