Brazilians Fear for Democracy Back Home

Around 6 pm on Wednesday Aug. 31, carrying a large cardboard sign under her arm, Toya Mileno rushed to the Brazilian consulate in midtown.

Mileno, who works as a project manager for a tech company in Manhattan, had gotten the news hours earlier at her job: Dilma Rousseff, accused of misconduct as president, had been impeached.

Her sign read “Stop the coup in Brazil” and she had used it in a few protests across the city; but now, as she stood in front of the consulate, Mileno showed its other side, one that had just been painted: “ELECTIONS NOW!”

“What we want is for the people to decide,” the Brazilian said. “The current government does not represent us. It was not elected. We are a very young democracy and I’m afraid we’re witnessing its destruction.”

Mileno was participating in a vigil organized by Defend Democracy in Brazil, a group that was formed in February to protest the impeachment process of Dilma Rousseff.  Over the past six months, it has held multiple events in Union Square, Central Park and near the United Nations. But now, as the news of the impeachment settled, the group seemed to have quickly found a new purpose – to anticipate the presidential election, scheduled for 2018.

“We don’t know if Dilma can be a candidate or even if her party has any chance of winning the elections,” said Rita Carvalho, who has lived in New York for 26 years. “But the rules of our democracy should be respected. This government is not legitimate. The program they’re trying to implement was rejected by the people.”

Michel Temer, the leader of PMDB who was Rousseff’s vice president, has been acting as the interim president since May and is now expected to complete her term. Before the summer, he nominated a government with no women or Afro-Brazilian ministers, in a country where more than 50 per cent of the people are Black or mixed-race.

Carvalho mentions two recent actions taken by Temer’s government that demonstrate to her that it does not represent the electorate: the end of a national program to fight illiteracy, on one hand; and, on the other hand, a salary raise for state employees in the judiciary sector.

“This goes to show their priorities and their intentions,” Carvalho said. “The longer they stay, the more setbacks we’ll see. This is exasperating because they just ousted an honest woman.”

Many would disagree with Carvalho’s assessment. Rousseff’s approval rating had been hovering around 10%, and Temer hasn’t fared much better. Most Brazilians support new elections. A poll released in July by the firm Datafolha found that 62 percent of the population supported the removal of both Rousseff and Temer and the holding of new elections.

(This poll was published by Folha de São Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper, which was later accused of journalistic fraud by the website Intercept. Folha initially reported only 3 percent of Brazilians supported new elections.)

Brazilians are, understandably, angry. By Wednesday night, most of the country’s media homepages carried headlines about the impeachment, and, right under those, the last economic results: for the sixth consecutive trimester, the country’s economy is in recession. It’s the worst economic crisis in decades.

Rousseff’s adversaries argue the president and the Workers Party – which has been in power for the last 13 years – are to be blamed. Her supporters insist the economic crisis is mostly due to sagging global demand. “My brother works in the mining industry. He witnessed first hand how the fall in commodities’ prices affected our economy,” Mileno said.

Besides the state of the economy, corruption scandals plague all parties. More than half of the members of Congress face legal challenges. Many see what happened with Rousseff as a way to punish this corrupt system, but some of the ministers appointed by Temer have also resigned because of their involvement in corruption cases. Temer himself was found guilty of violating campaign finance limits.

Flávia Ribeiro, a PHD student at CUNY, has participated in most protests held in the city. “I always knew it would be very hard to stop the impeachment. There’s a tremendous corrupt structure that has been in place for a long time and it’s very hard to fight it,” she says. “But there’s no way I could have not taken the streets to protest.”

For months, Ribeiro and millions across the world called the impeachment process a coup. What just happened, nonetheless, was not an illegal seizure of power. Rousseff’s ouster is the culmination of a legal process set forth in the Brazilian Constitution.

“They can abide by the law, follow each one of the required steps, and complete the entire process. The truth remains that they judged her for actions that do not constitute a crime, which other presidents have done. There is no reason to impeach,” Elliel Barros, another participant in the vigil, said, referring to the fact Rousseff concealed a budget deficit by borrowing from a state-owned bank. “The entire process is a farce.”

Rita Carvalho agrees and fears an important precedent has been set. “This can now happen to any president. It can happen across the country with city mayors and governors,” she says. “This causes a great instability in the system, which is already so young and vulnerable.”

Toya Mileno’s father was a student when the military installed the dictatorship in 1964. “He was hit by the military during one of the protests,” she says. “So this is very real and very close to home. It wasn’t that long ago that it happened. The repression we’re already witnessing shows it can happen again.”

Yesterday, Mileno and the rest of the group lit candles, held their signs and read Dilma’s speech after the vote in the Senate. “Do not give up the fight. They think they have beaten us, but they are wrong,” they read. “They will find themselves up against the most determined opposition a putschist government can have.”

The group’s next protest is already scheduled. It will happen at the end of the month, at the United Nations, when Michel Temer opens the General Assembly before the entire world.

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