Brazil’s First Female President Says ‘Coup D’Etat’ Unseated Her

Dilma Rousseff said congressional opponents concocted an “impeachment without a crime.”

Dilma image
Dilma Rousseff, the first female president of Brazil, speaks at an event hosted by the Brazil Initiative. (Elliott School of International Affairs)
April 25, 2017

By Ruth Steinhardt

Impeached Brazilian President Dilma Vana Rousseff said Tuesday at George Washington University that her removal from power was a “congressional coup d’etat.”

Brought to the Elliott School of International Affairs by the Brazil Initiative, Ms. Rousseff, speaking through an interpreter, discussed her own career, rights for women and minorities and the rise of far-right demagoguery in Brazil and elsewhere.

“Increasing inequality complicates democracy,” Ms. Rousseff said. “When the government doesn’t meet the needs of the population, it becomes irrelevant, and when government becomes irrelevant there is space for ‘saviors’ to manipulate people.”

Ms. Rousseff, who was Brazil’s first female president, was impeached in 2016 on charges of manipulating the federal budget—a crime, she said, that is not established in Brazil’s constitution. She said it was not her budgetary practices that led the Brazilian congress to convict her. Instead, she said, it was a reactionary movement against her, specifically, and against multiculturalism and leftism more generally.

“It was an impeachment without a crime of responsibility,” Ms. Rousseff said. “There are no doubts that it had no basis.”

Ms. Rousseff said her congressional opponents “created a crisis” by claiming that she, her government and her left-wing predecessors had bankrupted Brazil. She said Brazil did go bankrupt during the military dictatorship, but regained its feet under progressive government and managed an early repayment of its debt to the International Monetary Fund.

Ms. Rousseff compared her removal to the 1964 coup that established a 20-year military dictatorship in Brazil—a dictatorship against which she fought as a young woman, which led to her being imprisoned and tortured for several years. And similar coups, she said, are occurring across Latin America.

“It’s not [as] admissible for there to be military coups anymore in Latin America because they had a direct relationship with the Cold War,” Ms. Rousseff said. Now, she continued, hawkish right-wing politicians manipulate supposedly democratic institutions to remove left-wing leaders from power.

In undermining her, Ms. Rousseff said, conservative politicians used the same “dehumanizing” misogynist rhetoric that has plagued female politicians around the globe.

“People said I was a ‘half-woman,’ surrounded by soft men,” she said. “They said I was a tough woman, insensitive, inhumane.”

Ms. Rousseff has been an advocate for women, especially dark-skinned women, who hold the lowest-paying jobs and most difficult social positions in Brazil, said Luciana Duccini, a visiting Fulbright scholar at the Brazil Institute.

“Some may say [Ms. Rousseff’s election] was only a symbolic action, but symbolic tools do matter,” Dr. Duccini said. “It’s important for women—for all people—to look up to the highest positions in the country and see women there.”

For those concerned about the rise of the extreme right, Ms. Rousseff said solutions lie in the democratic process.

“I can’t foresee the future, but I think we’re going to see democracy again in October 2018,” she said. “We can recover.”


Politics and Society, Ruth Steinhardt


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