in Articles, Latin America and the Caribbean

Amid Crisis, A Coup in Brazil: Right-wing Parties Force Out President to Force in Austerity

The Brazilian senate voted May 13 to suspend the country’s leftist president, Dilma Rousseff, pending the conclusion of her trial this summer on charges of financial illegality. Specifically Rousseff is accused of using money from state banks to obscure a budget deficit during her 2014 re-election campaign–a common tactic used by previous Brazilian governments and even in the United States. If eventually found guilty by at least two-thirds of senators—the impeachment trial is expected to wrap up in early August so as not to interfere with the Olympics—she will be permanently removed from office.

The impeachment proceedings against Rousseff were triggered by a majority vote in the Chamber of Deputies (Brazil’s lower house) on April 17. Following May’s vote in the senate, she was replaced by vice-president Michel Temer of the right-wing Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB). One of Temer’s first moves as acting president was to appoint a new conservative, all-white, all-male cabinet (close to 51% of Brazilians are non-white) and announce a severe neoliberal austerity program.

Not only is Temer widely hated by Brazilians, his cabinet has been rocked by scandal, notably the sacking of two ministers following the release of damning evidence of corruption. Temer’s own credibility was destroyed when a regional elections court in his home town of São Paulo convicted him on June 3 of violating election laws. The court declared that Temer had a “dirty record” in elections, found him guilty of spending more money on his campaign than legally permitted, and banned him from running again for eight years.

Temer’s own impeachment is already being considered by the lower house, as he signed the same sort of budget directives that were the alleged trigger for removing Rousseff. Additionally, the acting president is being investigated for receiving $1.5 million from a construction company that had dealings with Petrobras, and is accused of bribery linked to ethanol deals done through the state-owned oil company. Seven of Temer’s ministers are implicated in the massive Petrobras corruption investigation known as Operation Car Wash.

Rousseff is head of the leftist Workers’ Party (PT) that has ruled Brazil for the last 14 years, and only its second leader since her predecessor, the popular Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva, first took office in 2012. Rousseff has denounced her suspension as a coup by a corrupt Brazilian elite that wants to stop Operation Car Wash in its tracks. The investigation has implicated politicians of all stripes, from across the senate and lower house, in a variety of crimes involving bribes and kickbacks stemming from contracts between Petrobras and nine construction companies.

Recent leaks support Rousseff’s position. Most damning has been the release, by Folha de São Paulo (Brazil’s largest newspaper), of the transcript of a 75-minute phone conversation in March between Temer’s planning minister, Romero Jucá (a senator at the time), and Sergio Machado, the former head of the transport subsidiary of Petrobras. According to an article in The Intercept, “The crux of this plot is what Jucá calls ‘a national pact’—involving all of Brazil’s most powerful institutions—to leave Michel Temer in place as President and to kill the corruption investigation once Dilma is removed. In the words of Folha, Jucá made clear that impeachment will ‘end the pressure from the media and other sectors to continue the Car Wash investigation.’”

As reported by The Intercept, Jucá also tells Machado that the Brazilian military is supporting the plot to remove Rousseff: “I am talking to the generals, the military commanders. They are fine with this, they said they will guarantee it.” He adds that the military is “monitoring the Landless Workers Movement (MST),” which opposes Roussef’s impeachment and has supported the PT’s rural land reforms, and that he has the backing of several Supreme Court judges. If Brazil’s top court cannot be trusted, the plotters’ impeachment case will be substantially weakened in the country.

The leak forced Jucá’s resignation as planning minister. Following him out the door, on May 30, was Fabiano Silveira, Temer’s transparency minister, after recordings showed he had attempted to obstruct Operation Car Wash while serving as a counsellor on the National Justice Council, a judicial watchdog agency. A third leaked conversation implicated conservative Senate President Renan Calheiros, who is next in line to replace Temer but also the target of seven investigations in the Petrobas scandal. In it, Calheiros tells Machado he wants legal changes that would end the use of plea bargains for those arrested as part of Operation Car Wash. (Offers of lighter sentences encourage suspects to snitch on other businessmen and politicians.) He also offers to “negotiate” a legal “transition” from Rousseff to Temer. One lobbyist claims Calheiros was paid $600,000 to end a Senate probe of corruption at Petrobras; a director of the energy company has accused him of taking another $1.7 million related to drill ship contracts.

While Rousseff is not herself accused of corruption or enriching herself, 60% of the 594 members of the Chamber of Deputies have been charged with crimes ranging from money laundering, bribery and electoral fraud to illegal deforestation, kidnapping and homicide. Impeachment warrior Eduardo Cunha, himself accused of taking $40 million in bribes, has been removed from his position as speaker of the lower house by the Supreme Court. In Brazil’s upper house, 37 of 65 senators face charges of corruption. Given the mindboggling dirt on the Brazilian political class, Rousseff’s suspension begins to look ridiculous. As Noam Chomsky put it, “we have the one leading politician who hasn’t stolen to enrich herself, who’s being impeached by a gang of thieves, who have done so. That does count as a kind of soft coup.”

“Rouseff’s suspension from the presidency is certainly a ‘parliamentary’ coup,” says Sean Purdy, a professor of history at the University of São Paulo. “Unable to win the presidential elections democratically, Brazil’s right-wing opposition parties, which control the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, have very hypocritically used the Petrobras scandal to piggyback impeachment proceedings against Rousseff.” Impeachment of a president in Brazil requires a “crime of responsibility,” which most legal commentators argue is simply not there, he says.

Purdy explains that the conservative opposition parties, the corporate media and key sections of the judiciary have never liked the PT’s progressive economic agenda and are using the current crisis—Brazil’s economy contracted 3.8% last year due to falling oil and commodity prices—to shift direction.

Since 2002, Workers’ Party-led governments have implemented policies to transfer much of the country’s wealth from the rich to the poor. In 2014, the U.S. journal Foreign Affairs noted admiringly how, “In the first decade of the new century, some 40 million Brazilians moved from poverty into the middle class, per capita household income shot up by 27%, and inequality dropped dramatically…. Today, Brazil still faces many challenges, from an economic downturn to corruption scandals to the end of the commodity boom. But the country’s incredible success in reducing poverty and inequality can and should light the way for further progress, both there and abroad.”

Says PurdyThe opposition wants to roll back the key social programs and workers’ rights won in the last decades both before and during the PT governments of 2002–2012. While many of the opposition parties remained allies to the PT governments during [this] era of economic prosperity, they now want all their privileges and power back and are willing to use dubious means to achieve this.”

Elite influence has also corrupted the corruption investigations. Judge Sergio Moro, the official in charge of Operation Car Wash, “has handpicked which cases he will pursue and they usually involve PT members, which indicates the selectivity of the investigation, even though names from almost every political party in Brazil (there are more than 30) showed up in testimonies,” says Sabrina Fernandes, a researcher at the University of Brasília studying political fragmentation.

Fernandes adds that Moro has collaborated with the right-wing media and conservative social movements to pressure Lula to testify, including through the use of coercion, a process deemed illegal by law experts. In contrast, Cunha refused to testify many times, yet no force was used against him. Fernandes concludes from this that the Car Wash investigation has been “appropriated for partisan interests.”

Given such massive corruption and the considerable evidence of a planned coup against Rousseff, her impeachment is less certain now than it seemed to be in May. According to Folha, several senators who previously supported impeachment are now reconsidering due to the leaks, and public demonstrations against Temer are growing larger.


This article was published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, July/August 2016.

Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent and author of the anthology The Latin American Revolution which can be ordered from the CCPA by emailing <>. He is also author of the radio documentary with the same title which has been aired on 40 radio stations in Canada, the U.S. and Europe reaching 33 million people.