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IDSA COMMENT

Latin America Post the Impeachment of Dilma Rouseff

September 06, 2016

Dilma Rouseff, the democratically elected, leftist, first lady president of Latin America, has been finally impeached on 31 August 2016 and removed from Brazil’s presidency. As can be expected, there have been outbursts of contrasting public expressions, of dismay and support, for the decisive decision of Brazil`s Senate – with 61 votes against and 20 for – to impeach her. The lower house of Brazil`s parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, had already recommended, and the Senate vetted, the initiation of Rouseff`s impeachment process on 12 May this year. While seven Latin American countries, viz., Venezuela, El Salvador, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Cuba, had expressed their disapproval-cum-apprehension when Rouseff was suspended from the presidency for 180 days consequent on the Senate decision, three of these – Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia – have not only condemned outright the final impeachment of Rouseff as a constitutional coup but have also withdrawn their ambassadors from Brasilia. This diplomatic remonstration has, in turn, invited a sharp reciprocal response from the incumbent Brazilian Government of interim President, Michel Temer, who is likely to be confirmed in that position for the remainder of Rouseff`s term ending in 2018, though he will be unelected to the post.

It may be worthwhile to explore how Rouseff’s impeachment impacts Latin American politics, particularly the left-oriented regimes, at least in the immediate future. This is because some of the governments in the Western hemisphere with political proclivities similar to that of the erstwhile Workers’ Party Government of Dilma Rouseff, though installed in power through a democratic process, are presently facing strong internal opposition. These governments, because of their socio-economic policies, are being buffeted by the rightist and conservative forces attempting to reverse them, and extra-constitutional means are being used by both the governments in power and their opponents to retain and acquire power, respectively.

The salience of the impact of the Rouseff-related developments lie in the fact that there is a degree of similarity in the economic policies of the erstwhile Rouseff Government and its counterparts in some of the other Latin American countries like Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia that have been affected by the so-called `pink tide`. It will be interesting to watch whether the labour-friendly, socially inclusive and egalitarian policies in these countries can be sustained even after their originators like former Brazilian presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rouseff have been removed from positions of power, or can be maintained only by forcefully entrenching the incumbent political leadership associated with such policies through extra-constitutional means and constricting the space for the political opposition as being attempted in countries like Venezuela. Temer, Brazil’s interim President, has quickly reversed many of Rouseff`s progressive policies: capping expenditure on healthcare and education while increasing the salaries of government officials, winding up the Ministry on Women Affairs, Racial Equality and Human Rights and symbolically appointing a former police officer as Minister of Justice. In contrast, some of the other regimes in the region cited above are showing greater political will to retain their progressive policies even at the cost of deepening societal divisions and undermining political institutions.

Rouseff has appealed to Brazil’s Supreme Court against her impeachment, but relief appears unlikely considering that the impeachment proceedings were carried out by Senate under the supervision of the Supreme Court Chief Justice. A significant aspect of the Senate verdict is that, though Rouseff has been removed from her present constitutional position as President, she has been allowed to hold public office including in the bureaucracy in future. This decision, as part of the impeachment verdict, is reported to be the outcome of a behind-the-scenes political compromise among Brazil’s political parties, particularly between Rouseff`s Workers’ Party and Temer’s Partido do Movimento Democratico Brasileiro (PMDB) as well as a few Senators and political leaders including some from PMDB against whom some corruption charges are looming. This compromise will enable Rouseff to remain active and relevant in politics for some more time. Other Latin American countries may draw the lesson from the impeachment verdict to the extent that, while jostling for political power there could be a way to give space to political opponents without aborting a democratic or a pseudo-democratic process altogether.

The left-oriented political forces or the `pink tide` proponents have received some setbacks in the past few years. After the demise of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez in 2013, the successor government headed by Nicolas Maduro, though managing to retain power through an election process criticized by his opponents to have been partially rigged, does not seem to be doing well so far as administration of the economy and governance in general are concerned. There has been widespread public mobilisation against the Maduro Government and the latter, in turn, has imposed restrictions on public protests notwithstanding the anti-Maduro forces drawing political support from a few Latin American countries. In neighbouring Argentina, the leftist President Christina Kitchener has been replaced by a conservative, Mauricio Macri, through a democratic process. And Peru`s leftist President Ollanta Humala has been replaced by a right-of-centre politician, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.

The impeachment verdict against Rouseff and the manner in which the former Brazilian President has dealt with the process leading to her impeachment are noteworthy. A senior Brazilian politician, Fernando de Mello, who was forced out of the presidency in 1992 and later became a Senator and now voted for Rouseff’s impeachment, has, however, expressed doubts about the legal basis for her dismissal. A widespread view in Brazil is that Rouseff’s budget manipulations – one of the prime charges against her being that she made up for her government’s budgetary shortfalls by drawing upon funds from public sector banks – cannot be considered as a ‘crime of responsibility’. Many Brazilians are of the view that, while Rouseff may be held responsible for improper macro-management of the economy, she was not a direct beneficiary of corruption-related political activities such as illegitimately drawing upon funds from the country`s petroleum entity `Petrobras`, etc. Many also give her credit for not restraining the judicial investigation of the `Car Wash` or `Lava Jato` scandal, which involved mis-utilisation of position and authority by politicians and bureaucrats towards obtaining commissions on state-entities’ contracts for political and personal benefit, notwithstanding the likely damaging fallout on her governing Workers Party. While there has been a strong political context to the impeachment process, Rouseff has shown her determination to contest her trial constitutionally and through the due process of law. In contrast, in many of the other Latin American countries, the political contestation seems to be occurring outside of a mutually accepted legal or constitutional framework.

If Roussef’s political revival occurs, if not within a few months but in a time-span of one or two years or at least by the time the next presidential elections are held in 2018, it will have an impact throughout Latin America given Brazil’s geopolitical status and socio-economic resources, even if its economy were not to be restored to a high growth path. The way political developments are playing out in Brazil, i.e., with a door left open for Rouseff to reclaim her political space by virtue of not being embargoed from political and legislative opportunities, an outcome as visualized above seems possible. In such an eventuality, the coalescing of like-minded left-oriented political forces on a transnational basis in the Latin American context may be more effectively facilitated. Such a development may help reinforce the efforts of the middle income Third World countries – the group to which most Latin American countries belong – towards promoting a more egalitarian and participative international order. But a prerequisite for such a scenario to evolve is that the Latin American regimes of leftist or socialist hue and forces supporting them should first survive and be able to retain their respective political constituencies and support bases. It is doubtful whether this can be achieved through peaceful means if the manner of the present contestations is any indicator.

The author is a retired IDAS officer, who served till recently as an Additional Chief Secretary-level Adviser on developmental and finance issues to a State Government.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.