“A Very Dangerous Thing for Democracy”

A Brazilian journalist on the impeachment and corruption scandals that are tearing her country apart.

Dilma Rousseff
Facing impeachment, Brazil President Dilma Rousseff’s approval ratings have collapsed. Above, Rousseff attends a meeting in Brasilia, Brazil, on June 5, 2013.

Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

When Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached by the lower house of Parliament on Sunday night over accusations of improper budgetary maneuvers, it only intensified the crisis that has engulfed the country over the past several months. Dilma—as she is known—was elected in 2010, and re-elected four years later on the Workers’ Party, or PT, ticket.* Her former boss and predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—known as Lula—had been a broadly popular figure known for his outreach to the poor, and for engendering the hatred of a good chunk of the country’s middle class. But he too now finds himself enmeshed in corruption investigations, which have overtaken much of the PT, involve the state oil company Petrobras, and threaten the administration’s survival. A vote in the upper house is forthcoming.

What makes Brazil’s predicament even more complicated is that many of those in the opposition and members of the judiciary who have gone after the PT have their own skeletons in their closets, and have long resented PT rule. Many analysts—not to mention Dilma herself—have therefore called the goings-on in the country an attempted coup. Nevertheless, Dilma’s approval ratings have collapsed, and the end of the worldwide commodities boom has left Brazil’s economy limping.

To discuss the current situation, I called up Daniela Pinheiro, a Brazilian journalist (currently on a fellowship at Stanford) who has reported extensively on politics and corruption in the country. We talked on Monday about Dilma’s shortcomings as a politician, the cleavages in Brazilian society, and why Brazilian democracy may be permanently harmed by the impeachment drive. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Isaac Chotiner: Do you see this as an attempted coup, or do you have a different take?

Daniela Pinheiro: I absolutely agree with the idea that this is a coup. Many Brazilians, including myself, woke up today with a bad taste in our mouth. Sunday was a very bad day, and set a very dangerous precedent for our democracy. Her impeachment is based on financial and economic misconduct. She is accused of using money from public banks to cover budget gaps. But she was judged for another reason. Sixty percent of the people accusing her are facing charges of corruption. It is outrageous. Unbelievable.

So what was this other reason she was judged?

In my opinion [laughs], in my humble opinion, it began when Lula came to power. Brazilian elites never accepted a blue-collar worker as a commander in chief. Brazilian social dynamics have changed so much since the PT came to power. It was very, very disturbing for the elites. For the first time, poor people had access to a privileged world, a world that was restricted to a very few people. Housewives began to sit next to their housekeeper on planes. It was very disturbing for elites.

With Dilma, there is another problem. She is a terrible politician. She is arrogant. She is stubborn. She never listens to anybody. She thinks she knows more than anyone else. She refuses to talk with other politicians. During the process, she hasn’t reacted properly. She never, never admits that she is wrong. It upset many people. In economic policy, she made many mistakes.

Her approval ratings are so low now. She must have lost the working-class support that Lula and she once had.

Yeah. You know why? Three years ago, or four years ago, people in the middle class were gaining comforts that were then lost. The economy has shrunk. Inflation has soared. It has affected the core of Brazilian families.

You have written about the corruption scandals of Lula and the PT. So even though you are calling this a coup, it does seem like many of these allegations have some truth to them.

The thing is the impeachment is not about corruption. The vote wasn’t about corruption; it was about financial and economic misconduct. The people who voted have other interests. It is a very dangerous thing for democracy. But there is proof this government was corrupt. But that’s not what was voted on. They are separate things. There is no evidence that Dilma is corrupt. Lula has been investigated, but there is nothing against her personally. There is a lot of evidence that the PT got a lot of bribes from a construction firm that was a major election sponsor.

Actually, many of the people who were in charge with the corruption scheme at Petrobras were fired by her.

What did you make of Dilma offering Lula a Cabinet position so he could avoid prosecution? That seemed shady.

Yeah. They were trying to come up with a solution. Lula has some accusation that he accepted favors from the construction company. The most outrageous thing is that the men who are in charge of the [impeachment] process are a bunch of criminals. They have real evidence against them. The speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, may go on trial for corruption involving $40 million. The vice president [and next in line], who is no longer a Dilma ally, is also accused of corruption. I always think of House of Cards. This guy, Cunha, is worse than Frank Underwood because he is real. Everything you see on television you can see live in Brazil right now.

How do you get out of this mess if both sides are corrupt—even if Dilma is not personally—and they are all going after each other? What is the solution?

There is no solution in the short run. There is no solution. The decision they made Sunday is a terrible thing, and it will take generations to fix that. I was very surprised to see the low level of the congressmen we have. I didn’t realize that until yesterday. They have to say their votes out loud. The quotes they made, the sentences they said—we have a Frank Underwood surrounded by corrupt, evangelical zealots. And this is the major part of the Congress now. It is very scary. I don’t see good things happening.

What would you say to average Brazilians who are out in the streets protesting corruption and hate Dilma?

I would say, “Yeah, I think she is a very bad politician and maybe she deserves to be out of power. But we have to have another election.” People are celebrating something very weird and dangerous. What are they celebrating? I don’t know.

What is most likely to happen now?

We will have the Olympics in four months, and people will be watching. I am sure these guys, these professional politicians, will do everything they can to pretend things are going well, but I think it will all be the same or worse very soon.

So you don’t think Dilma will survive?

No, no. I think she is out. The government has no legitimacy. She has 8 percent approval. It is almost impossible.

What should happen with Lula?

One of the fears is that if this new group came to power they would actually try to stop the investigations because they are all involved. They are in the same kind of trouble. But if the investigations go forward, he is in bad shape. The case against him is compelling.

Do you think corruption in Brazil has gotten worse, or has it always been like this and is now coming to the surface?

It’s coming to light now. It is in the DNA of politicians, unfortunately.

*Correction, April 19, 2016: This article originally misstated when Dilma Rousseff was first elected president of Brazil. It was in 2010, not 2014. (Return.)