Brazil's Impeachment Drama: Part Tragedy, Part Farce

April 27, 2016

Imagine that Shakespeare had written a political drama in which a once-beloved queen’s past indiscretions have come back to haunt her. The queen’s popularity has recently tanked due to months of economic decline in her kingdom as well as a fraud scandal surrounding the powerful families of the region. Although the queen hasn’t been directly tied to that scandal, it was just proven that she’s been cooking the books on government accounts. To boot, several members of the queen’s family—let’s call them the Worker’s Party—have been implicated in the fraud scandal. Another family—say, the Democratic Movement Party—has historically been an ally of the queen’s, and several of her most trusted advisors are members. Now the patriarch of the Democratic Movement Party has turned on the queen and is leading the charge to take her down. The only thing is, that patriarch has himself been charged with corruption in connection to the fraud scandal plaguing the kingdom.

Commoners swarm the streets calling for the heads of the queen and her family. The audience wonders who will last longer: the queen, or her opponent. In a tragedy where everyone is corrupt in one way or another, who do you root for?

That’s what the world is wondering as it watches Brazil, where the above drama is a reality. President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil’s Workers Party (PT) may soon be impeached for shuffling money between accounts to cover up a fiscal deficit. Not only this, but Dilma is also undergoing a separate investigation into fiscal inconsistencies in her 2014 re-election campaign.1 Her vice president, Michel Temer of the Democratic Movement Party (PMBD), is under investigation for the campaign discrepancies as well.2 Allegations of account manipulation have only gone public in recent weeks, but Brazilians have been calling for Dilma’s impeachment for months, because of the infamous Lava Jato (or “Car Wash”) scandal. Lava Jato is the nickname for the participation of dozens of government officials in a multi-billion-dollar graft ring at state-run oil company Petrobras.3 Over a hundred indictments have been issued and over a dozen companies criminally charged in connection to the scandal, which over the years has amounted to $USD 3 billion worth of bribes.

Though Dilma has not been directly implicated in Lava Jato, countless former political allies of hers have.4 House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, a PMBD member also charged in Lava Jato, vehemently denied involvement in the scheme until his undeclared Swiss bank accounts were discovered a few weeks ago.2,3 Former treasurer of the PT João Vaccari Neto was sentenced to 15 years in jail last month for receiving at least $USD 1 million in bribes from Petrobras.5 Also being investigated in Lava Jato is President of the Senate Renan Calheiros, who himself resigned from office under other corruption charges several years ago.6 Senator and former President Fernando Collor de Mello, impeached in 1992 on other corruption charges, is yet another figure who has been implicated in Lava Jato.5

The apparent inability of Brazil’s foremost politicians to stay out of trouble is almost absurd. Brazil’s people, 8% of whom approve of Dilma and a great many of whom are actively calling for her impeachment, are forced to pin their hopes on Cunha for lack of an option with a little more integrity. Brazil deserves better. But right now House Speaker Cunha, who allegedly received $USD 5 million in bribes, appears to the Brazilian people to be their best chance at starting to sweep out corruption—starting, specifically, with Dilma.7

For impeachment to occur, Cunha himself has to approve one of several impeachment requests which have been submitted to him.8 He says he is currently choosing between three petitions.9 If and when he accepts a petition, it will go to the House of Representatives. If two-thirds of the House were to vote in favor of impeachment, Dilma would be temporarily removed from government while the Senate reviews the petition. If two-thirds of the Senate approve the movement in 180 days, Dilma would be removed from office.8

Though a Supreme Court ruling blocked the beginning of impeachment proceedings on Tuesday, giving Dilma a little extra time to muster support in Congress, Cunha has said he is continuing to review the petitions despite the injunction.10 But in the meantime, the Lava Jato case against him only grows. Brazil is holding its breath: Will Cunha last long enough to open impeachment proceedings? David Fleischer, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia, thinks that Cunha will do his utmost. “He’s going out shooting,” Fleischer says. “There’s a bet on who’s out first—Dilma or him. But they’re both gone. Neither is going to survive.”6

It’s an ominous prediction to make, but even scarier is the uncertainty of what comes after. Whether Congress will vote for impeachment is up in the air. If the movement did go through and Dilma were kicked out, vice president Temer would take office—unless he is also impeached, or is unable to assume the post for “personal reasons.” If that were the case, next in line would be Cunha, provided he himself survives. After Cunha comes President of the Senate Calheiros, who has a history of corruption and is also being investigated in Lava Jato.7 In short, Brazil’s line of succession is just an uncertain series of distasteful figures, which is worrisome for those looking past the end of the impeachment drama. Once all the characters have died bloody deaths and the curtain has been drawn, what remains for the rest of Brazil?

“If I speak, the republic is going to fall,” former Petrobras employee Alberto Yousseff told his lawyers eight months ago when preparing to spill the Lava Jato scandal.4 If the statement sounded theatrical then, it rings true as a bell now. Lava Jato has wreaked havoc in Brazil, exposing the corruption of the country’s most powerful and jumpstarting talk of impeachment long before Dilma was charged with account manipulation. Now the third act of Brazil’s political drama begins, and the world is watching closely to see how it will play out. We know that all the characters are villains. The only question now is which villains, if any, will survive.


1 "Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff Loses Legal Battle and Could Face Impeachment." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 7 Oct. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.

2 Brum, Eliane. "In Brazil’s Political Drama, All the Players Are Villains." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 9 Oct. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.

3 Johnson, Reed, and Rogerio Jelmayer. "Brazil Lawmakers Move to Oust House Speaker Eduardo Cunha." The Wall Street Journal. N.p., 13 Oct. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.

4 Segal, David. "Petrobras Oil Scandal Leaves Brazilians Lamenting a Lost Dream." The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 7 Aug. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.

5 Belenky, Matt. "Brazil Top Court Puts Presidential Impeachment Efforts on Hold." JURIST. JURIST Legal News and Research Services, Inc., 14 Oct. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.

6 Nolen, Stephanie. "Multiplying Corruption Charges Opens Way for Impeachment for Brazil’s President." The Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail, Inc., 12 Oct. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.

7 Rapoza, Kenneth. "With Impeachment More Likely In Brazil, President Dilma Becomes The Anti-Lula." Forbes. N.p., 13 Oct. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.

8 Buchanan, Elsa. "Brazil: Growing Clamour for President Rousseff's Petrobras Impeachment as 2m Sign Petition." International Business Times. IBTimes Co., Ltd., 17 Feb. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.

9 Marcello, Maria Carolina, and Leonardo Goy. "Brazil's Rousseff Gains Time to Avert Impeachment." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 14 Oct. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.

10 Bowater, Donna. "Brazil President Dilma Rousseff Attacks Opposition 'Coup' Plot." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited, 14 Oct. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.

About Author(s)

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Erin Barton
Erin Barton is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh. She is an intern for Panoramas and studies English Writing, Spanish and Latin American Studies. Erin studied in Cuba for 4 months during the spring of 2016 and has been writing on Cuban and Latin American issues for Panoramas since 2015.