Can Brazil right itself?

On Sunday, April 17, over two-thirds of the representatives in the lower chamber of Brazil’s Congress voted in favor of impeaching President Dilma Rousseff. The president is accused of poor administration and manipulating government accounts to make the economy look healthier than it actually was in advance of the 2014 presidential election.

The deepening sense of economic crisis and political deadlock in Brazil, topped off by a steady drumbeat of revelations coming out of the Lava Jato (“Operation Car Wash”) corruption investigation, led the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) to abandon its support for the government and join the opposition in calling for President Rousseff to go. The 2014 elections brought more conservative representatives—particularly from evangelical or pro-military constituencies—into Congress, making it even more difficult for President Rousseff and her allies to find support to block impeachment. 

The decision on impeachment now passes to the Brazilian Senate, which if it decides to put President Rousseff on trial, initiates a six month process during which Vice President Michel Temer takes over temporarily. But more fundamentally, impeachment is driven by the sense among Brazil’s elite and many in its middle class that President Rousseff and her government are no longer capable of managing Brazil’s crisis. And in fact, the Rousseff administration has been unable to deal with the deepest recession in 80 years and rising inflation—nor has it been able to rein in a growing government deficit, let alone implement badly needed long-term reforms to government spending.

Politics is local, consequences are global

The debates and speeches made in the marathon legislative sessions leading up to the Sunday vote made it clear that impeachment is an eminently political process in Brazil, much as it is in the United States. This politicization has contributed to a considerable backlash from the left, in Brazil and in Latin America more broadly, rejecting the legitimacy of the process. Rousseff’s supporters have also challenged the legitimacy of the process because a very substantial number of the legislators sitting in judgement of President Rousseff face criminal and civil charges themselves, mostly on corruption. However, some on the left have gone as far as calling the impeachment process in Brazil a coup d’etat, part of a vast right-wing conspiracy across the continent to roll back the political achievements of the new Latin American left. 

[I]mpeachment is an eminently political process in Brazil.

A more nuanced assessment of the present situation should lead us to three conclusions:

  1. This is not a coup d’etat: A coup takes place when a legitimately elected head of government is illegally and unconstitutionally removed through the use or threat of use of force. In the Latin American context, this particularly implies a role by the military in displacing civilian leaders from power. The impeachment process in Brazil, even if politically motivated, is taking place within the guidelines set out by the Brazilian constitution. There are checks and balances that have worked throughout the process, enabling the president and her opponents to file motions and appeals, up to and including the Federal Supreme Court. By definition, a process that operates within the bounds of Brazil’s constitution and its institutions is not a coup d’etat. President Rousseff and her allies may be unhappy with the outcome of the impeachment process, but they are unwise to frame a constitutionally permitted process as a coup. Nor will such a frame gain them much sympathy beyond their usual supporters abroad or at home.
  2. This is not the end, this is only the beginning: This is a key point President Rousseff made in a speech reacting to the results of the April 17 impeachment vote. And she is absolutely correct, both from a constitutional and a political perspective. The process could move quite quickly once the Brazilian Senate votes to begin the trial, but the process could take until early next year (2017). While Brazil’s elites would undoubtedly wish that President Rousseff follow the example of former Brazilian President Collor de Mello in 1992 and resign immediately, this seems unlikely given her reaction to the impeachment vote. So what is likely to follow is a long and complex political process. If Vice President Temer takes office temporarily while the trial in the Senate in underway, his tenure is at risk because the Federal Supreme Court has ordered that he should also face impeachment on the same charges as President Rousseff. Those immediately in the presidential line of succession after the vice president, such as Speaker of the House Eduardo Cunha, are under judicial investigation on corruption charges. This means that any likely successor to President Rousseff will lack the political capital to implement short-term measures to control inflation and bring down government deficits, not to mention long-term projects to improve infrastructure, education, innovation, and trade policies. All the while facing constant sniping from Rousseff’s embittered political party (the PT) and its allies.
  3. While crisis persists, Brazil’s global and regional influence suffers: As I discuss in my forthcoming book, “Aspirational Power: Brazil’s Long Road to Global Influence,” for historical reasons Brazil’s capabilities to influence global order is heavily skewed towards soft power. Soft power is based not only on skilled diplomacy but on the attractiveness of a country’s domestic political, economic, social, and cultural model. The current turmoil in Brazil undoubtedly undermines the attractiveness of its model abroad. But even closer to home, political distraction and economic recession in Brazil has knock-on effects for its trade partners in Mercosur. And political uncertainty about who will be the next president of Brazil (and for how long) makes it difficult for Brazilian diplomacy to play its traditional role as the primus inter pares in South America.

The current turmoil in Brazil undoubtedly undermines the attractiveness of its model abroad.

Righting the ship but creating regional waves

The political crisis in Brazil is unlikely to be fully resolved before the 2018 presidential election, even though there have been some calls for early elections. Even if Rousseff manages to beat back efforts to try her in the Senate, she will be quite weakened and lack the political capital to implement essential reforms. On the other hand, any successor to Rousseff will face questions from the left as to the legitimacy of his or her rule and a highly polarized legislature—that person will find it difficult to build coalitions to pass and implement economic reforms.

In the long term, Brazil will undoubtedly right the ship of state and resume its path towards economic development and global influence. But for the rest of the hemisphere, the current crisis has important implications, particularly if Brazil follows the pattern of recent political changes in the region that have tended to turn incumbents out of power. The result will be a greater diversity in the foreign policy of South American states, further breaking down the regional consensus that Brazil had encouraged within the Union of South American Nations.

The United States, following the normalization of relations with Cuba and a successful 2015 Summit of the Americas, would benefit from greater diversity through improved opportunities to build partnerships with new political leaders in the region. But it is more important for the United States to avoid being sucked into the domestic political polarization underway in Brazil. The United States will have to thread the needle carefully to support democracy in Brazil, avoid taking sides in domestic politics, maintain a positive relationship with this key country, and build on recent foreign policy successes in the hemisphere.