Cardoso ’19: The precarious state of Brazilian democracy

staff columnist
Tuesday, April 11, 2017

This past week, Eduardo da Cunha, the former president of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies — the lower house of its national legislature — was sentenced to 15 years in prison after he was convicted on corruption charges relating to his involvement in Brazil’s gargantuan grafting scandal, Operation Lava Jato (translated as Operation Car Wash). This fitting conclusion to da Cunha’s sensational fall from power provided an almost surreal context for former President Dilma Rousseff’s Monday lecture “The Challenges for Democracy in Brazil.” Indeed, it was da Cunha that accused Rousseff of malfeasance in the first place, having instigated the impeachment proceedings against her in late 2015. His conviction almost immediately prior to Rousseff’s lecture, though, is not just a humorous bit of irony — rather, it portends dark things for the health of Brazil’s relatively nascent democracy.

To the casual observer, Rousseff’s cries of a “political coup” may have seemed like sour grapes — the bitter rationalizations of a politician seeking to vilify her opponents and protect the legacy of her party. But upon deeper inspection, there is really no clearer way to describe her ouster than as an institutional coup d’etat based entirely in political factionalism.

Firstly, Rousseff found herself among the very few of Brazil’s political elite that were not implicated in Operation Lava Jato, which involved breathtaking corruption and grafting through Brazil’s state-owned oil company, Petrobras. As a result, the investigation of politicians implicated in the scandal proceeded, unabated, under her watch. While many in Rousseff’s own party have been implicated in the scandal, including her predecessor and mentor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, her political opponents have made it clear that they intended to impeach her so that her vice president, Michel Temer — a member of another political party and under investigation himself — could put an end to the probe, saving himself and most of the others implicated. Indeed, in the Chamber of Deputies, 303 of its 513 members were under investigation for corruption, as were 49 members of the 81-member Senate. Of the 65 members on the impeachment commission in the Chamber of Deputies, 38 voted to impeach Rousseff, and of those, 37 were under investigation for charges related to the Lava Jato scandal.

In case their voting patterns did not signal their intent clearly enough, some members of President Temer’s cabinet have elucidated their motivations. Senator Romero Jucá, president of Temer’s Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, was caught on tape suggesting to Sérgio Machado, the former president of the Brazilian oil and transportation conglomerate Transpetro, that “a change in government” would result in an agreement to “staunch the bleeding” posed by Operation Lava Jato, in which both were implicated.

With this in mind, Rousseff’s claim that Brazil was “one step from an actual coup” no longer seems like hyperbole. But while her impeachment was, by any metric, profoundly and disturbingly anti-democratic, the aftermath of her departure presents problems of its own.

Rousseff’s Workers’ Party has ruled without interruption since 2003, when da Silva was first elected. The Workers’ Party has implemented and run on extensive social welfare programs which have been credited with helping to significantly reduce extreme poverty, hunger and HIV rates in Brazil. It was on this platform that Rousseff was reelected in 2014. However, her successor, Temer — who is not a member of Rousseff’s party and is, unbelievably, currently banned from running for president,  despite ascending to the position as Rousseff’s vice president — has begun to implement severe austerity measures. This is all in spite of the fact that Rousseff ran on exactly the opposite platform. Following the Senate’s approval of his budgetary amendment, which caps federal spending for the next 20 years, protests erupted across Brazil. Shockingly, even members of his own party have called for his resignation. Ronaldo Caiado, a leader of Temer’s political coalition, stated publicly that he should resign.

While reasonable people can certainly disagree over the wisdom and efficacy of Rousseff’s policies and even her decisions, which, in fact, were fairly divisive in Brazil, it seems indisputable that her impeachment was a product of corruption and political tribalism. Rousseff’s lecture was aptly named — Brazil’s democracy faces several sinister challenges, indeed.

Connor Cardoso ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to