Brazil’s Senate Votes to Begin Impeachment Trial of Dilma Rousseff


After an all-night debate, Brazil’s Senate voted Thursday morning to suspend President Dilma Rousseff and begin an impeachment trial against her, ousting a deeply unpopular leader whose sagging political fortunes have come to embody widespread public anger over systemic corruption and a battered economy.

In a vote of 55 to 22, lawmakers accepted the charges against Ms. Rousseff, accusing her of borrowing from state banks to conceal a looming deficit, abudgetary sleight of hand that critics say was aimed at securing her re-election two years ago.

“We could no longer ignore these crimes and thus voted for impeachment,” Álvaro Dias, a senator from the Green Party, said shortly before casting his vote. “Having been assaulted by incompetence and wrongdoing, Brazilians expect punishment.”

During her impeachment trial, which could last six months, Ms. Rousseffwill be replaced by a onetime ally, Vice President Michel Temer, who has been convicted of violating campaign finance limits and will now be under tremendous pressure to stem Brazil’s worst economic crisis in decades.

Describing the effort to remove her as a coup, Ms. Rousseff, the first woman to be president of Brazil, has repeatedly rejected calls to resign, vowing to continue her fight to stay at the helm of Latin America’s largest country, the world’s fifth-most populous.

“The struggle for democracy doesn’t have an end date,” she said in a speech Thursday, shortly before vacating the presidential office. “It’s a permanent fight that requires our constant dedication. It’s a fight that can be won, and it is one we will win.”

But given the margin of opposition against her on Thursday, political analysts said she stood little chance of winning the trial and finishing the remaining two and a half years of her final term in office.

“Given the polarization in Brazil, if she sticks to her guns and fights this all the way to the end, it’s going to prolong the agony for the country,” said Mauro F. Guillén, a professor of international management at the University of Pennsylvania. “The best thing she could do for her country is to bite the bullet and step aside.”

Months of ugly invective, secret maneuvering and legal appeals have divided a nation already buffeted by inflation, government paralysis and a colossal corruption scandal that revealed the depths of Brazil’s profoundly troubled political system.

Though widely expected, the spectacle of Ms. Rousseff’s being put on trial is a watershed in the power struggle consuming Brazil, which experienced a rare stretch of stability over the last two decades as it strengthened its economy and achieved greater prominence on the world stage.

Now, those gains are coming undone, with millions of working-class Brazilians sinking into poverty as the country endures its second year of recession.

The nation’s economic woes are not simply a result of falling global prices for Brazilian commodities like oil and soybeans. They are also self-inflicted, economists say, a consequence of flawed policies and enormous graft scandals. Many voters blame Ms. Rousseff and her leftist Workers’ Party.

“Everything is so expensive now, we can barely afford to eat,” said Juliana Santos, 29, a ticket-taker who works for a public bus company in Brasília, the capital. “The Workers’ Party promised they would change things, but they changed things for the worse.”

The bitter political feud among Brazil’s scandal-plagued leaders is taking place as the country struggles to contain the spread of the Zika virus, and just months before the world heads to Rio de Janeiro for the Summer Olympics.

“Plainly said, this is the worst crisis in our history, with its combination of economic calamity, discredited politics and the violation of the lowest ethical standards,” Boris Fausto, a Brazilian historian, told reporters this month while summing up the country’s grim mood.

Ms. Rousseff, 68, is the second Brazilian president to face impeachment since democracy was re-established in the mid-1980s after a long dictatorship.

In 1992, Fernando Collor de Mello resigned before the Senate could try him on charges of corruption. But he has resurrected his political career and is now a senator. In the debate, he criticized his ouster decades ago, before voting against Ms. Rousseff.

Compared with the raucous debate over Ms. Rousseff’s fate in the lower house of Congress last month — during which lawmakers spit on one another, jeered and threw confetti — the proceedings in the Senate were subdued.

After 20 hours of often-somnolent speechmaking, the Brazilian solicitor general, José Eduardo Cardozo, took to the dais just after dawn on Thursday and told lawmakers that history would judge them harshly if they voted to try Ms. Rousseff for a crime he said she had not committed. “If this impeachment goes forward, Brazil will become the world’s largest banana republic,” he said, emotion filling his voice.

Throughout the day, the corrugated-metal enclosures that had been erected outside Congress to contain protesters remained mostly empty, a marked contrast to the thousands of people who flocked to the capital last month to express their support or opposition during the impeachment vote in the lower house.

By evening on Wednesday, several hundred people had gathered in the pens, and at one point, police officers fired tear gas into a crowd of anti-impeachment protesters after firecrackers were lobbed in the officers’ direction.

Ms. Rousseff is a former Marxist guerrilla and a trained economist who spent years working in the nation’s energy bureaucracies. She had not held elected office until former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term, picked her to be his successor.

In 2010, she won handily, and during her time in office, she largely continued the generous social welfare programs that had earned Mr. da Silva unswerving loyalty from the country’s poorest citizens.

President Dilma Rousseff this month. Describing the effort to remove her as a coup, Ms. Rousseff, the first woman to be president of Brazil, has repeatedly rejected calls to resign.CreditUeslei Marcelino/Reuters

“Our greatest achievements were to raise 36 million people out of poverty and elevate 40 million others into the middle class,” Mr. da Silva said in an email on Wednesday. “We remain a party that cares about the poor and about social justice.”

But as the economy soured and scandal rocked the political establishment, Ms. Rousseff’s popularity sank into the single digits, giving her adversaries in Congress an opening to seek her removal.

It was the recent defection of Mr. Temer that helped seal her fate, providing opponents in the lower house the crucial bloc of votes they needed to push forward with impeachment.

But Mr. Temer may be even less popular than Ms. Rousseff, with one recent poll finding that only 2 percent of Brazilians would vote for him. He also faces his own legal problems. An electoral court ordered him this month to pay a fine for violating campaign finance limits. The ruling could make him ineligible to run for elected office for eight years, creating an unusual situation in which a politician barred from campaigning ends up running the country.

Fixing the economy, which may require adopting unpopular austerity measures, is just one of the challenges facing Mr. Temer, 75. Critics have expressed concern over some of his top advisers, several of whom are under investigation, including Romero Jucá, a senator from Roraima State in the Amazon, and Geddel Vieira Lima, a former executive at one of Brazil’s largest public banks. Mr. Temer has insisted that those inquiries would not prevent him from naming the advisers to his cabinet.

Many business leaders and economists have expressed hope that Mr. Temer will win congressional support for changes like reducing federal pensions, privatizing state-owned companies and amending labor laws that critics say hamper economic growth.

Members of the Senate in Brasília reacted on Thursday after a vote to begin an impeachment trial against President Dilma Rousseff. CreditUeslei Marcelino/Reuters

“Temer has 100 days to get the ball rolling and address this disaster,” said Marcos Troyjo, a co-director of the BRICLab at Columbia University, which focuses on Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Despite the charges against her, Ms. Rousseff is rare among top politicians in Brazil in that she has not faced accusations of illegally enriching herself.

Eduardo Cunha, the powerful speaker of the lower house, who led the impeachment effort, was ordered by the Supreme Court to step down last week to face trial on charges that he pocketed as much as $40 million in bribes.

His replacement, Waldir Maranhão, is accused of taking bribes in the enormous graft scheme surrounding the national oil company, Petrobras. And Renan Calheiros, the Senate leader, is under investigation over claims that he received bribes in the scandal, too. He has also been accused of tax evasion and of allowing a lobbyist to pay child support for a daughter from an extramarital affair.

Though badly weakened, leaders from Ms. Rousseff’s party are determined to remain a thorn in the side of the incoming government, which many believe is illegitimate. Speaking to reporters outside the Senate chamber on Wednesday, Senator Humberto Costa, leader of the Workers’ Party caucus, said he was left with no choice but to embrace obstructionism.

“We will treat them to the kind of stiff opposition they imposed on our government,” he said. “There is no other path for us.”

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