Dilma in hot water

Brazilian congressmen celebrate on April 17, 2016, as they reach the required number of "Yes" votes to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. (Agencia Brasil photo)

Brazilian congressmen celebrate on April 17, 2016, as they reach the required number of “Yes” votes to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. (Agencia Brasil photo)

UPDATE: The Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Brazilian Congress, voted 367-137 to impeach Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Sunday, April 18, 2016.

The impeachment motion now goes to the Senate, which should decide whether to accept or not by May 10. If they do, President Dilma will be immediately suspended as president for a maximum of 180 days. The Senate will then have to vote on the measure.

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Brazilians are experiencing unprecedented political tension as the impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff moves swiftly ahead. On Thursday, the Supreme Court met in a special session for eight hours to hear the government’s petition to have the impeachment stopped. The court in the end voted 8-2 to allow the process to go forward.

Speeches for and against the impeachment started being given in the lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies, on Friday morning. They are scheduled to run in a marathon session until Sunday morning, with only a few breaks late at night to give the 513 congressmen a chance to sleep. On Sunday, the deputies will start voting on the impeachment. If Dilma is impeached by the lower house, she will be suspended as president for 180 days, during which the Senate will have to debate and vote on the motion. Vice-president Michel Temer, who is the son of Lebanese immigrants, will immediately assume the presidency as soon as the lower house votes in favor of the impeachment. If he does make it, he will be Brazil’s first ever president of Arab descent.

According to polls taken by all the major newspapers, Dilma will lose the vote in the House of Deputies and in the Senate too. She seems to realize that she is on the way out, but in interviews this past week has vowed to fight to the last minute. The Folha de Sao Paulo counted 338 votes in favor of her impeachment in the lower house, with 123 votes against the motion, and 52 lawmakers still undecided. For the motion to pass they would need 342 votes. In the Senate, out of a total of 81 senators, the paper counts 44 senators in favor of impeachment, 19 against and 18 undecided. For the motion to pass only 41 votes are needed.

The whole impeachment process has sharply divided Brazilians along ideological lines. Poorer Brazilians and leftist intellectuals have remained strong supporters of President Dilma and her Workers’ Party, though most will not deny that she has not handled the economy well at all. Middle class and wealthier Brazilians have been leading the massive protests against the president and her party, calling on her to be impeached or for her resignation.

Both pro- and anti-impeachment groups have called for huge rallies on Sunday across the nation. Fearing that violence may break out between the opposing groups, the governor of the Federal District ordered that a 2-meter high metal be installed in the Esplanade of the Ministries, a grassy mall that runs from the central bus station to Congress in the center of Brasilia, with all of the ministries ranged on either side of the mall.

The wall is one-kilometer long and has already been dubbed the “Berlin Wall” and the “Wall of Shame” of Brasilia by locals upset at seeing their public space so sharply divided. The federal minister of justice called it a “crazy idea” in a television interview. Some observers have said they fear that violence may break out between the Movimento dos Sem Terra (Movement for the Landless) activists and the pro-impeachment crowd. The MST members are known for using violent tactics in their protests, burning tires and throwing dangerous objects at riot police.

The polarization of Brazilian society caused by this political debate has become so severe that even a Brazilian doctor recently announced she could no longer the treat the child of a Workers’ Party activist because she could not stand the ruling party. The local doctors union defended the doctor’s decision, saying she should be proud of what she did, pointing out that no doctor is obliged to provide medical treatment to someone they did not like unless it is an emergency or they were the only doctor in the area.

In the meantime, Vice President Temer has been busy having meetings with groups of politicians, all eager to get an appointment in the new government they see coming soon. President Dilma has been decimated by the departure of the PMDB party from her ruling coalition, as well as that of a slew of smaller parties, and is trying to put on a brave face by visiting the camps of her ardent supporters who have traveled to Brasilia to protest for her on Sunday.

She has been looking very tired and run down in her public appearances. A major newsweekly magazine ran a particularly unflattering cover story claiming that the president was losing her mind because of all of the stress she has been under. Her defenders slammed the publication, claiming the article was sexist and mean-spirited. But the president has long had a reputation for being a tough woman who does suffer fools easily, and who regularly blows up and shouts at her ministers and staff members during meetings.

Supporters of the government call this impeachment a “coup attempt,” and many observers have pointed out that some of the congressmen voting for the impeachment have committed worse crimes than the president has. President Dilma has been accused of mismanaging government spending accounts by using creative accounting methods to hide the growing deficit.

We will have to wait and see if Temer as president will be able to turn around the Brazilian economy, which is going through one of its worst recessions in 100 years.


Questioning of Lula is sign of Brazilian maturity

Anti-Lula protesters shout at Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo on March 04, 2016, where the former president was taken for questioning by the federal police.

Anti-Lula protesters shout at Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo on March 04, 2016, where the former president was taken for questioning by the federal police. (AFP photo)

This column was printed in Arab News on March 6, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Brazilians awoke on Friday morning to the breaking news that the Federal Police and tax inspectors were parked outside the home of former President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva in Sao Bernardo do Campo, a suburb of Sao Paulo. This was the beginning of the 24th phase in the months-long “Car Wash” investigation into massive corruption at the state oil giant Petrobras. Lula was being taken into custody for questioning whether he wanted to go or not.

Soon supporters and critics of the former president had gathered outside his home, arguing and pushing each other. The police were quickly called in to take control of the situation, as Lula was questioned for nearly four hours at an office of the Federal Police at Congonhas Airport.

Lula took three lawyers with him and a federal congressman of his Workers’ Party. When it was over, he went to the headquarters of his party and gave an angry speech, railing against the excessive use of police intimidation and devolving into his usual accusations of the rich not being able to accept that a once poor man such as himself had made it to the presidency of the nation. It was the classic leftist class struggle spiel of the rich versus the poor.

Lula ruled Brazil for two terms as president from 2003 to 2010, and now the current President Dilma Rousseff, his protégée, has ruled Brazil from 2011 until now. While no one denies that the Workers’ Party helped lift millions of Brazilians out of poverty and gave them many new rights, the corruption of the politicians from this party has been so all-encompassing that practically no aspect of Brazilian life seems to have escaped its taint.
The “Car Wash” investigation, which is being led by the federal judge Sergio Moro, has found that top Petrobras officials were involved in a massive corruption, kickback and overpricing scheme that has involved a handful of the country’s major construction and engineering firms. These firms have been accused of funneling money gained from Petrobras to a host of politicians in illegal payments, including Lula. Even President Dilma’s 2010 election campaign fund has been linked to dirty money from construction companies.

Moro has been handing down reduced sentences, called “delacoes premiadas” in Portuguese, to get prime suspects to cooperate with investigators and spill the beans about all they know. The latest person to do so was Sen. Delcidio Amaral, the former head of the ruling party in the Senate. He was arrested late last year and just released a few weeks ago after he agreed to squeal on his co-conspirators.

Joao Santana, Lula and Dilma’s main election campaign strategist, and his wife were recently arrested after it was discovered that $7.5 million in tainted money had been paid to him by construction companies.

To top all of this off, Brazil is going through a severe economic recession. Its GDP shrank 3.8 percent in 2015, its worst performance since 1990, inflation is at 10.67 percent and unemployment is around 8 percent.

All of this has deeply polarized the Brazilian electorate, with most of the poorer Brazilians still supporting the Worker’s Party, while more educated and well-off Brazilians are fed-up with a never-ending stream of corruption scandals.

Having been one of the most popular presidents that Brazil has seen in modern times, Lula for a long time believed he was untouchable. The relentless investigation by Moro and the Federal Police has shown otherwise.

So far the independence of the investigators has been maintained despite alleged attempts by various ministers to get some of the accused off the hook. Hopefully the investigations will continue. This shows that Brazil has become a mature democracy where no one is above the law.


Brazil corruption scandal widens

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio 'Lula' da Silva, left, and Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes in happier times.

The corruption scandal involving the illegal gambling lord Carlinhos Cachoeira and Senator Demóstenes Torres widened last week when the newsweekly Veja ran a story quoting Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes alleging that former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva had asked him during a meeting in Brasilia on April 26 to postpone the trial of the mensalão until after municipal elections in October. In return, Lula promised to shield the judge from the CPI, or parliamentary committee of investigation, that is looking at the links between Cachoeira and various politicians.

“What about that little trip of yours to Germany?” Lula supposedly asked Mendes, in reference to claims that Torres had paid for the judge’s trip. Mendes denied publicly that Torres had paid for his trip, producing his credit card records to prove that he had paid for them himself.

“I alone sold more than 80,000 copies of my law textbook since 2007,” Mendes boasted to the O Globo newspaper. “Why would I need anyone to pay for my trip to Germany?” The judge admitted that he travels regularly to Germany to teach and to visit one of his daughters who lives there. He claims that his encounter with Sen. Torres in Germany in 2011 was just a mere coincidence, and that it had not been pre-planned.

Cachoeira is currently being held in the Papuda jail near Brasilia, and is thought to have been involved in a pay-off scheme involving the governors of Goias, Rio de Janeiro and the Distrito Federal, and the construction company Delta, which until recently was the single-largest recipient of federal government contracts. He is thought to have paid off the governors with money and favors, and in return they agreed to look the other way while he ran his illegal numbers game.

The mensalão corruption scheme was uncovered in 2005 when Lula was still president, and it consisted of the president’s Workers Party, or PT in Portuguese, paying off allied politicians on a monthly basis in order to get them to vote for government backed legislation in Congress. Lula’s chief of staff at the time, José Dirceu, was forced to resign after he was accused of heading the whole scheme. Now he and 17 others are facing trial before the Supreme Court accused of corruption, both active and passive, and of forming a criminal gang.

Critics of the PT, claim that the court has been dragging its feet in preparing the many volumes of evidence and testimony against the accused, in an attempt to get most of the accusations dismissed because of the legal prescription that will occur if they are not tried within the required time limits. The Supreme Court judges have denied foot dragging, claiming they are working as fast as they can. The frustration at the delay in getting the actual trial underway, led a group of concerned citizens on May 30 to present to the court a petition with 35,000 signatures asking that the mensalão trial begin soon.

Carlinhos Cachoeira, left, and Sen. Demostenes Torres

Sen. Torres this week gave pained and self-pitying televised testimony in front of the Senate’s Ethics Committee, which is deciding whether he will be able to continue as a senator or be thrown out. The senator denied that he knew Cachoeira was a criminal, but admitted that he had accepted a cell phone from the man. When asked why he had tipped off Cachoeira to a federal police push to apprehend slot machines used for illegal gambling, the senator claimed that he was testing Cachoeira to see if he really was crooked.

Torres has already been forced to resign from his former party, the Democratas, and if found guilty by the Senate Ethics Committee could be barred from holding public office for at least five years under the ficha limpa law that was passed in 2010.

But tensions remain high in Brasilia, with two politicians screaming at each other on Thursday, May 31, when Torres refused to answer any questions at the CPI probing Cachoeira, claiming he had already said all he intended to two days before at the ethics committee. The fight broke out after congressman Silvio Costa attacked Torres saying: “Your silence is the most perfect proof of your guilt. Your silence writes in capital letters that ‘I, Demóstenes Torres, am yes a member of Cachoeira’s gang. That I am the legislative arm of Cachoeira’s criminal organization. I saw your testimony in front of the Ethics Committee. …You said you were betrayed, but it was you who betrayed your friends, Goias, and Brazil. You said you were a saint, but you sir, are not going to heaven. Heaven is not for liars and hypocrites. You are silent and I know why!”

This attack on Torres produced an objection by Senator Pedro Taques, and that is when a furious argument took place between the senator and Costa, who cursed the senator, saying that he had voted in favor of Torres in the ethics committee and that he was protecting the besieged senator. “You are a shit, a son of a bitch!” Costa screamed at Taques. That was when the session was suspended.

Cachoeira is being tried in criminal court in the state of Goias, and state prosecutors have already said that with the mountain of evidence they have against the man, that he will most likely be sentenced to 20-30 years imprisonment.

As for Torres, his fate looks equally murky, with the ethics committee most likely voting to kick him out of the Senate. For a man that started his political career so brightly, it is a shame to see him fall so quickly and nastily.


The book launch that didn’t quite happen

Philippine Ambassador to Brazil Teresita Barsana speaking at the swearing-in of the Brazil-Philippines Parliamentary Committee on Wednesday in Brasilia.

YESTERDAY afternoon my friend Ana Claudia and I eagerly arrived at the Brazilian Congress to attend the supposed launch of a book of photographs of the Philippines taken by Pierre Verger, a French photographer who ended up living and dying in Brazil, entitled Pierre Verger-1934-1937-1938: Filipinas.

Making our way to the Salão Nobre of the House of Deputies, I marveled at how easy it was to enter Congress, especially if one were dressed up the way we were. We went through one metal detector and that was it. We were in.

Since all of Brasilia was built in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the inside of the Congress building is modern in that 1950s sort of way. Just next door they have completely gutted the Palacio do Planalto, the presidential palace, in a much-needed reforma that is being overseen by the original architect of Brasilia Oscar Niemeyer, who at 101 years of age is still working despite recent health problems. This visionary capital is celebrating its 50th anniversary next April, and everyone is hoping that Niemeyer will make it.

But back to the supposed book launch. When we were finally seated in the rather smallish Salão Nobre, which is like the lobby of a slightly faded luxury hotel, Philippine Ambassador to Brazil Teresita Barsana announced that the actual launching of the Verger book would be on Nov. 4 at her official residence. Instead, we all witnessed the swearing in of the new members of the Brazil-Philippines Parliamentary Group. Deputy Nelson Marquezelli (PTB-Sao Paulo) is the head of this group, and he said that a group of Brazilian deputies are scheduled to visit the Philippines early next year.

From the huge floor-to-ceiling glass wall we had a lovely view of the grassy slopes in front of the Congress, where a large group of protesters had gathered and whom we heard screaming during our event.

After the swearing-in, Ana Claudia decided to take me on a walking tour of both houses of Congress. We saw a huge tiled wall in the lobby of the Senate made by the famous Athos Bulcão. There we saw a rather tall man in sunglasses wearing a jacket with a huge plastic sunflower stuck on it, smiling and posing for photographs with the public. He was obviously some celebrity, but I didn’t recognize him.

“Oh my God! That’s the singer Falcão,” blurted Ana Claudia. “He’s a singer from the Northeast of Brazil who always sings about cuckold men.”

We watched him for a few minutes. “Do you want your picture taken with him?” she asked me.

“No, that’s okay,” I replied.

The Brazilian Congress is famous for its various underground tunnels that link various parts of this large complex. Ana Claudia and I were looking for the especially futuristic looking one that has recessed lighting, that gives the completely carpeted tunnel an outer space sort of vibe.

When we finally found it in the House of Deputies, Ana Claudia told me it had always reminded her of something out of an episode of the TV series “Time Tunnel”. To mark our visit to Congress and the famous tunnel we took pictures of each other in the spooky glow of the underground passage that has moving sidewalks just like in airports. It was a suitably modernist end to our frustrating expedition in search of that book of photographs.

My friend Ana Claudia posing in the futuristic tunnel under
the House of Deputies.

Latest Tweets

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Newsletter Subscribe