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Savior or Villain? A New Leader Steps Into the Scandal-Plagued Brazilian Presidency

After ousting a female president, Michel Temer immediately named a cabinet without a single non-white male, a first in 37 years and a move that has riled many Brazilians.
Photo by Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

In his first speech as the interim president of Brazil, Michel Temer couldn't really talk. Beset by a scratchy throat, he tried drinking water from a stemmed cup, but it didn't help. As Temer choked up, an assistant brought him a lozenge to the podium.

After regaining his voice, Temer launched into a litany of promises to deal with the political crisis and economic downturn plaguing Brazil, to a chorus of applause from his supporters. His speech came roughly 12 hours after the Senate had voted to impeach his 2010 and 2014 running mate, President Dilma Rousseff.


"My first word to the Brazilian people is confidence," Temer said, opening his half-hour speech. "Confidence in the values that define the character of our people, in the vitality of our democracy."

But the trouble he had getting out his words may have been an apt metaphor for the Temer presidency, which is not off to an auspicious start after Rousseff was suspended from her office on Thursday, less than halfway through her second term. She will now be tried for allegedly manipulating the national budget to cover shortfalls during her re-election.

"It is the present and the future that challenge us, and we cannot look forward with the same eyes that we did yesterday," Temer said, stressing he had great respect for his predecessor. But, after ousting a female president, he immediately named a cabinet composed entirely of white males — with no women or minorities — a first in 37 years and a move that has riled many Brazilians.

"He pushed a woman out of office and didn't put a single one in his cabinet," said Vanda Denise Maria Silva, who had spent all day Thursday outside the presidential palace, protesting. "This is a serious step in the wrong direction for women, and for Brazilian society as a whole."

During Temer's address, women outside chained themselves to a security fence.

The impeachment brouhaha happened as an ongoing investigation dubbed Lava Jato, or Car Wash, has exposed bribes paid for inflated contracts from the state-run oil company Petrobras. Rousseff was never implicated in the probe, and many in Brazil say that her impeachment will serve to slow the corruption investigation she advocated for.


Related: A Bunch of Men Will Likely Take Over After Brazil's First Female President Is Ousted

Supporters of Rousseff's Workers' Party, or PT in its Brazilian acronym, have long called the impeachment a coup by conservatives. A small group of protesters outside the presidential palace Thursday also held signs calling for a military counter-intervention, and a rotating cast of passersby stopped to express their indignation at the latest turn of events. Some yelled "respect the elections," while others called the procession of suited men that entered the palace "golpistas" — coup leaders.

"She was betrayed by her own vice president, the man who was on the same ticket," said Sidney Lima, a university professor taking part in the demonstration. "The government had no choice but to align themselves with conservatives, who have a different plan for our country."

Yet it was outgoing president and PT icon Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who had a lot of influence over the largely unproven technocrat Rousseff, who had suggested Temer be her running mate in 2010.

'He pushed a woman out of office and didn't put a single one in his cabinet'

Temer had been a leading figure in the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, or PMDB, since 2001. He had been speaker of the lower house before his selection as Rousseff's running mate. President Lula believed that Temer, an experienced politician, could lend credibility to Rousseff's presidential bid.


Temer is 75, a former university professor of constitutional law and author of several books on the subject, and also writes poetry. He is married to 32-year-old Marcela Temer, whom he began dating when she was in her teens, after two previous divorces.

He is the youngest son of Lebanese immigrants who moved to the country in 1925. According to The Financial Times, the family's hometown in Lebanon has named its main street "Michel Tamer Street, Vice President of Brazil" — spelling mistake included.

And, as Dilma's vice president, he never truly saw eye to eye with her. His PMDB party, a wide grouping of interests from the nationalist to the leftist, began to fragment after her 2014 reelection, and the more conservative branch led by Eduardo Cunha came to power. Many members of the PMDB opposed the inclusive social policies proposed by Rousseff, and the increasingly right-leaning party openly criticized policies it saw as counter to business interests.

Related: President Rousseff's Likely Impeachment Will Push Brazil to the Right

At the end of 2015, Temer wrote a personal letter to Rousseff in which he said that he felt "decorative" and that her team had "no confidence in him."

Though Temer stood quietly by the president in the early phases of the impeachment proceedings, he created distance as her ouster inched closer to reality.

During the impeachment vote in the lower house, Temer was photographed smiling. The week before the hearing, in a leaked audio file ahead of the committee vote, he referred to a "significant vote" as though the impeachment had already taken place. The next day, Rousseff publicly accused him of being part of an "open conspiracy".


For political scientist Paulo Calmon, the division between Rousseff and Temer had been growing larger in recent years, mainly in response to the fragmentation of the PMDB.

"Temer is an opportunistic politician," said Calmon. "He has always shown his capacity to act in a rational way, without binding ideological or political commitments." As the crisis deepened and Rousseff grew more and more distant from congress, Calmon says that Temer saw the writing on the wall.

"It was an act of political survival," he said.

That survival, though, is far from certain for Temer himself.

The new interim president also faces impeachment charges, and has been named in two plea bargains in the Lava Jato. Of the 24 ministers that Temer has installed, seven are implicated in the investigation, a fact that has raised questions about how hard the president will support the continuing probe.

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His list of ministers also raised immediate suspicions that ministerial jobs had been used as a bargaining chip to buy influence. For example, the ministry of agriculture will be headed by agribusiness billionaire Blairo Maggi, locally known as the "king of soy." Ten ministries were cut immediately — including those for culture and human rights — and will be folded into other offices. The science and technology ministry will be lumped together with communication.


Temer's team is conspicuously white, male, and hailing from conservative political parties, which caused instant critiques from Brazilian media pundits. His political advisors told the newspaper Folha de São Paulo that Temer is "very aware of this concern" without explaining how he will address it.

"We have a government that considers politics as separate from society," said Flávia Birioli, professor of political science at the University of Brasilia, where she studies gender and politics. The new government, she said, "is open to dialogue with the financial, business, and traditional political sectors… but not with civil society organizations, or interest groups that actually comprise our society."

But not everyone says Temer's cabinet choices are poor.

"The finance minister that Temer has put in has been waiting in the wings," said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia, referring to Henrique Meirelles, a former central banker who has promised to cut spending and deficits. "He has good contacts in the private sector in Brazil, and this will be very important in improving the international image of the country."

According to Fleischer, despite the criticisms, Temer is better suited to rebuilding a coalition government than Rousseff, who famously had little patience for congress.

"Dilma had lost her majority in congress because of neglect," he said. "Temer is an experienced chamber politician, he knows how congress operates and he will be a good political articulator."

Follow Eva Hershaw on Twitter: @beets4eva