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Dilma Rousseff Is Close to Being Impeached, but Not All Brazilians Hate Her

Massive anti-government demonstrations led by the middle classes hide the stories of many Brazilians, particularly among the poor, who still support Rousseff or see little credible alternative.
Photo by Eraldo Peres/AP Images

Claudete da Costa has never been anywhere close to Brazil's privileged elite. As a former street child who survived a massacre by police in 1993, the 36-year-old has been on the wrong side of country's social inequality and abuse of power many times.

Yet Da Costa, who is now one of 11 million people who lives in the favelas, or slums, is not happy about the possibility that President Dilma Rousseff could be impeached and her government brought down over allegations of fiddling public finances.


"I never thought I would live to see a coup up close. What they are doing with Dilma is cowardice," she said of the move to oust Rousseff, which is expected to be voted on by congress on Sunday. "We received the dignity of being recognised as workers. The standard of living improved. Are you going to reject a government like this?"

Related: Millions Take to Brazil's Streets to Demand an End to Dilma Rousseff's Presidency

The impeachment proceedings against Rousseff come at a time when the president's approval ratings are extremely low, the country is struggling through recession, and politicians from across the spectrum have been implicated in major corruption scandals.

But many still see the efforts to kick out the president as politically motivated, led by several politicians who are themselves under investigation for corruption.

One of these is the leader of the lower house of congress, Eduardo Cunha, who gave the initial green light to the impeachment process in December. His party — the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, the PMDB — was the main coalition partner of the governing Workers Party, or PT. The PMDB has since broken with the government at the same time as party member and vice-president, Michel Temer, waits in the wings to replace Rousseff if she is suspended.

The debate over Rousseff's removal was accompanied last month by mass demonstrations that brought millions of anti-government protesters to the streets across the country. But, huge though they undoubtedly were, the marches were not representative of Brazilian society as a whole.


'I never thought I would live to see a coup up close. What they are doing with Dilma is cowardice.'

The research institute Datafolha found that well-educated men aged 36 or over were disproportionately represented at the biggest demonstration, in São Paulo. From more than 2,000 interviews, researchers found three quarters of the demonstrators had reached higher education while half had an income that was five to 20 times higher than the minimum salary of 880 Brazilian reals, or 245 dollars.

Working class voters, meanwhile, have been far more present in the smaller but also vocal rallies for the governing PT. Da Costa, who spoke on stage at one such demonstration in Rio, said opposition to impeachment goes beyond party politics to the heart of Brazil's class conflict.

"We're not fighting for the Workers' Party," she said. "For many of us, it's about a government that brought dignity to those people who were excluded their whole life by society."

Da Costa's story is a testament to Brazil's rapid transformation in the past 20 years, in which millions have been lifted from poverty thanks to welfare programmes launched by leftist former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Claudete da Costa. (Photo by Donna Bowater/VICE News)

She started working on the streets as a 10-year-old, sifting through garbage for recyclable material to sell. She was among dozens of children sleeping on the streets outside Rio's Candelaria church in 1993 when police opened fire and killed eight.


Today, she still works on the streets but she also represents a national movement of recycling gatherers, gives lectures and has travelled abroad. Her children have choices and opportunities. She has rights and she knows them.

She believes that the future of this more inclusive and democratic Brazil has been put at stake amid the current political turmoil.

Lula, she stressed, was the first president to sit down with black workers and listen to their needs, a legacy she feels is worth fighting for amid as-yet-unproven charges of corruption against the former president. Lula is being investigated within the massive Lava Jato, or Car Wash, judicial inquiry into kickback schemes associated with the state-run oil company Petrobras.

"If Lula erred, I'm in favour of him paying for his mistakes," she added. "But I'm against what they are doing, which does not yet have sufficient proof."

Related: Impeachment Is Snapping at the Heels of Brazil's President Rousseff

With disapproval of the government rising as high as 70 percent, according to the pollsters Ibope, popular discontent with the president is clearly not confined to the middle and upper classes.

Many within poor neighbourhoods across the country also feel disillusioned with politicians on all sides as the worst recession in 25 years affects all walks of life.

Government critics often suggest Rousseff was re-elected simply on the strength of Lula's welfare allowance, the Bolsa Familia, which pays benefits to poor families as long as their children are in school. It has been credited with lifting millions out of poverty and has had its largest impact in the poorer northeast of the country.


Yet even in São Miguel dos Milagres, a northeastern coastal town of 8,000 where the average monthly salary in 2012 was 907.50 reals ($250), not everyone is convinced. If anything, there is a sense of disengagement and disconnect from the main centres of power in Brasília, Rio, and São Paulo, leaving many with a sense of apathy. The protest movement — neither for nor against impeachment — has not reached the area.

The town itself is experiencing a tourism boom with boutique hotels springing up along its paradisiacal beaches. However, the majority of the families in the neighborhood of Toque remain dependent on the Bolsa Familia.

Related: The Cops Trying to 'Pacify' Rio's Favelas Are Psychologically Scarred

Edvania da Conceição, 33, runs a mini-mart on the side of the main road through the town. The mother of two, who lives in one of the humble low rise buildings nearby, said public opinion was divided despite the high number of families receiving government support. She added she had previously supported the government but had changed her mind in the last election and was now in favor of impeachment, though she struggled to explain why.

"I had voted for Lula, and I voted for Dilma in the past but I didn't think she did very much. What's happening now is proof of that," she said. "The crisis is very big."

For many of those who feel marginalised by the ruling classes, neither side offers an appealing solution to the crisis as politicians from all quarters are tainted by the corruption scandals.


'Put them all in jail… Politics in Brazil has to change.'

Marcos da Silva, a military police sergeant from Porto das Pedras in the north-eastern state of Alagoas, says he cast a blank vote in the last election in protest at the lack of "competent" leaders.

"The political crisis is the result of bad administration on both sides," the 51-year-old said. "Brazil has the resources needed to change, but they [the politicians] only wanted to steal."

Da Silva, who has served the military police for almost 30 years, said he was in favor of impeachment but believed the only real solution to the protracted crisis was military intervention.

"Put them all in jail," he added. "Politics in Brazil has to change."

While Da Silva is not alone in calling for an intervention, others have suggested the more democratic alternative might be entirely fresh elections. This option is supported by Rede Sustentabilidade, the party led by 2014 presidential candidate Marina Silva, who lost out in the first round.

Then there are those, like 26-year-old Maria, who don't see any solution at all.

Maria, who declined to give her last name and lives in a mud-brick house on a squatters' settlement on the outskirts of Porto da Rua, Alagoas, said she survived on the Bolsa Familia, which was her main concern amid the political crisis.

She said Brazil's poor were "forgotten but bigger" than the protesting elite calling for impeachment, but that life for the poor was even harder under Rousseff than it was before. The problem, she said, was that she saw nobody else who might provide a better alternative.

"She started doing good things but now everyone wants to get rid of her," Maria, who is unemployed, said of Rousseff. "We have no way of knowing who else to vote for."

Related: Brazil's Political Crisis Is Reaching Breaking Point

Follow Donna Bowater on Twitter: @DonnaBow