The Olympic torch in Rio de Janeiro has been extinguished, and the global spotlight has left Brazil. In the shadow of the games, an extraordinary event has taken place, largely ignored in the U.S. media: a coup d’etat against Brazil’s democratically elected president, Dilma Rousseff. Brazil is the fifth-most populous country in the world, with one of its largest economies. Like many Latin American nations, it suffered under a military dictatorship for decades, emerging as a young democracy only 30 years ago. This week’s coup was not carried out by the military, but by the Brazilian Senate. The effect is essentially the same: the president has been impeached, and an unpopular political opponent, Michel Temer, who represents that country’s wealthy elites, has assumed the presidency.
In 1964, the Brazilian military staged a coup against another democratically elected president. After the coup, Dilma Rousseff, as a young woman, joined an armed guerrilla group to fight against the military dictatorship. She was arrested in 1970, and repeatedly tortured during her more than two years of imprisonment. After her release, she remained politically active, but outside the armed resistance movement. The dictatorship met its eventual demise in 1985 with the return of an elected government.
Years later, in 2014, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, on a visit to Brazil to attend the World Cup soccer tournament, hand-delivered 43 U.S. government documents that detailed the depth of U.S. knowledge of the military dictatorship’s widespread use of torture and assassination against Brazilians. The U.S. government continued to support the dictatorship in Brazil, as it did in Argentina and other Latin American countries.
In 2003, the people of Brazil elected as president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known as “Lula,” a member of the leftist Workers’ Party. He served two terms, and was replaced by his preferred successor, the first woman president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff. The Workers’ Party under both presidents had implemented significant and effective social programs to help alleviate Brazil’s systemic poverty and inequality. It is this confluence of social-program spending and a slowing economy that opened Dilma up to what has been described as a “parliamentary coup.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald is a keen observer of Brazilian politics. He lives in Rio de Janeiro. On the “Democracy Now!” news hour, Greenwald told us:
“The formal charge against her that they’re using to justify impeachment in Portuguese is called pedaladas, which really means pedaling … a budgetary maneuver where the government borrows money from a state bank and then delays repayment in order to make it appear that the government owes less money. So she’s essentially accused of using budgetary tricks to make the state of the government budget look better in order to win re-election – something that when you talk to Europeans or Americans, they react with befuddlement that something like that could justify the removal of a democratically elected president, given that that’s extremely common for political leaders around the world to do, and, in fact, prior Brazilian presidents have used this same method.”
The lower house of Congress voted to impeach Dilma last April, and the Senate then began proceedings. She was suspended during the deliberations, replaced by Michel Temer as interim president. “During the Olympics,” Glenn Greenwald noted, “Mr. Temer broke protocol by demanding that his name not be announced at the opening ceremony, because he was scared of being booed by the crowd. That’s how unpopular and hated he is. And yet … they did boo him, quite viciously.”
On Wednesday, Aug. 31, the Brazilian Senate formally voted, 60 to 21, to impeach Dilma. Remarkably, most of those who voted to oust her are themselves currently under investigation for corruption. As one secretly recorded conversation confirms, the likely reason that the Senate sought to impeach Dilma was to quash all the ongoing corruption investigations against sitting senators and members of Congress.
Dilma marched out and, surrounded by supporters, denounced the proceedings: “This is the second coup I have faced in life. The first, the military coup, supported by weapons of repression and torture, struck me as a young militant. The second parliamentary coup that unfolded today through a legal farce knocks me from the position for which I was elected by the people.”
Brazil is a remarkable country, with more than 200 million people, a vibrant culture, a huge economy and, with the majority of the threatened Amazon rainforest within its borders, a vital role to play in the fight to limit human-induced climate change. With all the challenges before them, the people of Brazil deserve a swift repudiation of this coup, by all governments, but most importantly by President Barack Obama and those presidential candidates who aspire to replace him.