When Brazilian politicians talk about a coup, they trigger fears of a return to a dark past


When author Marcelo Rubens Paiva uses the word “coup,” many Brazilians listen.

His father, politician Rubens Paiva, was among the hundreds tortured and murdered by the military dictatorship that seized power here in 1964.

The well-known novelist is part of a vocal minority insisting that the current effort to impeach President Dilma Rousseff is nothing less than another coup d’etat.

“In the history of our fragile democracy, we have repeatedly seen the same conflict between a powerful elite connected with media, industrial forces and the U.S. government, against political movements which are ideologically closer to the left,” said Paiva, who has been attending anti-impeachment protests.


Language is often loaded in politics, and in Brazil few words can match the rhetorical power of coup — or “golpe” in Portuguese. Between 1930, when Brazil had its first coup, and 1985, when its second dictatorship disbanded, there were just two decades of democratic rule.

“Memories of coups loom large in Brazilian history,” said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia.

He said Rousseff is using the word as part of an aggressive strategy to keep her job. Her supporters have been chanting, “There will be no coup!” in street demonstrations.

By the standard definition of coup, it’s difficult to see how the impeachment attempt would qualify.

“The word ‘coup’ usually describes an assault on power, usually in violent form,” said Pedro Estevam Serrano, a professor of constitutional law at the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo. “That’s not what this is.”

He prefers another term: “exceptional measures.”

Whatever you call it, the effort to oust the president is part of a stunning chain of events.


Shortly before Rousseff’s reelection in 2014, federal investigators began uncovering a multibillion-dollar kickback scheme at the state-run oil company, Petrobras, and arresting politicians and businessmen.

Rousseff has never been directly implicated in the scandal. But as the economy crashed amid falling prices for oil and Brazil’s other commodities, her approval rating crashed too, and legislators who had once been her allies launched the effort to impeach her.

It is based on accusations — unrelated to the corruption scandal — that Rousseff broke fiscal responsibility laws by shifting state-controlled funds to cover budget shortfalls, a practice known in Brazil as “pedaladas.”

What is impeachment without a serious crime? It’s a coup.

— President Dilma Rousseff

The president’s supporters and detractors both took to the streets last month after federal investigators linked Rousseff’s predecessor and ally, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to the corruption probe and she offered to make him her chief of staff. The Cabinet appointment — which is now frozen in the courts — would move a case against him to the Supreme Court and at least delay prosecution.

At present, an impeachment commission made up of legislators in the lower house of Congress is analyzing the case against Rousseff.

The best argument for calling the impeachment effort a coup goes like this: The Brazilian Constitution says that a president can only be impeached if convicted of a serious crime. The allegations against Rousseff hardly rise to that level, as presidents and governors have long engaged in budget tinkering.


“What is impeachment without a serious crime?” Rousseff said Wednesday. “It’s a coup.”

Even Serrano allowed that the word could be accurate in the broadest sense if Rousseff is impeached based solely on the current case against her.

“There’s no evidence that what she’s accused of in the current case rises to the level of a ‘crime of responsibility,’ as the Constitution requires,” he said.

The lawmakers behind the impeachment effort aren’t the only ones being accused of attempting a coup.

Brazilian journalists have used social networks to deny claims from Rousseff’s supporters that they are part of a “media coup.”

And some impeachment proponents have used the term to blast Rousseff’s decision to name Lula to her Cabinet.

“That’s a coup,” said 27-year-old Bruno Balestrero, who has been organizing protests against the president. “She would be practically changing our regime from a presidential system to a parliamentary system with him as prime minister of Brazil.”


Thursday marked the 52nd anniversary of the last coup. The military regime’s torture victims included a young Rousseff.

While thousands of her supporters were demonstrating against the impeachment attempt, a recent poll showed that 68% of Brazilians were in favor of it.

“In 1964 the coup was supported by the majority, too,” Paiva said.

Bevins is a special correspondent.


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