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Protesters Waste No Time Calling for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's Impeachment

Recent marches in São Paulo and elsewhere indicate difficult times ahead for Rousseff, who lacks support in the National Congress and has only limited backing from the left.

by Claire Rigby
Nov 17 2014, 6:30pm

Photo via AP/Andre Penner

On Saturday, three weeks after Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's re-election by a slim margin of 3.28 percent, some 3,000 right-wing protestors gathered on São Paulo's Avenida Paulista for a demonstration to call for the president's impeachment.

The crowd carried banners and placards alleging electoral fraud, corruption, and incompetence on the part of her government. Some even branded Rousseff a communist or a terrorist — referring to Rousseff's past as a left-wing guerrilla — and a small but noticeable minority advocated an intervention by Brazil's army and a return to military dictatorship.

The march was the second conservative anti-government demonstration in São Paulo since the election, and came just days after another demonstration on Avenida Paulista brought together thousands of left-wing supporters of the increasingly powerful Homeless Workers' Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem-Teto, or MTST).

Homeless families in São Paulo are occupying the World Cup. Read more here.

The marches indicate difficult times ahead for Rousseff, who lacks support in the National Congress and has only limited backing from the left beyond her own Workers' Party (PT).

"It's worrying that President Dilma has not signaled that the government plans to pursue a progressive agenda," MTST leader Guilherme Boulos remarked at his group's march, criticizing the PT's lack of focus on reform despite its new four-year mandate.

Meanwhile, many of Saturday's conservative protestors associate government programs such as the Bolsa Família, which distributes cash benefits to the poorest Brazilian families, with the radical left agendas of Cuba and Venezuela.

"I know what the PT wants to implant in this country," Maria Lucia Monteiro, a 61-year-old teacher, told VICE News during the march. "It suits them to plunge all of us into poverty, not to lift people out of it."

'Our political system is dysfunctional. We need to change the rules of the game.'

Monteiro was among many protestors alleging electoral fraud in the recent elections. "I kept quiet after the last two elections," she said. "They won, and it's what the country wanted. But I don't believe in this result."

Many of the marchers allude to rumors circulating online and videos purporting to show electronic ballot boxes counting phantom votes. Fueling suspicion on the right, the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), whose candidate Aécio Neves finished second, called for an official audit of the election results. Brazil's Supreme Electoral Tribunal rejected the petition because of a lack of evidence beyond speculation on social media, but agreed to release the result to the PSDB for it to carry out its own audit.

"There's a lack of trust on the part of the PSDB, and a lot of resentment too," Carlos Melo, a political scientist at São Paulo's Insper business school, told VICE News. Rousseff's election campaign included a number of unsubstantiated statements about her opponents, including that Neves planned to discontinue Bolsa Família. The PSDB, Melo noted, is far from being a right-wing party.

"It's a center-liberal and progressive party," he said, pointing to former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's moderate PSDB government from 1995 to 2003. "The election campaign was very aggressive, particularly on the part of the president," he added. "Nevertheless, the PSDB has offered no proof as yet that there was any illegality in the electoral process."

On the other hand, corruption is a charge Brazilians are taking seriously. The long-running "mensalão" corruption scandal, which revealed that members of Congress had received monthly stipends to vote with the PT government, was overshadowed this year by what is being called the "petrolão." The scheme involves money laundering and the payment of massive kickbacks to PT and coalition party officials using resources from the state oil company, Petrobras.

'It's one thing for a sector to be dissatisfied with the outcome of an election, or for there to be political or electoral problems. That's democracy. What's not democratic is to ask for the army to intervene.'

Some of the protesters at Saturday's march cited the petrolão as justification for a possible military coup.

"I don't agree with the need for military intervention — yet," Paulo Gomes, a 54-year-old musician and blogger who participated in the demonstration, told VICE News. "It's the last recourse. But the provision for military intervention is right there in the constitution, in case one of the three powers — executive, legislative or judicial — should usurp one of the others. The executive has done that by buying the legislative in the mensalão and in the petrolão, by paying the opposition to vote for them."

Saturday's march coincided with smaller demonstrations in Rio, the federal capital of Brasília, and other cities, exhibiting a deep sense of resentment on the right as well as the lack of any obvious candidate to channel it.

"There's a crisis of representation here in Brazil, as in the USA, Europe, and elsewhere," Melo said. "It's a structural problem of the modern world. The parties no longer represent everyone, leaving some to seek to represent themselves in these chaotic forms."

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff re-elected in bitterly close race. Read more here.

An anti-government protester on Saturday. (Photo by Claire Rigby)

Printed placards carried by some demonstrators read "S.O.S. Armed Forces: Enough! We want a fundamental cleanup, and power back in 90 days." A smaller number carried hand-lettered signs calling for the return of the Comando de Caça aos Comunistas (Communist Hunting Command), a far-right militia from the 1960s. 

At one point, the demonstration was marred by a brief assault on press photographer Marlene Bergamo, who had been videotaping a group of skinheads confronting bystanders amid cries of "comunista!"

"We're calling for a constitutional intervention by the armed forces for 90 days, until the situation is regularized," a woman holding one of the "S.O.S. Armed Forces" placards told VICE News.

The call for a transitional military government is familiar to students of Brazilian history. The 1964 military junta came to power as an interim government, promising elections within six months — and then stayed in power for 21 years.

Someone dies violently every 10 minutes in Brazil — and police are part of the problem. Read more here.

Mauricio Moraes, a former BBC Brasil journalist who recently ran unsuccessfully for Congress on a PT ticket in São Paulo, told VICE News that Saturday's demonstration echoed calls in 1964 for the removal of President João Goulart. "The rhetoric is quite similar," Moraes said. "They both claim to be for God and the family, and they both called the president a communist, a terrorist."

Goulart was deposed by a military coup in April 1964 and went into exile in Uruguay and then Argentina, where he died in 1976.

"It's totally irresponsible to seek military intervention," Melo said. "It's one thing for a sector to be dissatisfied with the outcome of an election, or for there to be political or electoral problems. That's democracy. What's not democratic is to ask for the army to intervene."

The demand for a coup risked discrediting the protest. Brazil's Truth Commission last week announced a provisional figure of 421 people killed or disappeared during the 21-year military dictatorship, ahead of its final report on December 10. The regime imprisoned Rousseff for three years, during which she was tortured. The well-known rock musician Lobão was among those who abandoned Saturday's march in disgust, tweeting, "INFAMOUS TRAP! I arrive at MASP and the first thing I see is a huge truck with a sign saying Military Intervention Now! What a joke!"

But the likelihood of a military intervention today appears slim.

"The conditions are very different from 1964," Moraes said. "Brazilian democracy is far stronger now."

He nevertheless feels that the petralão scandal has justifiably prompted popular unrest, and that it marks an opportunity to reconsider the way parties and candidates should be funded.

"It's an important moment," he remarked, "perhaps even more than the mensalão. Our political system is dysfunctional. We need to change the rules of the game."

Follow Claire Rigby on Twitter: @claire_rigby