SAO PAULO, Brazil — As she desperately fights off impeachment, President Dilma Rousseff sometimes compares her removal to the military overthrow of a labor-friendly government in 1964.
Rousseff has personal reasons for this: She suffered brutal torture in that period for her role in a Marxist guerrilla group. But, as she faces the more prosaic accusation that she broke budget rules, she also seeks to rally her party’s left-wing base, casting the current dispute as the latest chapter in a perennial battle between elites and workers.
Rousseff’s recourse to the dark history of military rule might seem odd in today’s Brazil, a modern democracy where the armed forces keep their distance from politics. And while legal experts disagree on the technical grounds for impeachment, her narrative has fallen flat with the majority of Brazilians who, outraged by a wide-reaching corruption scandal and a deep economic recession, want her out.
The lower house has already approved impeachment. After the acting speaker attempted to annul that vote for procedural reasons, and then revoked his own annulment, the Senate is expected to vote Wednesday to open hearings on her removal.
When Rousseff and her supporters speak of a coup, it reflects the unresolved legacy of a two-decade military dictatorship whose crimes were never punished. But according to her critics, it also points to her self-image as the tragic hero in a lifelong struggle to lift up the common citizen — and serves to put off self-criticism.
“In her mind, the Berlin Wall still hasn’t fallen,” said Fernando Gabeira, a former Workers’ Party congressman who belonged to a guerrilla group that kidnapped the American ambassador in 1969. “The idea is that her defeat owes to the evil of her adversaries, not any error of her own.”
Like her predecessor, Workers’ Party co-founder Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Rousseff is one of a generation of politicians proud of resisting the dictatorship. During her 2014 run for reelection, campaign videos showed an iconic photo of her sitting grimly before a military tribunal in 1970, with the caption “Brave Heart.”
At the time the picture was taken, she had already undergone beatings and electric shocks, sometimes hanging by her elbows and knees from a horizontal pole known as the parrot’s perch. She would leave prison three years later. She began her career in government during the democratic transition of the 1980s, and after becoming president in 2011, she started Brazil’s first-ever truth commission to investigate the crimes of those years.
To avoid alienating a heavily conservative political class, however, Rousseff never undermined the broad 1979 amnesty that protects human rights violators from prosecution. Ironically, the Workers’ Party made alliances with some of the same politicians who once collaborated with the military regime. And construction firms that became major players under the generals would, under Lula and Rousseff, form the heart of a scheme to skim billions in bribes from the state oil company.
Rousseff has not been directly implicated in that kickback scandal, but as it deepened last year, she turned her biography to an unusual new purpose: defending against corruption allegations. Asked about the plea bargain of a construction tycoon who testified about funneling bribes to her reelection campaign, she said, “I don’t respect informants. Partly because I was held prisoner during the dictatorship and I know what that is.”
Rousseff’s accusations of coup-mongering can seem abstract to the average Brazilian facing a spike in inflation and unemployment. In this largely low-income country, half the population is younger than 30, and most of the rest stayed on the sidelines of the ideological battles of the last century.
Within the Workers’ Party, though, her removal is seen as a coup in part because it involves some of the same players that rallied for the removal of President João Goulart in 1964. The most prominent among them is Globo, now Brazil’s largest media conglomerate, which celebrated the military takeover in a front-page newspaper editorial and enthusiastically promoted the regime on its TV network.
Globo has since apologized, but many now accuse it of cheerleading for Rousseff’s ouster with a relentless focus on Workers’ Party corruption and editorials that seem to endorse impeachment. Last month, during a ceremony at the presidential palace in Brasilia, supporters of Rousseff pumped their fists in the air and chanted, “The people aren’t stupid, down with Globo TV!”
It is tricky to separate Globo’s political leanings from a journalistic focus on high-level malfeasance. Responding to critics recently, one of its late founder’s billionaire heirs, João Roberto Marinho, said the organization was simply reporting the facts of the massive scandal.
“To blame the press for the current Brazilian crisis is to repeat the ancient mistake of blaming the messenger for the message,” Marinho wrote in a letter to the Guardian.
Rousseff’s supporters are not alone in seeing the current dispute through the prism of the years of military rule. Some on the right praise her impeachment as a repeat of the military’s triumph against the left five decades ago.
When the lower house of Congress decided to open impeachment proceedings last month, a soldier-turned-lawmaker named Jair Bolsonaro declared, “They lost in 1964; now they have lost in 2016.” He went so far as to dedicate his vote for impeachment to the late Col. Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, who oversaw the torture and disappearance of dozens of Rousseff’s fellow rebels.
In an interview, Bolsonaro explained his homage by saying that the ends — saving Brazil from communism — justified the means. Even though Rousseff and Lula ran largely business-friendly administrations, he thinks the president still hopes to pick up where she left off as a guerrilla in the 1960s and turn Brazil into Cuba. As proof, he points to a foreign policy friendly to socialist Venezuela and modest efforts to redistribute land and promote gay rights.
“They don’t respect private property, and they don’t respect family values,” he said. “It’s all the same story.”
As a probable presidential candidate who has lately gained in polls for the 2018 race, Bolsonaro is a testament to the disputed legacy of the old regime. Since last year, a small but vocal contingent at anti-government protests has even called for a fresh coup, blaring its message from sound trucks adorned with signs that warn of a creeping communist takeover.
They see the dictatorship as a time of “order and progress,” as Bolsonaro puts it, citing the motto on the Brazilian flag. And indeed, the generals oversaw several years of blistering economic growth. It is also popular to imagine that politicians then were less corrupt — a belief that Maria Rita Kehl, a psychologist who served on Rousseff’s truth commission, chalks up to “historical ignorance” based on the lack of a free press or independent judiciary at the time.
In this contest over the meaning of those years, what is perhaps most surprising is that much of the left appears to harbor its own longing for the years of the dictatorship. According to Maurício Santoro, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University, it’s a worldview that enables Rousseff and her supporters to avoid examining their own mistakes.
“They have a certain nostalgia for a time when it was very easy to see what was good and what was bad,” Santoro said. “If it’s a ‘coup,’ that means they’re pure and innocent, and it’s just a corrupt elite removing them from power.”