Is Rousseff’s likely ouster a sign of change in Latin America?

As Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff seeks regional support to protest her impeachment, lessons from recent history appear to be lost on the leader, argues Allan Culham. 

By: /
May 3, 2016
Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff reacts during a news conference for foreign journalists at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil April 19, 2016. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff recently appealed to the members of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) trade group to take up the issue of the impeachment process against her launched late last month by the Brazilian National Congress.

Claiming that such an impeachment process is a “coup” against her government, Rousseff is in effect calling for the expulsion of Brazil from both these regional groupings if she is successfully removed from office. Such a removal, she argues, would be under the terms of the “democracy clauses” of each of these organizations.

Rousseff’s call for support from her regional counterparts has fallen on deaf ears, as they have chosen not to get involved in the internal affairs of the South American giant. How ironic and how times have changed since 2012, when this same president, in concert with her UNASUR and Mercosur counterparts, successfully achieved a similar expulsion of Paraguay from these same regional bodies. The comparison of Brazil’s current upset — and the regional refusal to stop it — against the defence of Paraguay’s president just four years ago offers some insight into significant changes in the region.

Paraguay’s membership was suspended for “undemocratic behaviour” when its president at the time, Fernando Lugo, was removed from office by way of an impeachment process. President Lugo was removed from office for “dereliction and abandonment of duty” in the face of rising violence and street protests (that his government was itself instigating through his inflammatory rhetoric) over the issue of land rights. Violence in both the countryside and the streets of Asuncion threatened to engulf Paraguay’s already fragile democratic institutions. Lugo’s impeachment and removal from office by the Paraguayan Congress, later ratified by the Supreme Court, launched a firestorm of protest and outrage amongst the presidents of Paraguay’s neighbours. Presidents Rousseff of Brazil, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Cristina Kirchner of Argentina, were the chief defenders of Lugo’s right to remain in office.

Following Lugo’s impeachment, UNASUR’s presidents dispatched their foreign ministers, led by Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, (now President Maduro), to Asuncion to brow-beat the Paraguayan authorities into having Lugo re-instated as president. Maduro even went so far as to have a meeting with the Paraguayan military whereby he urged them to rise up in defense of President Lugo. The Paraguayan military wisely refrained from such a rash course of action and chose to respect the constitutional order of the impeachment.

In reaction to the failure of this foreign ministers’ mission, and despite continued Paraguayan insistence that the removal of President Lugo was fully legal, Rousseff, Chavez and Kirchner successfully campaigned for Paraguay's expulsion from UNASUR and Mercosur. This began a 14-month period of political isolation for Paraguay whereby it was treated by its neighbours as something of a “pariah state.”

This isolation lasted until new presidential elections were held in Paraguay in 2013. This “figleaf” allowed UNASUR and Mercosur a face-saving mechanism whereby they permitted Paraguay’s re-entry into those organizations.

Fortunately, at the Organization of American States (OAS), cooler heads prevailed. In contrast to both UNASUR and Mercosur, the OAS chose instead to send a “fact finding mission” to Asuncion (of which Canada was a member) before deciding on a course of action. The OAS Mission, led by then-Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, found that while the impeachment process may have been “precipitous,” it was indeed legal and had been fully carried out under the terms of the Paraguayan Constitution. As a result, Paraguay was not expelled from the wider membership of the OAS. This was in marked contrast to the precipitous actions of UNASUR and Mercosur.

Fast-forward to 2016 where the now embattled Dilma Rousseff is facing a similar constitutional challenge that could lead to her removal. In her appeal to her former allies in the region, there has now been a decidedly different response from what was the case four years earlier. President Chavez of Venezuela has passed away and President Kirchner was stymied in her efforts to be able to have a third term in office (with Mauricio Macri winning the presidency in 2015). Only President Evo Morales of Bolivia has answered Rousseff’s plea, calling for a special meeting of UNASUR to deal with the situation.

The days of the cacique, or the authoritarian leader, are waning in many parts of the region.

The reaction of UNASUR members, however, has this time been decidedly different from their former treatment of Paraguay. There is now a marked reluctance to intervene in Brazilian affairs as they were so eager to do in Paraguay four years earlier.

The morale of this story is two-fold: First, the nationalist, bombastic and populist rhetoric that many leaders of Latin America have used to great effect over the last 15 years can only take one so far. It works well for awhile (and in the case of Cuba for decades) but it can not last forever before citizen fatigue begins to set in. This is the trend across Latin America where its citizens are now demanding more from their leaders. The days of the cacique, or the authoritarian leader, are waning in many parts of the region.

Second, citizens of emerging Latin America are demanding more accountability from their governments. In the face of rampant corruption and abuse of privilege by elected officials, voters are now demanding governments that are more transparent in the use of public resources than has been the case before. Such a movement bodes well for the region as it attempts to move beyond its susceptibility to the siren songs of would-be authoritarian populist figures in favour of stronger democratic institutions that are more responsible to the needs of their electorates.

Too bad that this lesson appears to have been lost upon Rousseff. Despite the winds of change that are blowing through the Brazilian electorate, she continues in her frantic efforts to maintain her hold on the presidency. All this against the backdrop of Brazil's widespread and on-going corruption scandal that has reached the highest echelons of her government.