The Rise and Fall of Dilma Rousseff

By Caleb Baldwin



The rise and fall of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff plays out like a tragedy.  Once anticipated as a powerful force for positive change in Brazil, she now faces charges of corruption levied by friends and colleagues.  Her impeachment is the result of the corrupt and festering infrastructure left to her by her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, as well as her own mistakes.  Her hubris is a staunch overemphasis on facts and figures, leaving her blind to the social elements that have decayed Brazil’s government and economy.  Her promises for progressive social change and her ambitious plans to eliminate poverty and quell violence associated with the drug trade have all been subsumed by scandal and controversy.  Dilma Rousseff, scapegoated by her allies, lambasted by her foes, and despised by her people, is now tumbling backwards through the denouement of her tragedy, only able to hope that she lands on her feet.

After a tight presidential race, Rousseff claimed victory in the 2010 elections.  Hand picked by Lula, Brazil anticipated how Rousseff planned to build upon the social and economic prosperity ushered by the previous iteration of the government.  At her victory rally, she called for support in her campaign to eliminate poverty, the “abyss that still separates [Brazil] from being a developed nation.” Rousseff was viewed by many as a symbol of progressive change against the corruption entrenched in many facets of Brazilian politics. Rousseff expected to inherit a prosperous and growing Brazil; after all, Lula’s presidency oversaw massive appreciation of the Brazilian real through heavy investments in petroleum and the economic boon expected from the 2016 Olympic games, which made Brazil the sixth largest economy in the world.  As Rousseff transitioned into office, cautious economists, beleaguered by recession and believing it to be a financial trap, avoided investment in Brazil and the first decriers began to protest the abhorrent human rights abuses at the site of the Olympics in Rio.  If Rousseff was aware of the country’s precarious position, she made no indication of it, boldly proposing economic and social plans reliant on a strong economy.

Within six months of Rousseff’s inauguration, Brazil’s economy began to shrink.  Media coverage of human rights abuses in Rio resulted in a massive corporate exodus from the Olympics, placing a greater financial weight for construction on the government.  Furthermore, scandals broke out amongst Rousseff’s own cabinet; having campaigned as a candidate against corruption, she expelled those involved instead of trying to suppress the controversies.  While the decision was lauded on an ideological level, the revelation of corruption in the capitol added to the misgivings investors had towards Brazil.  The rest of her first term was spent trying to contain a vicious cycle in which pulled investments perpetuated economic downturn and vice versa.  Most Brazilians blamed Rousseff for the sudden and dire recession.  Economists, scholars, and members of oversight agencies, however, observed that the seeds of recession could not have been sewn in the short time of Rousseff’s presidency, and turned their attention towards Lula.

While federal agencies began to investigate Lula, Rousseff prepared for her 2014 reelection campaign.  She was not, however, the progressive candidate for change that she was four years ago; now people associated her with economic recession, corruption, and ineptitude.  Under her leadership, Brazil witnessed its seemingly prosperous economy shrink as investors pulled out in droves.  With her defeat seeming inevitable, Rousseff shifted funds from department to department to give the false impression of a robust budget, a trick she claims to have picked up from Lula himself.  Rousseff was no longer just a victim of circumstance; every accusation against her, of incompetence and corruption, whether true or not, was now capstoned by a blatantly illegal act.  When the scandal broke at Petrobras, Brazil’s oil and petroleum giant, in which a ring of executives inflated construction prices to skim money off the top, Rousseff was thrown into the spotlight.  Government figures were under particular scrutiny due to the number of alleged kickbacks given to them from Petrobras.  Rousseff had previously served as chairwoman of Petrobras during the time in which the scandal took place, feeding into the narrative that she was either inept or corrupt.  Political opponents scrutinized both Petrobras and the budget tampering used in her campaign, and moved for impeachment.

Today, Rousseff has owned up to the Petrobras scandal and to abusing the budget by confirming the allegations but denying any wrongdoing.  She claims that she only did what previous presidents had done.  She may very well be correct; Lula, in the midst of his own criminal trial related to Petrobras, is now viewed as one of the most corrupt politicians to hold office in Brazil.  Some believe Rousseff to be guilty of the crime but innocent of any wrongdoing; fewer still suspect that Rousseff is wrongly being attacked by rivals in what they consider to be a coup.  Considering the context of her impeachment, this may very well be the case; Brazil’s economic downturn is almost certainly a result of Lula’s corrupt administration, and it seems that Rousseff is receiving at least part of the blame for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Many, however, consider her actions to be a betrayal of the values on which she was elected.  Rousseff’s case will be reviewed by an impeachment committee and submitted to the legislative house.  If the case is approved, the senate will ultimately decide the fate of Dilma Rousseff.  

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