In Brazil a few weeks ago, I asked a former official from Dilma Rousseff’s government whether his old boss would be impeached. “Forgive me for being politically incorrect,” he said, “but only if the poor take to the streets.”
Ah, Brazil, where even in moments of high political drama, the class divide reigns supreme. But that answer still rings true, even after congressional leader Eduardo Cunha decided Wednesday to start impeachment proceedings against Rousseff. At this time, Cunha and the opposition don’t seem to have the votes in either Congress or the Supreme Court to successfully oust the president. Yet that could change in coming months, especially if Brazil’s worst recession in 80 years pushes the working class to protest en masse.
In some ways, the timing of Cunha’s move was perfect – for Rousseff. Senior figures in her Workers’ Party continue to go to prison, but the legal case against Rousseff remains flimsy or nonexistent. Cunha, meanwhile, continues to act in ways that the writers of House of Cards would find utterly implausible. He dropped the hammer on impeachment at a moment when he faces an epic corruption scandal of his own. Rousseff immediately went on TV and accused Cunha of moving against her only to save his own skin. No one doubts that is true.
But – Does it matter at this point? A large majority of Brazilians have said in polls since early 2015 that they want to see Rousseff impeached. Regrettably, and to the likely detriment of long-term democratic stability, most voters don’t care about legal niceties – they’re angry over the economy, and they want somebody else in charge.
We saw new data on Tuesday showing just how bad the recession is. Brazil’s economy shrank at an annualized pace of nearly 7 percent in the third quarter, and unemployment may hit double digits before the year is up. Unbelievably, the heavy lifting on fixing the fiscal deficit hasn’t even started yet. Most economists say recovery is still 12 months away, at best. So, a generation of Brazilians that as recently as a year ago harbored expectations of entering the developed world is now looking at a historic recession with little hope of improvement, a wave of upcoming budget cuts and tax hikes, and a critically wounded leader with three years left in her term. Combustible? You bet.
The streets have been quiet since August, at least where Rousseff is concerned. If and when protests return, the question becomes: What will the protests look like? How will they feel? If it’s the same coalition as earlier this year, made up mostly of middle- and upper-class Brazilians who never voted for Rousseff anyway – the coxinhas, in the current political slang – then it doesn’t change much politically. If the working class joins in, though, all bets are off.
Why? Well, this can be a hard one for foreigners to understand, much less explain, but let me take my best shot: The huge gap between rich and poor remains, in many ways, the central fact of Brazilian political life. Every elected official in Brasilia knows that he or she serves at the pleasure of a working-class majority, the so-called povão. At the same time, most politicians are either from the elite, or are now a part of it, so they don’t really understand the lives and moods of most of their constituents (even more so than in most countries). This fundamental, enduring disconnect makes Brazilian politicians extra-sensitive to any hint of social shifts or unrest.
Put another way: If the working class gets further squeezed by the recession in coming months, and takes to the streets in large numbers, panic will prevail in Brasilia. The survival instinct will kick in. So while Cunha may not have the two-thirds of votes he needs in the lower house of Congress right now, that could quickly change. Forgive me for being politically incorrect.
Brian Winter is the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly. He was the chief Brazil correspondent for Reuters from 2010 until June 2015, and has written four books about Latin America.
Tags: Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, Impeachment