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Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff to Face Trial After Senate Votes to Impeach Her

In an expected but historic moment for Latin America, Brazil's president has been removed from office and will face an impeachment trial, in what her supporters describe as a coup.

by Miriam Wells
May 12 2016, 12:45pm

Supporters of Dilma Rousseff block a highway in Sao Paulo as the Senate votes on her impeachment on May 10, 2016. Photo by Rovena Rosa/EPA

The president of Latin America's largest economy and the world's fifth most populous country has been suspended from office and faces an impeachment trial following a Kafka-esque political saga that has divided Brazil down the middle.

Following a marathon 20-hour session senators voted 55 to 22 to impeach Dilma Rousseff less than halfway through her democratically elected mandate ostensibly for allegedly disguising the size of the government's deficit prior to her election, in what her supporters describe as a coup.

The vote ends 13 years of rule by the leftwing Workers Party, which has lifted tens of millions of people out of poverty but which has also been accused of leading Brazil into a devastating recession and overseeing a multi-billion dollar bribery scheme at Petrobras, the country's state-owned oil company.

Rousseff, an economist and former Marxist guerrilla, has never been charged with corruption but many of those who voted to impeach her have. Forty-nine out of 81 senators, 303 out of 513 congress members, and 37 of the 65 members of the Congressional Impeachment Commission, from parties across the political spectrum, are facing charges or investigations for serious crimes.

Dressed in white, and speaking firmly to journalists in front of the presidential palace, Rousseff addressed the nation on Thursday in her last speech as president of Brazil.

"The most devastating injustice is the conviction of an innocent person," she said. "When a president is elected and then removed for a crime they didn't commit, that is called a coup."

Rousseff, supported by a crowd gathered around the presidential palace, promised to continue to fight her impeachment until the end of her mandate, on December 31, 2018.

"I have made mistakes, but I have committed no crime," she added. "This coup does not only aim to remove me, but to overturn my government and its policies, which were chosen by the majority of Brazilians."

She then asked her supporters not to recognize the impeachment process, however, to do it peacefully and without violence.

"I admit I never thought it would be necessary to fight against another coup in our country," Rousseff said. "It is a fight that can be won, and we are going to win it."

As she left the palace without taking questions from journalists, a group of supporters applauded and cheered "Temer out."

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

They were referring to Michel Temer, Rousseff's vice-president who will take over for six months as she undergoes an impeachment trial in the senate and has been investigated for bribery and kickbacks twice. He also oversaw Petrobras during the height of the corruption scandal, and approved the fiscal accounting measures that Rousseff is being impeached for.

Temer is the leader of the PMDB, the largest party in Brazil, which does not have an ideological base but says it is committed to economic stability. While he also faces an impeachment process himself he has enough support in both houses that he does not need to worry.

Earlier on Thursday he signed a document that makes his position as interim president official.

Interim President Temer has ruled out holding fresh elections, despite recent polls showing a majority of Brazilians want them, and has spent the past few weeks assembling a new cabinet to take over and promising to adopt pro-market policies. He says they will get Brazil's budget deficit under control, rein in inflation, and get the economy growing again.

Temer faces immense challenges as he takes on not only Brazil's biggest recession in decades, but also the Zika virus epidemic, in the run-up to the Olympic Games in Rio in August — with an approval rating among Brazilians of just 12 percent.

However, many Brazilians were elated by the removal of Dilma Rousseff.

Fireworks could be heard around the country's capital of Brasilia Thursday morning. Traffic was backed up along the city's axis, as the roads surrounding the congress and presidential palace were closed off. On an overpass near the congressional building, early morning commuters snapped selfies in front of the iconic domes and two towers where the impeachment vote took place hours earlier.

"Certainly, Rousseff's opponents have reasons to celebrate," said Harold Trinkunas, senior fellow with the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution. "But there are reasons for skepticism about how much a Temer administration will be able to accomplish in the short term, as he comes to office with a fragile base of political support in the legislature and among the public."

"If people think this will be a smooth transition, they are wrong — we are going to go through a period of political instability in the country," said João Paulo Peixoto, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia. "But this is an important moment, and the state will now move towards economic liberalization with greater involvement from the private sector."

Names of the proposed new cabinet reported in Brazilian media indicate it will be entirely male and almost exclusively white, according to the Guardian. Two are facing corruption charges.

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

The lead-up to Thursday's vote was marked by so many bizarre twists and turns that even Brazilians were struggling to understand what was going on. The impeachment vote in the lower house on April 17 saw congress members line up one by one to vote "yes" while shouting of their love for their country or support for its former military dictatorship — which imprisoned and tortured Rousseff — in an atmosphere resembling that of a soccer match.

The speaker of the lower house, evangelical conservative PMDB member Eduardo Cunha — third in line to the presidency and described as the architect of the impeachment — is accused of receiving $5 million in bribes and was suspended two weeks later by Brazil's Supreme Court for obstruction of justice. The man who took over, Waldir Maranhao, attempted to annul the vote last week, then within 24 hours announced he was annulling his annulment.

Renan Calheiros, the leader of Brazil's Senate, who oversaw Thursday's vote, faces 11 separate criminal investigations.

Tens of thousands of Brazilians have taken to the streets to protest both for and against impeachment in recent weeks. Those in favor have proclaimed that Rousseff's removal is the only option if there is to be any hope of repairing the country. Those against the process said it was a deliberately orchestrated coup by the country's ruling elite and corporate media who had always detested the Workers Party.

"Today we are trying to overcome this situation by removing an irresponsible government. We have no alternative," said Senator Blairo Maggi, one of Brazil's biggest soy farmers, who is slated to become agriculture minister in Temer's government.

"Has Dilma made mistakes? Of course. But the Workers Party has done so much for us, for the people," said Benedito Polongo, a 63-year-old janitor outside a shiny Brasilia business center, who said he had no job or bank account before the party came to power. "I fear that those who come after her will erase all that has been done for the poor."

Eva Hershaw and Reuters contributed to this report.

Follow Miriam Wells on Twitter: @missmbc

Related: Brazil's Political Crisis Is Reaching Breaking Point