Has the Western media gone too easy on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff?

It’s time for the media to reconsider the narrative that has been used to describe the Brazilian crisis and to turn a more critical eye to President Rousseff, as well as her predecessor Lula and the Workers’ Party in general. They have, after all, been in charge for the past 13 years, and the economic and political crises and corruption scandals currently tearing Brazil apart have happened on their watch. 

It is difficult to understand politics in other countries. As a shortcut, we often try to draw parallels with our own context, but this approach can easily lead us to make erroneous analogies. I would argue that this has occurred in the international coverage of the political crisis in Brazil: despite the unique Brazilian context, media coverage seems to be influenced by the rise of right-wing demagogues in the US and Europe. This has caused journalists to understand the drama leading up to the impeachment of the Brazilian president to roughly follow some of the narratives commonly used to describe the US presidential election. Namely, the more conservative Brazilian opposition has been cast as representatives of shadowy right-wing billionaires, while embattled Workers’ Party president Dilma Rousseff has come off looking like that noble if perhaps slightly unrealistic defender of the common man, Bernie Sanders. Of course, Brazil is not the US, and this comparison does nothing but further muddle an already complex situation.

Although the Brazilian opposition is politically to the right of the current leftist administration, it is not strictly right-wing, even though it has almost exclusively been described that way. It is true that more extreme conservative movements are gaining momentum in Brazil, but they remain, for the time being, at the political fringes. Meanwhile, the biggest mainstream opposition parties, the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) and the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), are respectively center-left or centrist. The PMDB has been notoriously ideologically flexible, so much so that it was an integral part of the leftist governing coalition until recently (in fact, Rousseff chose a member of the PMDB as her running mate and Vice President, Michel Temer). Meanwhile, the PSDB has historically embraced the neo-liberal “Washington Consensus” policies followed by the likes of the Clintons and Tony Blair. It is therefore unfair to conflate the centrist mainstream opposition in Brazil with fringe far-right movements or to compare it to the right-wing politicians of the US or Europe.

Rather than representing the new extreme right, then, the Brazilian opposition epitomizes the old-school political establishment, with all its baggage. A more fitting analogy in this case would be to call it a South American Hillary Clinton. Like Hillary, people either love the opposition or they hate it. Indeed, the flaws of neo-liberalism all over the world have become all too apparent after the 2008 financial crisis. Nevertheless, its proponents in Brazil emphasize the accomplishments of PSDB president Fernando Henrique Cardoso: he tamed hyperinflation in the 1990s, implemented sound orthodox fiscal and monetary policies, and created the first of Brazil’s lauded social programs, setting the foundation for Brazil’s impressive economic growth in the 2000s, after the historic election of the political outsider Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva of the Workers’ Party. They argue that as history repeats itself, with Brazil facing its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, bringing back this style of governance may be just what the doctor ordered.

Detractors of the opposition argue that it represents everything that has historically been wrong with Brazilian politics: elitism, cronyism, and, of course, corruption. This is undoubtedly accurate on all counts and has been reported widely. Still, the proponents of the opposition also have a point, but the media has been much less forthcoming about presenting their side of the argument, perhaps for no reason other than that it doesn’t fit the narrative. They forget that in countries like Brazil, voters often don’t have the luxury of choosing only their ideal political leaders and frequently have to make compromises to select the “least bad” option.

Meanwhile, Dilma Rousseff is no Bernie Sanders. It is, in fact, quite difficult to find an American counterpart for the Brazilian president, who was in her youth a Marxist guerrilla fighter and political prisoner during Brazil’s military dictatorship. She was hand-picked to succeed Lula da Silva despite being a technocrat who had never previously held elected office (she was his Energy Minister and then Chief of Staff). Sadly, one of the few things that polarized Brazilians can agree on these days is that Rousseff has not been able to fill Lula’s shoes and has largely worsened an already difficult economic situation. Economic growth in Brazil has been highly dependent on exports of oil, iron ore and agricultural commodities: Whereas Lula enjoyed the great fortune of having his presidency coincide with a global commodities boom, Rousseff became president when demand from China decreased and the party ended. There surely would have been an economic downturn in any case, then, but her interventionist policies ended up making things much worse by creating all sorts of distortions and unintended consequences. The results have been disastrous. The Brazilian economy contracted by almost 4% last year, and the same is expected this year. Unemployment is almost at 11% and inflation remains stubbornly high.

Given this track record, it may be fitting to think of Rousseff as a less extreme version of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, who is also the ineffective successor of a powerful, charismatic leftist leader, Hugo Chavez. Like Rousseff, Maduro is also facing economic calamity due to the lethal combination of low oil prices and mismanagement. Another notable similarity is that Rousseff, who is supposed to be a political moderate, is increasingly embracing the rhetorical style typical of Maduro and other leaders on the Latin American extreme left: In defending herself, she has repeatedly stated that opposition is elitist, imperialist, and plotting a coup against her.

Which brings me back to the media. While leaders like Maduro and Cuba’s Raul Castro are widely criticized when they make these types of statements, coverage of the Brazilian president has been far more generous. Unable to ignore her missteps, they have instead largely depicted her as a well-intentioned individual who may not be a particularly skilled politician but has otherwise done nothing to deserve losing her job. Indeed, borrowing heavily from the Workers’ Party line, the impeachment process against her has frequently been described as undemocratic. All this despite the evidence that Rousseff broke the law by manipulating the budget and the fact that the impeachment process is following the constitution under the supervision of the Supreme Court, where 8 out 11 justices were appointed by either Lula or Rousseff.

My guess is that this is happening because the charges that form the basis for impeachment are technical and confusing. The essence of the matter is that in the run-up to her reelection in 2014, the president diverted funds from the public banks that disburse (and often front money for) the government’s obligations. Under Rousseff, the government systematically failed to pay them back, receiving in this way what amounted to tens of billions of dollars in forced, interest-free loans. Meanwhile, these maneuvers, known as “pedaladas,” allowed the president to increase spending and conceal a budget deficit in the run-up to an extremely close election. The Brazilian fiscal responsibility law is crystal clear: This type of borrowing is prohibited, and breaking the fiscal responsibility law is an impeachable offense.

Nevertheless, the international press has routinely followed the president’s approach in describing the charges as a “technicality” not worthy of impeachment. It is easy to be confused here – such delays have indeed happened under previous presidents, but never to the same extent. Rousseff’s two predecessors, Cardoso and Lula, delayed payments a handful of times over 16 years, affecting unsubstantial sums that were then promptly repaid; these delays were the result of bureaucracy and do not represent real “pedaladas.” Rousseff, on the other hand, delayed payments an unprecedented 19 times over a period of just two years. The total amount “borrowed” in this way was 35 times that of both her predecessors combined. It is therefore fallacious to equate her large-scale, long-term manipulations with the much smaller, bureaucratic delays of her predecessors. There is clear evidence that she broke the law, while they did not. She is also accused of issuing several decrees, without congressional approval, to get around budgeting guidelines.

Here, it is important to note the historical context that led to the creation of the Fiscal Responsibility Law in the first place. Brazil is a country that has faced numerous cycles of booms and busts, and where short-sighted, irresponsible policies have created economic crises on multiple occasions. The Fiscal Responsibility Law, implemented briefly after hyperinflation was vanquished, aims to ensure that this type of problem does not occur again: In short, it is meant to preserve economic stability. In such a context, irresponsible government spending, especially when conducted unilaterally and arguably in excess of presidential authority, as in the case of Rousseff’s “pedaladas” and decrees, is a particularly sensitive subject in Brazil. That is why the impeachment is so charged: Brazilians are traumatized by profligate policies whose consequences have translated into massive human suffering in the past and are doing so again. Rousseff’s fiscally irresponsible maneuvers, which have in large part fed the record deficit, represent an especially unacceptable breach of the social contract in this context. The impeachment process thereby represents an important catharsis: Without it, there would be impunity for a crime that Brazilians find especially troubling. Further, allowing this specific crime to go unpunished would set a worrying precedent given Brazil’s history.

Still, overlooking this context, the media has raised another criticism of the impeachment process: It is being driven not by the merits of the charges themselves, even if they are legitimate, but by the massive corruption investigation that has rocked Brazil. Known as “Operation Car Wash,” it discovered that at least 2 billion dollars were diverted from state-owned oil company Petrobras through inflated contracts with construction companies and kick-backs to politicians, implicating major players in the political and business worlds. The revelations of such widespread, systematic corruption have led millions of Brazilians to take to the streets to demand political change and an end to impunity.

The media has often pointed out that Rousseff herself has not been directly implicated in the investigation and that it is ironic and unfair that she is being chased out of office by many people who have. It is true that over two-thirds of members of Congress and the next three people in line to become president are being investigated for various crimes, but this does not change the fact that the president committed an impeachable offense. And the fact that Rousseff has not been accused of personally profiting from the scheme at Petrobras does not mean that she is squeaky clean, either. The corruption allegedly took place, after all, while she was Energy Minister and therefore Chair of Petrobras. Further, her re-election campaign is currently being investigated by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal for allegedly receiving illegal funding from the Petrobras scheme. Multiple suspects have, as part of their plea bargains, testified that Rousseff tried to interfere with the Car Wash investigation. Brazil’s top prosecutor recently asked for the president to be investigated for potential interference or obstruction, directly implicating her in the scandal for the first time.

In addition, many people uncomfortably close to the president are being investigated or have been charged, including her campaign strategist, her chief of staff, and her spokesman. Her mentor, Lula, is also under investigation. Fearing that he was going to be arrested, Rousseff tried to appoint him to a government ministry, a move that was widely perceived as an attempt to obstruct justice since it would have shielded him, at least temporarily, from prosecution. This has led to the filing of yet another impeachment request against her.

And corruption at Petrobras is just the tip of the iceberg: There are many similar kick-back schemes being uncovered elsewhere. One notable example involves a project that received particularly strong support from the president, despite criticisms that it would cause an environmental disaster and violate the rights of indigenous communities: the construction of the Belo Monte Dam in the Amazon. But there are many others, such as at state-owned electric company Eletrobras, the Brazilian Postal Services, and the construction projects for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics, to name a few. The fact that under Rousseff, the Brazilian Development Bank provided subsidized loans to support the projects of the corrupt construction companies in other countries is also certainly damning, as is the fact that the bank expanded its loan portfolio dramatically (lending more than even the World Bank) to finance infrastructure projects in other countries while Brazil’s own infrastructure remains woefully inadequate.

In light of all the recent furor, the previous “scandal of the century,” known as the “Mensalão,” is often forgotten. In 2005, then-president Lula’s chief of staff was caught running a scheme to buy congressional votes that sent dozens of politicians to prison. The two greatest corruption scandals in Brazil’s history, then, notably happened within just a decade of each other. The media often attributes the revelation and consequences of these scandals to recent strengthening of laws and institutions that are eating away at Brazil’s long-standing culture of impunity, with the implication being that the corruption problem has gotten better under the Workers’ Party and would only get worse if the opposition came back to power.

However, there is another way of looking at it. It is very important to remember that the corruption at Petrobras and the Mensalão scheme go hand-in-hand and are indicative of how the Workers’ Party operated: Instead of doing the hard political work of building bridges and forging alliances, it systematically used bribery to buy political support. Although there is no doubt that establishment politicians have engaged in individual efforts to steal from government coffers for all of Brazilian history, under the Workers’ Party, the party that came into power vowing to help the poor and eradicate corruption, these disparate efforts appear to have been centralized, leading to graft of unprecedented proportions. From this perspective, the strengthening of laws and institutions is a response by an independent judiciary to greater and more brazen corruption, corruption that grew to such egregious levels that it could no longer be ignored, even in Brazil. In light of all these facts, it becomes increasingly clear that Rousseff holds at least some responsibility here: At best, she turned a blind eye and failed to stop the crimes that were going on all around her for years and years. As president, she should be held accountable.

For all of these reasons, it’s time for the media to reconsider the narrative that has been used to describe the Brazilian crisis and to turn a more critical eye to President Rousseff, as well as her predecessor Lula and the Workers’ Party in general. They have, after all, been in charge for the past 13 years, and all of this has happened on their watch.