São Paulo, 15 December 2015 

No one can say that Brazil’s Federal Police don`t have a sense of humour, and, it seems, a knowledge of the classics: they named their latest high profile operation, involving dawn raids on the homes and offices of Eduardo Cunha, president of the Chamber of Deputies, Operation Catalinaria, in reference to Cicero´s famous oration against the corrupt roman senator, Cataline, which goes “When, Cataline, will you cease abusing our patience? For how long is that madness of yours going to mock us?” And ending with the immortal lines,O tempora, o mores! (Oh the times! Oh the customs!)”.

As well as Cunha´s homes in Brasilia and Rio, police raided the homes and offices of 52 other people, including two government ministers and one former minister, all, like Cunha, members of the PMDB party, all accused in the sprawling corruption scandal named, rather more prosaically, Lavajato (Carwash).

Tuesday´s operation was the latest twist in the fast moving political drama now taking place in Brazil, where the opposition´s battle to impeach President Dilma has turned sessions of the Brazilian congress into scenes reminiscent of a saloon bar brawl in an old-fashioned spaghetti western. Everybody taking a swing at everyone else, the air thick with swearwords, head-butting and scuffles. And then at times it seems as we are back in Roman times, with a crowd of deputies baying for the blood of the sacrificial victim (President Dilma), yelling “Impeachment! Impeachment!”

Eduardo Cunha, who is also accused of having stashed away millions of dollars in undeclared bank Eduardo Cunhaaccounts in Switzerland and of lying to a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry, is fighting for his political life, using every trick in the book. Seven times the meetings of the Chamber´s Ethics Committee, tasked with deciding whether he should be expelled for lying, has been interrupted and postponed by Cunha allies, buying him time, until at last on Tuesday it finally approved the motion to investigate him.

It does not seem to matter to Cunha that as a result of his manoeuvres, urgent bills which must be voted into law by the end of the year, lie undebated. All that matters is saving his mandate and impeaching the president.

As a result of his blatant attempts to change the rules which govern impeachment proceedings, the Supreme Court has been asked to step in and examine the constitutionality of these changes, which include the introduction of a secret vote, instead of the current open one. Nobody knows when the proceedings will continue, probably only in 2016.

Last Sunday the opposition called for mass demonstrations in favour of impeachment, hoping that large crowds would legitimise their cause. They were disappointed because only a few thousand appeared up and down the country. And this time, apart from all the anti-PT, anti-Lula and anti-Dilma banners and giant inflatable rubber dolls, there were plenty of anti-Cunha posters too.  On Wednesday, pro-Dilma social movements and PT supporters will take to the streets protesting against the attempts to impeach the president.

Is the writing on the wall for Dilma? Popular support, for or against, is important. The Supreme Court could delay the process, examining legal aspects. But, in the end, impeachment is a political process, and it will be decided in Congress, by numbers. To be approved, it needs a two-thirds majority in the Chamber of Deputies. To stop it, the government needs 171 votes. If approved, it goes to the Senate, which will decide, for or against, by a simple majority.

All these steps could still take months.  The deteriorating economic situation, with more and more people losing their jobs, could count against the government. São Paulo´s powerful business organisation, FIESP, has come out in favour of impeachment.

Dilma has been rallying support – 16 (out of 27) state governors have formed a “Chain of Legality” with the slogan “Golpe Nunca Mais” (Coup Never Again). This is a reference to the successful campaign led by Governor Leonel Brizola in 1961 to stop attempts by the military to prevent Vice-President João Goulart from succeeding when President Jânio Quadros abruptly resigned.

If Dilma were to be impeached, which at the moment is a distinct possibility, Vice-President Michel Temer would automatically become president – unless he too is swallowed up by the Lavajato Operation, which is also a possibility, as he has already been named.

Meanwhile, however, Temer is being courted by politicians and business people. The papers publish lists of possible ministers in a Temer government, including many leading members of the main opposition party, the PSDB. Temer´s own party, the PMDB, the main partner in coalition with the PT, is torn between those who continue to support the government and those who are jumping ship. There is a move to bring forward the party convention, set for March of next year, in order to make formal the PMDB´s break with Dilma´s government. Tuesday´s federal police operation, targeting many leading PMDB politicians, has confused the picture.

For some political analysts, there is a silver lining to the present confusion – the rule of law.  The rules of the impeachment process will be laid down by the Supreme Court, not decided by politicians concerned only with their own interests. Brazil´s democracy is firmly established.

And in São Paulo, an unlikely event has produced hope.  At the end of September, the state Education Herman VoorwaldSecretary, a rigid Dutchman called Herman Voorwald, announced a massive reorganisation of the state secondary school system, with the closure of almost 100 schools and the compulsory transfer of over 300,000 pupils to different schools at the beginning of the new term in February 2016.  Staff, parents and students were taken by surprise.

In protest, a spontaneous movement by the students quickly spread. They occupied 200 schools in the capital and the interior, organising debates, cultural events and concerts and inviting in speakers. At one school, a Syrian refugee spoke of his experiences. The students cooked their own meals and cleaned the schools.

The state government called in the police to evict the students from the schools and, in their usual truculent way, they beat up adolescents when they tried to take to the streets in protest and were filmed doing so. This provoked a big backlash and the government has been forced to climb down. Verwoord has been sacked and the radical re-organisation of the schools has been postponed until 2017 to allow time for discussion. The students have won — and have moved on to demand better quality education, smaller classes (some have over 50 students) and a more interesting curriculum. In a few short weeks, they have turned upside down the education system and clearly feel empowered by the whole experience.

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Veteran correspondent and regular LAB contributor Jan Rocha writes about life in São Paulo and Brazil