Author Archives: Mauricio Savarese

Rousseff’s impeachment is a penalty searching for a crime

I stopped writing about Brazilian politics for two months because of two different reasons. The first was the excess of work, which is likely to become a permanent feature of mine. The second was the complete unpredictability of how much the political and economic crisis could be aggravated. After speaker Eduardo Cunha started impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff, it is now safe to discuss with an end in sight — at least to the stalemate in Brasilia. It all could end in February or be dragged till the Olympics in August. Despite the intention of making the affair look like a natural development of President Dilma Rousseff’s unpopularity, the first issue of the agenda is proceedings themselves — although it is tempting to describe why Cunha used his so-called atomic bomb as revenge against government allies that wanted him investigated by Congress.

Brazil’s constitution says impeachment proceedings may be triggered by the speaker of the lower house if the president committed a “crime of responsibility” in the current mandate. There is no evidence that Rousseff did such thing, no matter how poor her performance at the Palacio do Planalto has been. What was used against her is an accusation that she intentionally infringed fiscal laws in 2015, even though there are no rulings in that direction for this year. The decision to include this year’s books in such a serious accusation is an improvisation, since Brazil’s constitution demands that impeachment proceedings can only be kicked off if the alleged crime of responsibility was committed in the current mandate. Rousseff’s second term began in January, when she was already facing impeachment calls. The alleged offense committed this year may have already been corrected.

Cunha’s decision is, at the very least, a stretch. Since Brazil’s audit court recommended that Congress rejects Rousseff’s books in the previous mandate (2011-2014), the speaker used that report as an initial excuse, attached a few notes from some technocrats saying that the malpractice continued this year and… voilà. That audit court (TCU) is not a part of the Judiciary — it is like the GAO in the United States. TCU only makes recommendations for Congress to judge, but Cunha and the opposition sell it to the public as if a judicial decision had been made condemning Rousseff. Congress has not even voted on the matter. No books of previous presidents have been voted in the last 20 years.

To make the impeachment grounds even shakier, Congress passed a bill readjusting Brazil’s fiscal targets for 2015 on the same day that Cunha approved the proceedings. With new fiscal targets approved by Congress for this year, how can the proceedings be kicked off based on an alleged back pedaling that was corrected before the year ended? That case hasn’t been made to the Supreme Court, but it might soon.

That would be enough to dismiss the impeachment calls in many mature democracies, but Brazil seems to need more. And there is more. Every federal, state and municipal administration has used state banks to pay for government programs and initiatives — that is the core of the accusation. Such practice was never defined as a crime. It is a hazardous fiscal irregularity that does deserve punishment to those that are responsible, no doubt. What impeachment sympathizers believe is that a widespread administrative practice should be considered a crime committed by the president alone.

They don’t even consider that such decisions can be made by the treasurer that also signed all those acts. The radicals also believe that the punishment to be applied should not be a fine or ineligibility in a future election: it has to be the removal of the president from her office. Is Brazil ready to apply similar rules to all former presidents, governors and mayors that committed those irregularities months before a mayoral election? Of course not. That is what makes the whole case look more of illegitimate way for the opposition to come back to power than to a respectable impeachment proceeding.

But let’s get radical for a second.

Let’s assume that Rousseff deserves to be impeached for her fiscal infringements. After all, there is real risk that she loses her position because of those accusations — they are not huge, but consultancy firms rate it at about 40%. If she goes, so should vice-president and now more openly impeachment plotter Michel Temer, who as interim president during her travels also signed similar acts.

Isn’t that extraordinary?

I am not even discussing all the other elements that make the current proceedings so illegitimate, such corruption investigations on speaker Cunha that might send him to jail, the opposition questioning Rousseff’s narrow victory right after the result was announced or her deep and deserved unpopularity in the middle of the current economic crisis. There is no need to if we stick to what the Constitution says.

That is why the impeachment proceedings started last week are a clear example that removing Rousseff is a punishment searching for a crime. Since she is not a crook, as far as Brazilians know, the difficulties to put it all in a box to send her away have been immense. Those that say that impeachment is a political process often fail to mention that the political process is only valid once the judicial requirements are fulfilled. That was clearly the case when President Fernando Collor was impeached in 1992.

That is far from being the case with Rousseff. Don’t take my word for it. That is also the opinion of respected publications like the New York Times. That is the perception of serious entities such as Brazil’s bar association OAB, the confederation of Catholic bishops (CNBB) and many other non-partisan organizations that favored Collor’s impeachment 23 years ago.

Unless new facts come out, the best for Brazil is to file these proceedings, carry on with the corruption investigations at state-run oil giant Petrobras, reform its political system and focus again on dragging itself out of the mud.

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Brazil has exhausted across the board

An economy crisis, a political turmoil, a footballing nightmare and cultural emptiness. That is Brazil these days. One of the few things President Dilma Rousseff got right this year is that the country is experiencing a moment of crossing. From third world nation to… nobody knows exactly what. The time for quick and easy answers to Brazilian woes is definitely over.

In politics, it is hard to make predictions that live through one week. The model of presidential coalitions has definitely died with the current crisis. Since 1992, presidents made their best to secure support from most political parties so they could stop investigations and pass their reforms. After only one tight presidential election, Brazil’s first in that scenario, the current presidential coalition is destroyed. And there is no sign anyone can make that kind of arrangement work again. Corruption investigations will free Brazil from many of those who profit in those coalitions, but that doesn’t mean there will be leadership to put party politics in another level.

In the economy there is no clear path after the super consumption pathway seems finished. With a cyclical crisis, consumer confidence has dropped to record lows. So how can Brazil take a better and more sustainable road? The problem is clearly related to politics too, but the timing for politicians and economists will always be very different. Some will say Brazil needs to get rid of the absurd interest rates that stall the economy and others will insist in cutting government expenses. Whichever is the option for the next few years, it is hard to say anyone without strategic planning will be able to hit the bull’s eye. There are no bull’s eye left in Brazil.

Since democracy was reestablished in 1985, Brazil had major challenges to tackle. Challenges that seemed urgent. First we had to consolidate our democracy. Then it was all about fighting inflation. In this century there was a quest against extreme poverty. At the end of the day, Brazilians won all those disputes. But now what? Education, public security, healthcare and infrastructure are clearly important areas in which Brazil has to improve, but that urgency hasn’t quite sunk in. Most programs in those fields are quite basic and fail to confront important interest groups that have halted improvements. Will that happen now that Brazilians feel that malaise? Hard to know.

Even in football Brazil seems exhausted. Coach Dunga is the archetype of a pragmatism that Brazilians reject. Fans are fewer and fewer not only because the team was destroyed by Germany in the 2014 World Cup, but also because there is no fun. The Brazilian creativity that used to compensate for all the flaws and hardships seems to be gone now that Brazil isn’t as troubled — despite the current crisis — as it once was.

In other arts it is no different. Take the last edition of festival Rock in Rio as an example. Most of the Brazilian bands playing there exist since the 80ies. Not much has happened in the last two decades, except for record label-sponsored rockers that have little food for thought to offer. The cinema industry could be a good exception to the rule, but even that one, despite recent successes, is dominated by pasteurization. Just like Brazil’s economy for a while, it is a success for consumers, not so much for serious critics. And all that confusion will still be seen when Rio de Janeiro hosts the next edition of the Olympic Games.

Since politics tends to guide all the other fields, the future of President Rousseff will probably have a big impact on Brazil’s final stop after this gruesome crossing. A crossing that is nowhere near the end.