The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brazil’s ex-president fears the rise of a Brazilian Trump

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On a visit to Washington this week, former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff contemplated the turbulent past 12 months. It's been a year since the lower house of Brazil's parliament voted to start impeachment proceedings against Rousseff on the grounds that she manipulated government accounts ahead of 2014 elections. What followed, she claims, was a “parliamentary coup” where she was ultimately removed from office and replaced by her vice president, Michael Temer, whose government later enacted sweeping austerity measures that are widely unpopular.

Rousseff, 69, was forced out amid heated protests against Brazil's political establishment, but public dissatisfaction and disillusionment endures. A huge corruption investigation has implicated more than 100 top politicians in the country, including key figures in Temer's entourage and all five of Brazil's living former presidents. As new presidential elections loom, a host of unorthodox candidates have emerged and threaten to further unravel the center-left legacy of Rousseff and her predecessor, the charismatic Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

In an interview at The Washington Post's offices, Today's WorldView asked Rousseff if Brazilians could elect their own equivalent of President Trump, a maverick — some would say extremist — outsider.

“A few years I would have said it's impossible,” Rousseff said. “Now I can say it's very possible. In fact, I can point to a few Trump-like figures.”

Rousseff mentioned the recently elected mayor of Sao Paulo, João Doria, a wealthy entrepreneur who once hosted the country's equivalent of “The Apprentice.” Despite little political experience, Doria won in Brazil's most populous city by marketing his business savvy and capacity to get things done. Rousseff also pointed to the far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro, who has publicly hailed Trump and is currently one of the front-runners in 2018 opinion polls.

Brazil, according to Rousseff, is in the grips of a similar “right-wing tendency” to the ones in Europe and the United States, where economic crises and growing inequality stoked anger at politicians and fueled the rise of demagogic populists.

She said her own presidency was victim both to the tumultuous fallout of the global financial crisis, as well as the cynicism of her political opponents. Eduardo Cunha, the former head of Brazil's lower house and the right-wing politico seen as the architect of Rousseff's impeachment, was sentenced last month to 15 years in prison for his role in the vast “Car Wash” corruption scandal currently roiling Brazilian politics.

Rousseff herself was accused of using state-run banks to pay upfront expenses for social programs, including Bolsa Família, the popular cash-transfer program for poor families. Congress concluded these payments amounted to unauthorized loans by state banks to the federal government, which is illegal in Brazil. Brazil suffered endemic inflation in the 1990s and enacted strict laws on how the federal government is allowed to borrow money from state banks.

While previous governments took similar loans without congressional approval, they were much smaller, barely reaching a 1 billion reals (slightly over $317 million at present) a year in the last few years of the Lula administration. But under Rousseff, the federal government's outstanding balance with these state-run banks reached 58 billion reals, or about $18.4 billion, in 2015 before the government paid most of it off, according to the Senate impeachment commission.

In her conversation with Today's WorldView, Rousseff defended herself by saying her budget strategy kept alive programs that had helped lift millions out of poverty and delivered medical care to millions more. She said her unwillingness to cut backroom deals with figures like Cunha turned her into “a hard, insensitive woman in politics.”

What happens next for Rousseff is unclear. She remains a polarizing and unpopular figure at home and may face further legal investigation. This is in stark contrast to her political mentor, Lula, whose popularity is still sky-high. He would possibly win presidential elections were they held today, but he won't be able to run if convicted on a raft of corruption and money laundering charges.

Removed from the maelstrom back home, Rousseff — a former leftist guerrilla who faced years of imprisonment and torture at the hands of Brazil's military junta — was pensive and philosophical.

She is not amused by the rise of figures like Bolsonaro, a member of parliament who infamously cast his vote to impeach Rousseff in honor of the army colonel who presided over her own torture and the brutalization and disappearance of many other leftists. She said the current anger toward the political status quo — the same sentiment driving Bolsonaro's support — is dangerous.

“When a government becomes irrelevant, politics becomes irrelevant,” Rousseff said. “It opens a space for patriotic saviors to come through, for politics that just uses symbols and political marketing and has a strategy based on post-truth.”

Rousseff also cited the free-market dogmatism of economist Milton Friedman — who argued that right-wing politicians should use economic crises, “actual or perceived,” to subvert and dismantle the welfare state — when explaining what happened to her own presidency. Even though her political star may have dimmed, she tied her future to that of Brazil's democracy and stressed the need for new elections to replace Temer's “illegitimate” government.

“There's no correct side in history that isn't the democratic side,” Rousseff said. But it remains to be seen if history, or the Brazilian public, will vindicate her.

— with reporting from Marina Lopes in Brasilia

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