The leader of Latin America's largest country has been removed from office against her will, but Dilma Rousseff remained defiant as she left the presidential palace on Thursday, repeating accusations that the new, more conservative government took power through a nonmilitary “coup.”
As she rallied supporters, her former ally Vice President Michel Temer took the reins of power and scrambled to assemble a new government, which will have to overcome accusations that it seized power illegitimately, while also confronting Brazil’s worst recession in decades.
Until recently considered a model for economic growth and social progress, Brazil is facing rising unemployment, a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal, a health crisis unleashed by the Zika virus and the prospect of hosting the Olympics in August without a stable government at the helm.
“I may have made mistakes, but I committed no crime. There is no greater injustice than to condemn the innocent,” an energetic but emotional Rousseff, 68, said to throngs of supporters in Brasilia, the capital. Standing solemnly next to her in the afternoon sun was her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who first brought the center-left Workers' Party to power 13 years ago.
“Those who were unable to enter the government by way of the ballot box are now trying to enter by force,” Rousseff said. The crowd chanted, “Fora Temer!” or “Out with Temer!”
Rousseff, the country’s first female president, is a rarity in Brazilian politics in that she has not been personally accused of any corruption or criminal offense. A majority of the lawmakers who voted to oust her, however, do face accusations of serious crimes, as do Temer and members of his new Cabinet.
Rousseff will be tried on charges of shifting public funds to mask federal deficits and technically will be removed only for 180 days as the Senate considers permanent removal. But much of Brazil's establishment has viewed her removal as inevitable.
The 81-member Senate embarked on a marathon session Wednesday morning, with lawmakers arguing for and against impeachment.
“Brazilians took to the streets to say 'finally, enough' to so much contempt for the truth and ethics,” said Sen. Aecio Neves, referring to the large street protests that have rocked the country for most of this year. Neves, who narrowly lost to Rousseff when she ran for reelection in 2014, voted for her removal.
Sen. Joao Capiberibe of the Socialist Party was among those voting against the impeachment resolution. “Impeachment is not a solution; it will just worsen the crisis,” he said.
“Our obligation is to find a reasonable and lasting solution to the crisis,” Capiberibe said. “What's happening [here] is a fight for power.”
As the Senate debate wore on, protesters for and against impeachment again took to the streets. Some demonstrators tussled with police and news photographs showed officers unleashing pepper spray. Some protesters had to be treated for exposure.
The Senate vote, 55 to 22, finally came Thursday morning, 20 hours after the session began. That’s when Brazilians learned that the six-month process to remove the Workers' Party from power after four consecutive presidential election victories was finally successful.
Residents of Sao Paulo, the country's largest city and a bastion of anti-Rousseff sentiment, were awakened at dawn by fireworks and cars honking in celebration of her removal.
But a recent poll indicated only 2% of Brazilians would vote for Temer, who represents the center-right party known as PMDB, and a majority want him impeached too.
“Removing Dilma was a reasonable thing to do; she had to go,” said small-business owner Guilherme Nogueira, 57, who had to shut down one of his restaurants this year because of the economic slump. “But I really fear the new guys might be the exact same thing, or even worse. I'm waiting for a sign to be optimistic, and I haven't seen one yet.”
Rousseff, a former left-wing guerrilla who became an economist, was hailed as a technocratic reformer when she took over for Lula in 2010.
As a guerrilla, she was tortured under Brazil’s military dictatorship and alluded to that time in her remarks to her supporters Thursday. “I have suffered the invisible pain of torture … and today I’m again suffering the overpowering pain of injustice.”
During the April impeachment vote in the lower Chamber of Deputies, prominent right-wing congressman Jair Bolsonaro dedicated his “yes” vote to the man who oversaw her torture, shocking moderates and galvanizing an insurgent right-wing movement in the country.
Rousseff's popularity took a nosedive as the economy crashed amid a huge scandal at the state-run Petrobras oil company that led to the imprisonment of members of Brazil's business and political elite, including high-ranking members of her party. She had never been elected to office before the presidency and would later say her inexperience in politicking may have contributed to her downfall.
Many political analysts argue that the true cause for Rousseff's removal was her failure to maintain support in Congress and that regular Brazilians turned on her as unemployment and inflation rates rose above 10%.
As much of South America moved to the left in the 21st century, Brazil maintained good relations with more radical countries, such as Venezuela and Bolivia, as well as more conservative neighbors and the U.S., all the while earning international plaudits for stable democracy and economic growth that lifted tens of millions out of poverty.
The high point of this meteoric rise may have been when Rio de Janeiro beat out a bid by President Obama-backed Chicago to host the 2016 Olympics. Two years ago, the soccer-mad country hosted the World Cup.
But now countries in the region are divided on whether to view the Temer government as legitimate or the result of a “soft coup,” which has only the appearance of institutional integrity, lumping scandal-racked Brazil in with nations such as Paraguay and Honduras, both of which suffered nonmilitary putsches in the last decade.
As it became clear this year that Rousseff's government might fall, the Constitution offered a number of ways she might be removed. Brazil's more traditional political parties united behind the one tactic that would allow them to take power immediately without having to face elections.
Members of Congress, most of whom face criminal investigations for possible corruption or other serious crimes, set aside questions of corruption for the impeachment process, focusing instead on relatively minor accounting maneuvers used to formulate the national budget. (Opponents of impeachment note Temer had OKd such maneuvers.)
As Rousseff’s opponents pushed forward, the case took a staggering number of strange turns, leaving the population confused and exasperated as the impeachment question often devolved into political shouting matches.
“This case has been the real-life version of a Kafka novel. It's like ‘The Trial,’” said Francisco Fonseca, a political scientist at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas business school in Sao Paulo. “They have attempted to remove Rousseff and her party with whatever mechanism or argument they can muster.”
Bevins is a special correspondent.
4:20 p.m.: Updated throughout.
This article was first published at 12:06 p.m.