Controversy has surrounded Brazil’s political system in the last year, with the impeachment of former President Dilma Vana Rousseff and the appointment of her former Vice President Michel Temer to the presidency. Rousseff has said that her removal amounts to a coup d’etat. Rousseff was charged with manipulating the federal budget to conceal deficits. However, Rousseff has argued that her predecessors have performed similar actions without repercussion. Moreover, she is one of the few prominent Brazilian leaders who has not been accused of illegally enriching herself. Her impeachment has drawn wider conversation on the role of gender in politics, as Rousseff has spoken on her gender playing a large role in her removal. On April 18th, former Brazilian President Dilma Vana Rousseff joined us through the Brazil Initiative to speak on the struggle for democracy in Brazil, the intersection between gender and politics, and her experiences as the first female head of state in the country.
Rousseff is not the only female head of state to recently face corruption charges and impeachment, as South Korean former President Park Geun-Hye was removed from office following a large scale corruption scandal. While both leaders were embedded in corruption charges, their impeachment have produced claims of gender inequity. In Brazil, Rousseff’s predecessors, former Presidents da Silva and Cardoso, faced 17 and 34 charges that often were more serious than those against Rousseff, and neither faced impeachment proceedings. Similarly, her successor President Temer has been accused of corruption and pocketing government funds. Temer has recently come under fire for creating the first all-male, all-white cabinet since the military junta was in power. Moreover, the driving force behind her impeachment, the leader of the chamber of deputies Eduardo Cunha, is under investigation for taking bribes and corruption.
After welcoming remarks from the Elliott School Dean Reuben E. Brigety II and Director of the Brazil Initiative Mark Langevin, Fulbright Scholar Luciana Duccini gave the formal introduction for President Rousseff. She stated that it was a great honor for her to speak at this event as a woman, emphasizing that she wished to place President Rousseff in the correct political light. Rousseff’s administration featured more women in the executive branch than any previous administration – giving people the opportunity to look at the highest political offices and see women. Duccini, before formally welcoming President Rousseff, said that it was up to us to honor Rousseff’s place in history by promoting equality for Brazilian women.
President Rousseff joined the stage, focusing first on her interpretation of both the impeachment process and those who spearheaded the campaign against her. She claimed that not only did her administration suffer a coup, but that a male president would not have been criticized, let alone charged, for the same actions that caused her impeachment. The rules she broke were highly technical, she claimed, and had been similarly broken by previous administrations without repercussion.
Rousseff went on to stress the importance of equality and inclusion for not only gender but for race as well. Rousseff said the three components that must be addressed for progress to occur in Brazil are social exclusion, inequality, and gender exclusion. Inequality leads to political crises like Brexit, making people irrelevant to their governments and threatening democracy abroad. She placed a large emphasis on the role of the extreme right in both her impeachment and the decline of democracy in Brazil. The right wing should only be allowed to gain power through democratic elections, not impeachment. Reform cannot become the precedent when those in power gained their position through non-democratic processes.
Addressing some of the criticisms facing her administration, she highlighted their work done both to improve social policies benefiting women and ameliorate economic conditions. While her opponents made claims that her administration bankrupted Brazil, Rousseff countered their arguments by saying that after paying back the IMF in 2006, they had over $380 million. Rousseff ended her lecture by discussing the importance of democracy in Brazil. She criticized Brazil’s media for attempting to act as the “judiciary,” using its power to destroy reputations and selectively leak information. Allowing the media to hold such political power decreases democracy in Brazil, as different political players are held accountable to far different standards. She urged that democracy be upheld in the 2018 elections, saying that Brazil cannot let those in power manipulate the outcomes for their own personal gain.
It can be argued that President Rousseff’s impeachment marks a decline for gender equality in Brazil, but her lecture demonstrated that she aims to continue the fight for gender inclusion in politics and for greater democracy. Rousseff finished her speech by saying that her one conviction is that increased democracy in Brazil is better for the Brazilian people, as effective reform can only occur when strong democratic systems are in place. It is those fighting for democracy that will be on the right side of history.