Dilma vs. Collor: How do Brazil’s impeachments compare?

It was a contentious and controversial process lasting over nine months, but Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff has finally been impeached. Although the proceedings were acrimonious from the get-go, they culminated with an unexpected show of mercy from Brazil’s Senate. Thanks to some creative last-minute justifications, Dilma ended up receiving only half of the punishment prescribed by the Brazilian constitution: Although she was removed from office, she was not stripped of her political rights, meaning that she is free to run for office or accept a political appointment at any time (the constitution says impeachment must be accompanied by an eight-year ban from politics). This bizarre and patently unconstitutional maneuver indicates that relations between the former president and the Senate, who are ostensibly enemies, may actually be rather chummy behind the scenes.

It was perhaps a fitting end to an ordeal that has been marked by farcical charades from all involved parties. After so much cynical play-acting by the nation’s leaders, it’s hard to know what to make of the whole thing. It almost makes you nostalgic for the impeachment of Fernando Collor de Mello, in 1992. Back then, the country was united in its disdain for a corrupt president and the process to remove him was relatively swift and uncontroversial. Indeed, perhaps the best way to make sense of the current impeachment and gain some perspective on it is to compare it with this previous episode.

Collor: The man who lost his presidency and political rights over a Fiat Elba

Collor was the first president directly elected by Brazilians after the end of the military dictatorship, in 1990 (in an ugly election, he beat Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party – PT – who would go on to act as one of the staunchest advocates of Collor’s impeachment and who would finally be elected president himself in 2004, in his fourth attempt, going on to mentor Dilma as his handpicked successor). The scion of a wealthy political family from the northern state of Alagoas, Collor was a young and handsome playboy, famous for jet-setting and jet-skiing.

He had previously served as governor of Alagoas, where he was known for going after the ultra high salaries of career public servants known as “maharajas”. By doing so, he earned a reputation as a serious politician and was elected president based on promises to modernize Brazil’s economy.

Although he was only in office for two years, he implemented an ambitious program of reforms, including the privatizations of state-run companies and the opening up of the economy, that have been maintained and extended by his successors, and which set the foundations for Brazil’s subsequent economic growth. However, he also made some considerable missteps, such as when he opted to freeze the savings accounts of all Brazilians for 18 months in order to combat hyperinflation, which was still at over 1000% when he left office (although admittedly better than the 30,000% that it was when he took office). His downfall, however, related to corruption that was denounced to the authorities by a member of his own family.

If Collor could have considered any of his relatives to be a liability, it would surely have been his father Arnon de Mello, a former senator responsible for the craziest incident in the Brazilian Senate’s history. In December of 1963, de Mello’s archrival, fellow Alagoas Senator Silvestre Pericles, went on a tirade against him on the Senate floor. As Pericles had previously threatened to kill de Mello, he had taken to carrying a handgun into Senate sessions. When Pericles set upon de Mello, brandishing his own weapon, de Mello reacted and fired. Although he missed Pericles, he did end up hitting José Kairala, who had tried to intervene to stop the violence from escalating. Kairala, a 39-year-old, was not actually a senator and was just temporarily filling in for a colleague. As it was his last day as “interim senator,” his pregnant wife, young son and mother had all attended the Senate session and witnessed the shooting. He died of his injuries four hours later.

Although de Mello and Pericles were briefly arrested, they were subsequently released without any consequences, ultimately losing neither their freedom nor their mandates. Despite the fact that the shooting was witnessed by everyone at the Senate that day, de Mello and Pericles were found innocent based on a technicality. Since they were aiming for each other and missed, both were found innocent of attempted murder, while Kairala’s death was ruled an accident. De Mello returned to the senate in 1970 and continued to serve as senator for Alagoas until his death. Despite his wealth, he never helped Kairala’s widow, who ended up having to wash clothes and work as a nanny to survive.

This sordid incident did not turn out to be an issue for Collor, since Arnon de Mello died in 1983, seven years before his son became president, and Brazilians have a famously short memory when it comes to the past misdeeds of politicians. Instead, it was Collor’s brother Pedro who proved to be his undoing.

Pedro came forward with allegations that Collor was allowing a former campaign treasurer, Paulo Cesar Farias, to run an influence peddling scheme, and profiting from it. Based on his accusations, a congressional committee was set up to investigate allegations that Collor had squirreled away some six million dollars in illicit funds. However, they never found concrete proof, being able to confirm only that Collor had allowed some personal expenses to be covered with money raised by Farias. The “smoking gun” in determining this was based on testimony from Collor’s driver that he had used dirty money to purchase his wife’s car, a Fiat Elba.

Still, it was enough to cause widespread popular protests and a relatively speedy impeachment process. In the end, Collor resigned right before the final impeachment vote, so he technically wasn’t even impeached. Still, the Senate assumed his resignation was merely an attempt to prevent the loss of his political rights, so it decided to proceed with the final impeachment vote anyway, and Collor was banned from politics for eight years.

When the criminal proceedings against him finally went to trial years later, the charges against him were thrown out due to insufficient evidence. Ironically, Collor, the man who resigned in disgrace, then became one of the few Brazilian politicians with a clean record.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Collor should not have been impeached. He was obviously corrupt, and any proof of that, regardless of how modest, is sufficient grounds for his removal from office. There was clearly something very wrong going on, something that was a lot bigger than the Fiat Elba or the six million dollars: Indeed, the whole ugly ordeal culminated with Farias being found murdered.

The fact that Collor was later cleared of charges does not change anything. Impeachment is a political process, for political crimes. Even a hint of impropriety is enough for, say, the CEO of a company to step down or be fired, and the same should go for the president of a country. When corruption scandals hijack a president’s agenda and keep them from doing their jobs, they have to go, period, for the good of the country. Just the fact that Collor was associated with someone who was found to have been corrupt beyond any doubt should have been enough for him to resign the presidency.

By the way, using the same logic, it follows that Lula, whose chief of staff went to prison for running an elaborate vote-buying scheme in Congress, should have faced some sort of consequence as well. Instead, he tearfully professed not to have known about it and was promptly reelected. That’s Brazilian politics, where surrealism is routine.

And speaking of surreal, the craziest part of the whole Collor story is that he is still in politics. Imagine if Richard Nixon had, a decade after his resignation, gotten himself elected Senator. That is what Collor did, after a long political journey which involved 8 years in exile, a couple of failed campaigns, and a few changes in party affiliation. Collor, the man who defeated Lula using some downright nasty tactics (including paying his ex-wife to dish on their personal problems), whose free-market reforms and right-leaning politics made him the bogeyman of the leftist PT, whose impeachment happened in large part due to agitating by the PT and Lula, ended up actually joining the PT coalition, and being welcomed with open arms. For a time, between 2007 and 2016, he was even a member of the party, going from mortal enemy to colleague of both Dilma and Lula! Richard Nixon not only back as a Senator, but as a socialist!

Like many other politicians, both from the PT and other parties spanning the political spectrum, Collor has now been named in the Lava Jato investigation into corruption at state-owned oil company Petrobras, apparently having learned nothing from his past experience. If anything, he has upped his game considerably. Almost 20 years after being impeached over his Fiat Elba, a recent police raid on his Brasilia residence turned up an undeclared Lamborghini worth 3 million reais, as well as a Ferrari and several other luxury vehicles, all allegedly purchased with money from the Petrobras corruption scheme. It seems that the only lesson he learned is that if you’re going to lose your job over an Italian car, it might as well be the best Italian car (or cars) your illicit money can buy.

But he has not lost his job yet. Pending investigation, he remains an active member of the Senate, one of the 81 people tasked with making the final decision regarding Dilma’s impeachment. Perhaps one of the most dramatic moments of the whole impeachment saga was when Collor stood on the Senate floor during the session in May on whether to suspend Dilma and pointed out some of the differences between what happened to him and what was happening now:

In 1992, in an analogous process, it took less than four months between the presentation of the charges and the final decision to resign on the day of the final judgment. In the current process, it has already been more than eight months. Depending on today’s results, another six months are expected until the final judgment. The rite is the same, but the rhythm and the rigor are not. We just need to remember: Only 48 hours passed between the arrival in the Senate of the authorization from the Chamber of Deputies and my suspension. Today, we have spent 23 days just on the initial stage in this house. The Special Commission Report that we are discussing here today is 128 pages long. The same report from 1992 was half a page long, containing only two paragraphs. That’s right, two paragraphs. How times have changed.

Dilma: The woman who kept her political rights after committing billionaire budget fraud

Indeed, comparing the gravity and scale of the allegations against Collor and Dilma, it becomes difficult to understand why Dilma’s impeachment has been so controversial while Collor’s wasn’t. Dilma is guilty of budgetary fraud and fiscal irresponsibility. It is not corruption, per se, but it is an impeachable offense according to the Brazilian constitution and arguably had much more wide-reaching and dire consequences than anything Collor ever did.

She manipulated the budget in the run-up to a hotly contested election, pushing tens of billions of reais in government debt onto the balance sheets of public banks, effectively forcing them to provide loans to the government, to hide a huge deficit. She then campaigned on the fact that there was no budget deficit and promised more spending. In this way, she effectively defrauded the electorate and undermined the democratic process to get herself reelected. After winning the election, the bill came due and she had to make budget cuts, including in healthcare, education and social programs (the very same ones she promised to expand, knowing full well that there was no money to do so). How ironic that the populist leftist president was the one implementing austerity measures during a recession, thereby exacerbating the crisis, and all due to her profligacy and subsequent deceptions.

Beyond manipulating the budget (and the electorate), she also issued decrees for additional billions in spending without congressional authorization, another illegal move. Both of these acts, the forced loans and unauthorized decrees, represent breaches of Brazil’s fiscal responsibility law, and are therefore impeachable offenses. As a result of all of this profligate and unsustainable spending, Brazil lost its investment grade status, which has worsened the debt crisis even more due to the increased interest payments that Brazil is now on the hook for. When Dilma was suspended and the interim administration of Michel Temer took over, they discovered that the deficit was actually three times larger than she had previously admitted, making it the largest in history. Meanwhile, much of the money borrowed illegally from public banks went not to social programs, as Dilma repeatedly claimed, but toward subsidized loans from the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) that benefited huge Brazilian corporations.

It is true that Dilma herself has not been accused of being personally corrupt, as Collor was. But still, for years, she turned a blind eye to massive corruption at Petrobras (where, before being president, she was the chair of the board), allowing at least six billion reais of the company’s money to go toward bribes and kick-backs (the greatest corruption scheme ever discovered in a democracy).

Furthermore, many of her closest colleagues and advisors have been caught up in that investigation. While the Collor scandal centered around his affiliation with just one shady individual, Dilma has been associated with a long list of people who have ended up in jail. It is pretty clear that her campaign received illegal funds from the Petrobras corruption scheme. Her campaign manager has been imprisoned over his offshore bank accounts, filled with millions in dirty money paid for by the construction companies that were milking Petrobras. Several PT treasurers have also been arrested due to the shady sources of the party’s funding.

Her mentor Lula is also facing corruption charges related to his foundation and some allegedly undeclared properties. In a move that smacked of abuse of power, in fact, Dilma tried to shield him from prosecution by appointing him to a government ministry when it looked like he might be arrested (the position would have provided him with prosecutorial immunity). This appointment was rightly blocked by the Supreme Court, but represents yet another instance of decidedly unpresidential and probably illegal behavior from Dilma.

There are so many other things that could be mentioned. As energy minister, Dilma personally approved Petrobras’s purchase of the Pasadena oil refinery in Texas, which was worth 50 million dollars but cost the Brazilian government one billion. She was also a force in pushing forward the construction of the Belo Monte Dam, an environmental and human rights disaster in which portions of the Amazon rainforest were flooded and indigenous tribes were displaced to make way for a badly designed, wildly overpriced, kick-back laden boondoggle of a hydropower plant that will never be able to run at full capacity and will produce far less energy than promised.

I could go on (the scandals at BNDES and the Postal Services, the huge infrastructure development projects in Angola and Cuba, the CARF scandal in which a government agency helped banks evade taxes in exchange for bribes, etc.), but I won’t. The point is that when the bar for an uncontroversial impeachment is a Fiat Elba, then any of these incidents, on their own, should be enough to justify Dilma’s removal. All of these incidents together should make her impeachment a slam dunk.

And yet, with so much controversy and scandal, Dilma, with the power of the PT propaganda machine, was able to propagate a ridiculous narrative in which she was the victim of a coup. They used every old populist trick in the book (oversimplification, playing the perpetual victim, shifting the blame to “neo-liberals,” “plutocrats,” and “imperialists,” claiming that it was all a plot by “the elites” to step on “the people,” etc.), and, astonishingly, it worked. Although the majority of Brazilians believe in the impeachment, a vocal minority has taken to the streets to denounce the “coup.” It has also been enough to persuade some international media organizations, which, although often stopping short of calling it a coup, have denounced the impeachment process as illegitimate, despite the fact that it followed the Brazilian constitution, was overseen by the Supreme Court, allowed plenty of opportunities for Dilma to defend herself, and at the end even reduced her punishment. What kind of coup is that?

The argument is often made that the Senators convicting her have no moral standing given how many of them are facing corruption investigations themselves. It is certainly true that many of them are corrupt, and they will face their own days in court. However, they are not the president, and their crimes do not change the fact that Dilma committed an impeachable offense by breaking the fiscal responsibility law.

In fact, the only illegal thing that happened was at the very end, when Dilma was allowed to keep her political rights, directly contradicting the constitution. For Collor to lose his political rights while she gets to keep hers is completely outrageous. Her willingness to make a deal with these Senators, who saved her from losing her political rights at the last minute, is what takes away the moral standing. Now, the precedent set by the division of her punishment will be used by the Senators as they, one by one, face the prospect of losing their own mandates. To keep your political rights in Brazil is to be practically immune from prosecution. By making this deal, Dilma is complicit in helping to ensure the impunity of those she has spent the last year calling “coup-mongers” and “usurpers.”

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end

Hopefully, comparing the cases of Dilma and Collor is helpful in putting Brazil’s impeachment drama into perspective. The fact is that in this case, for the most part, the rule of law was followed and Brazil’s democratic institutions did their jobs.

It is important to remember this because, although the impeachment saga has concluded, there are still huge challenges ahead. Brazil’s institutions will continue to be tested under the new administration of Michel Temer, a man who has also been implicated in the Petrobras scandal. The fact that Brazil’s institutions survived the impeachment intact is promising, although the final fudging of Dilma’s constitutionally prescribed punishment is a bad sign of collusion between the PT, the corrupt senators of the opposition, and the Supreme Court. There have been also been several other indications that Temer and his cronies want to restore not only the economy but also the old way of doing business, in which government officials benefit from widespread impunity and can, like Collor's father, literally get away with murder. Their goal will be to derail the Lava Jato investigation, for starters. That cannot be allowed to happen.

The fight for a lawful democracy in Brazil continues. Leading the way is Lava Jato. Its fate is Brazil’s fate. Hopefully, it will be stronger than the efforts to declaw it.