São Paulo, 8 April 2016: When tempers flared at this week’s session of the special congressional impeachment committee, the chairman ordered maracujá juice to be served to everyone; this might sound odd to those who call it passion fruit, but it makes sense in Brazil where it is regarded as a tranquiliser. Litres of it were distributed to the angry members. It seemed to work because they listened in silence to the Attorney General`s two-and-a-half hour, closely reasoned defence of President Dilma Rousseff, which demonstrated that, according to the constitution, she had not committed any crime worthy of impeachment, and therefore to interrupt her term of office, without the proper grounds, would indeed represent a coup against the constitution.

But the arguments of the defence were ignored in the lengthy rapporteur`s report. Instead, he concluded that the so-called pedaladas fiscais, or financial manoeuvres, of which the President is accused, amounted to `crimes of responsibility`.

After non-stop sessions to debate the report, which have lasted throughout the night and over the weekend, almost unheard of in the Brazilian Congress, the committee of 65 deputies will vote to approve or reject the report on Monday 11 April. A simple majority of 33 votes is needed, and everything indicates that it will pass.

This unprecedented haste is due to the agenda set by the Chamber of Deputies speaker, Eduardo Cunha, who wants the final plenary session, when 342 votes are needed to approve impeachment proceedings and to send the process to the Senate, to take place on Sunday 17 April. Cunha`s motive for holding it on a Sunday is so that large pro-impeachment crowds can surround the Congress, putting pressure on deputies who are still undecided which way to vote.

The mood – pro- or anti-impeachment – ­changes every day, making it impossible to predict the outcome with any certainty.

Claudete Costa
Claudete Costa

There is evidence that the anti-impeachment feeling outside Congress has been deliberately under-reported. For example, the leader of the Collectors of Recyclable Material in Rio de Janeiro, Claudete Costa, said at a rally that the poorest sectors of the population are opposed to the president`s impeachment but are given no visibility in the media.  “We are against it, and we are apprehensive about this attempted coup, because this is the only government which always respected us. Where I live, in Cidade de Deus [a community], everyone is against the coup. But the media is not interested in showing this.”

Lula, whose appointment to the Head of the Casa Civil, making him de facto Prime Minister, is still held up in the Supreme Court, has thrown himself into the task of persuading deputies to vote against impeachment with promises of jobs in the government, even ministries.

His chief target is the Partido Progressista (PP), which has an invaluable 57 votes. In the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party that the impeachment crisis has become, it is also the party with the biggest number of deputies accused of corruption in the Lava Jato investigation, and includes Corrupt Politician no. 1 – Paulo Maluf, wanted by Interpol and convicted by a French court for corruption and money-laundering.

It is depressing, to say the least, to see the PT government openly trading votes for jobs, even when it means sacking responsible, honest officials and replacing them with the allies of corrupt politicians. In Santarém in the Amazonian state of Pará, for example, the regional superintendent of INCRA (the land reform institute), a career official who was restructuring the agency to make it more efficient, has been replaced by a man with a dubious record, but linked to a federal deputy, whose vote is thus assured against impeachment.

But in the last few days, two new facts have appeared to throw cold water on the PT`s rising hopes of barring impeachment. Attorney General Rodrigo Janot decided that Dilma`s appointment of Lula should be annulled, because its real reason was to enable Lula to escape the jurisdiction of the lower federal court presided over by judge Sérgio Moro. A final decision will be taken at a plenary session of the Supreme Court on 20 April.

In this Alice in Wonderland world, the fact that Lula has not actually been charged with any crime and, as a minister, would still be liable for trial in the Supreme Court, seems to have been overlooked. But the Attorney General`s decision, effectively barring Lula from holding an official post in Dilma’s government, served to call into question the former President’s bargaining powers.

Then, seemingly carefully timed to affect the impeachment outcome, came an explosive leak in the Folha de S. Paulo, apparently passed to the newspaper by the federal prosecutors investigating the Lava Jato scandal.

Otávio Azevedo
Otávio Azevedo

The leak concerned the delação premiada, or plea bargain, of Otávio Azevedo, former CEO of Andrade Gutierrez, one of three major construction companies that took part in an 11-company consortium to build Belo Monte, the giant dam on the Xingu river in the Amazon.

Azevedo said the consortium´s contracts with the official banks financing the project were deliberately inflated, so that 1% of their value could be paid to the two parties in the ruling coalition, the PT and the PMDB, for their election campaigns, in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

R$75 million (£15 million) was paid to each party in the form of legal campaign contributions. Rebutting the accusation, government minister Edinho Silva said that, as they were legal campaign contributions and had been approved by the TSE (Higher Electoral Tribunal), there was no case to answer, and that in any case Andrade Gutierrez had given a larger contribution to the opposition party, the PSDB.

Dilma said the leaks were premeditated, “with the clear aim of creating an atmosphere which favours the coup”.  The government fears that new leaks, or new arrests and accusations against PT members or ministers, are being planned under the Lava Jato Operation by judge Sérgio Moro, who they now believe has a frankly anti-PT agenda.

The pro-impeachment offensive is also led by Eduardo Cunha, who has cast aside the neutrality normally expected from the Chamber of Deputies’ Speaker. Besides already declaring his own vote, for impeachment, he has decided to change the traditional alphabetical order in which deputies cast their vote, and instead to call first those from the southern states, which are predominately anti-Dilma, leaving the mostly pro-Dilma states of the North and Northeast until last.

The reason for this is to put psychological pressure on the ‘No’ voters. Cunha, who faces charges of bribe-taking and money laundering in the Supreme Court, and in many other countries would have felt obliged to step down, seems instead free to do what he pleases, whatever is in his own best interest. From his point of view, speeding up Dilma’s impeachment, and replacing her with Vice-President Michel Temer, from his own party, the PMDB, will be rewarded with a payoff – the dropping or suspension of the charges against him, already inexplicably relegated to the back burner by the Supreme Court. He has also tried to stop a separate attempt to bring impeachment proceedings against the Vice-President.

To increase the pressure on those deputies who are still undecided, giant scoreboards have been erected in public places with their names. The newspapers are also publishing the names and photos of all the deputies, in ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Undecided’ columns.

Cunha ally and leader of the Solidariedade party, deputy Paulo Pereira da Silva, known as Paulinho da Força, plans to park loudspeaker cars outside the homes of representatives who plan to vote ‘No’ so they can be publicly decried.

Paulinho, a former trade unionist who has been accused of taking bribes from employers to stop strikes, also charged the government with offering large sums of money to congressistas to change their vote, although he offered no proof.

Time to go, says The Economist
Time to go, says The Economist

The pressure against Dilma also comes from abroad. However, The Economist’s arrogant, imperial front page headline  — “Time to go – the tarnished president should now go” — has not been matched by the same certainty from the markets, as ‘the day after’ a successful impeachment only leads to more questions. What would a Temer government actually mean? What would its economic policy be? Would there be widespread unrest? Would Lava Jato continue or would it be suspended before it reached the many opposition politicians known to have been named in plea bargains? And even if the impeachment attempt failed, how would Dilma´s government survive, politically weakened, faced with an even more hostile Congress, and possibly with Lula in prison?

These questions have also led to the idea of bringing forward the elections due in 2018. Some would like to see not only early presidential, but also general elections, but it is hard to see Congress members voting to cut short their own mandates by two years.

Many people now believe that only a sweeping political reform – to severely limit the current astronomical cost of electoral campaigns, which favours corruption and eliminates good but poor candidates; to reduce the exaggerated number of parties, which makes it difficult to govern without constant bargaining and negotiating; and to introduce the district vote to make elected representatives accountable – would greatly improve the situation.

Meanwhile, the political scene is re-arranging itself in the light of what seems (today) to be Dilma’s probable impeachment.

The PSDB, the main opposition party, has papered over its internal differences and decided to vote for impeachment, to support a Temer government, and to put an end to calls for new elections.

And, in the world outside the political bubble of Brasília, Brazilians now face not only epidemics of dengue, chikungunya and zika, but also the h1n1 flu, with a health system handicapped by political appointments.

Land conflicts have also flared. In Paraná, at least two sem-terra (members of Brazil’s Landless Movement, the MST) were killed and nine injured, during a confrontation with military police. The police claimed they were ambushed but the MST have denied this, pointing out that the only victims were on their side, while the police had none.

The bigger picture is the failure of governments, both federal and state, to carry out land reform. And when projects have been approved, it seems that many have been used to benefit the wrong people. The federal accounts tribunal, TCU, said it had identified over a 1,000 politicians, mostly local councillors but also four mayors, nine state deputies and one senator, who illegally received land under the official land reform programme. Another 37,000 beneficiaries turned out to be dead. The land is supposed to go to poor, rural workers, tenant farmers and labourers. In other words, corruption is not confined to Brasilia, but has spread throughout the country, which is adrift without a moral compass in a sea of political turbulence.

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