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Latin America Report

'Dilma's Downfall' takes a hard look at a hard right turn — and impeachment — in Brazil

Eraldo Peres
Then Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff leaves the Senate chambers after the vote to impeach and removal from office in August 2016. Behind her is Senate leader Renan Calheiros.

A book by AP reporters Peter Prengaman and Mauricio Savarese considers the real reasons Brazil's Congress impeached the nation's first female president in 2016.

Last week an important figure in Brazilian politics died: Olavo de Carvalho. His far right-wing movement led to the election of far right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 — but before that it helped lead to the impeachment and removal of Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, in 2016.

Associated Press reporters Peter Prengaman and Mauricio Savarese saw Rousseff’s controversial ouster up close. They’ve just published an insightful book about it called “Dilma’s Downfall: The Impeachment of Brazil’s First Woman President and the Pathway to Power for Jair Bolsonaro’s Far-Right.”

They spoke with WLRN Americas editor Tim Padgett — Prengaman from Phoenix, Arizona, where he’s now AP’s climate change editor, and Savarese from São Paulo.

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Here are excerpts from their conversation, edited for clarity:

PADGETT: Peter, you say the door was opened to the far right that governs Brazil today by what happened to liberal President Rousseff six years ago. Explain what happened in 2016 and tell us what you mean by that.

PRENGAMAN: In 2016, President Dilma Rousseff, then in her second term, was accused of manipulating the federal budget — essentially shifting money, all for the supposed attempt to mask deficits and shore up political support during a recession. Previous presidents had done this sort of thing but had never been impeached, so the accusations were really a means to an end.

Many forces wanted Rousseff out, and impeachment was a mechanism to do it. After Rousseff is removed from office, former leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was her predecessor and mentor, is jailed for corruption. The economy is still tanking from recession; there's a major corruption scandal called Lava Jato, or Car Wash, going on around construction contracts.

So amid so much chaos, here comes Bolsonaro, right? He's in Congress, a former army captain who speaks poetically about Brazil’s military dictatorship days. He promises to take a hard line on corruption. He blames everything on Rousseff's Workers Party — and he basically says they want to turn Brazil into another Cuba or Venezuela. And this really resonates with people.


PADGETT: And we should mention here Olavo de Carvalho, the Bolsonaro guru whose far right wing movement really drove a lot of the energy behind this impeachment. He was sort of the Rush Limbaugh or Steve Bannon of Brazil — and he died just last week, ironically of COVID-19, which he and Bolsonaro insisted was a phony crisis.

SAVARESE: Of course, Olavo de Carvalho was part of the national atmosphere. If you caught an airplane anywhere in Brazil back then, it would be very easy to see someone reading one of De Carvalho’s books.

PADGETT: So, Mauricio, your book seems to conclude that what Dilma Rousseff did with Brazil's federal budget wasn't really a crime. So why did conservatives in Brazil's Congress take the serious step of impeaching her?

SAVARESE: So the Workers Party came to the presidency in 2002 with President Lula and then President Dilma Rousseff in 2010. Then the Conservatives think: Well, how long is this going to go? Because if she leaves office in 2018, former President Lula is going to run again and then maybe have another eight years. An entire generation of conservative politicians would never have a chance to hold the presidency. So there were political calculations saying: Well, we need to make a push for them to be ousted.

READ MORE: We've seen the Trump-Chávez comparisons. How about Clinton and Rousseff?

PADGETT: Peter, you also feel misogyny played a role in Rousseff's impeachment?

PRENGAMAN: We asked ourselves during our research: Is it really fair to say that misogyny helped bring her down when she was twice elected by Brazilians to be president? But when impeachment really starts to gain steam, the fact that she's a woman becomes more of an issue than it had been before.

PADGETT: How so?

So different accusations are made. For example, lots of legislators say stuff like, Well, you know, this woman, she's acting hysterically. It was kind of a pile on factor.

When Bolsonaro voted to impeach Rousseff, he praised the colonel who ran the unit that tortured Rousseff during Brazil's dictatorship. For many that was shocking even by Bolsonaro's standards.
Peter Prengaman

PADGETT: At the same time, your book also points out her character flaws, starting with her own considerable arrogance. How badly did that undermine her position?

PRENGAMAN: I think it was a huge factor. Rousseff is very smart, an economist. But she's not very personable, and that really matters in a country like Brazil, where politics gets done in closed rooms and in conversations and in building alliances. And this is just not something that Rousseff did very well.


PADGETT: Mauricio?

SAVARESE: Most definitely. And the fact that she was also a former Marxist guerrilla, and her campaign slogan was that she was “Brazil's Braveheart,” that didn't sit well with conservatives, either — and made it easier to make the claim that communism was at the brink of taking Brazil over because she was in charge.

PADGETT: Right, in the 1970s, Dilma Rousseff was an urban guerrilla who fought against Brazil's brutal right-wing military dictatorship of that time — and she was also tortured by that regime in prison. So she's nothing if not brave. And Peter, the book recounts a moment during Rousseff's 2016 impeachment when Jair Bolsonaro — who often praises that dictatorship — made a rather chilling remark.

PRENGAMAN: Yeah, when he voted to impeach Rousseff, he gave this long speech. And in it, he gives props to the colonel who oversaw the torture apparatus during the dictatorship. And he says the colonel did all these great things. Now, this particular guy didn't torture Rousseff himself — but he oversaw the group that did. And that, for a lot of people, was a shock even by Bolsonaro’s standards. And that particular moment takes him to another league.

Mauricio Savarese (left) and Peter Prengaman in Rio de Janeiro.

PADGETT: And critics would say it foreshadowed his behavior as president today. But Bolsonaro is so unpopular now for his handling of the COVID crisis that former liberal President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula, is leading him in voter polls for the October presidential election. If Lula wins, does Dilma’s downfall become Dilma’s revenge?

SAVARESE: She does have a higher moral ground to hold than a lot of her adversaries: she was never actually arrested while some of them were later convicted of corruption. But at the same time it is a fact that she reminds people that she governed during a time that Brazil was not doing so well — and of the trauma that that impeachment brought.


PRENGAMAN: If Lula wins I think it will be a vindication for people on the left in Brazil and in Latin America. They'll look at it and say, Here, the left was forced out in an unceremonious coup, as many called it, and they'll claim in the end: the good guy wins.