Howard University’s Department of Political Science in collaboration with the Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center and the School of Business hosted former-President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff on April 17. The event provided Rousseff with a platform to discuss the state of democracy, affirmative action, and social and economic inclusivity in Brazil.
Speakers included Deputy Director Tonija Navas of the Bunche Center, Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick, and Howard University Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dr. Bernard A. Mair. Rousseff delivered the keynote address. Dr. Clarence Lusane, chair of the Department of Political Science, and Jaimee Swift, a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science, moderated the Q&A portion of the event.
Rousseff is a Brazilian economist and politician who served as the thirty-sixth president of Brazil from 2011 until August 2016. She is the first woman to hold the Brazilian presidency and previously served as the chief of staff to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva between 2005 and 2010.
The trial that resulted in her formal removal polarized Brazil and divided the opposition from her leftist supporters who actively condemned the process. The Brazilian Senate officially impeached Rousseff on August 31, 2016, bringing an end to a controversy that dominated the country for months. The decision to remove Rousseff from the presidency was motivated by allegations that her administration manipulated the federal budget in order to conceal the country’s worsening economic crisis.
Her controversial impeachment took center stage at Howard as the former-leader continued to depict her removal as a coup.
“I participated in the political life of Brazil since the end of 1963, beginning of 1964 until now. Unfortunately, I lived and suffered two political coups: one by the dictatorship [and one by parliamentary coup],” Rousseff explained.
Throughout the impeachment process, Rousseff condemned the opposition’s allegations of mismanaging government funds, arguing that the accusations did not qualify as a “crime of responsibility.” Dilma rejected the coup, explaining that she was not charged of any crimes to merit her removal, calling it, “impeachment without the responsibility of criminal acts.”
Without legal grounds for impeachment and formal criminal charges, according to Rousseff, the impeachment was primarily motivated by the desire of the opposition to control Brazil economically, socially, and politically. Rousseff argued that, despite her victory in 2014, a legitimate perception continued in the minds of the opposition that they had in fact won. In reality, they lost for the fourth time. Motivated by a vision of neoliberal Brazil, Rousseff argued, the opposition decided to undermine democracy through the act of impeachment.
“They perceived that to implement their [neoliberal reforms]that they had to suspend democracy.”
Rousseff explained, “We only win when the democracy, no matter how imperfect because it is imperfect, continues in Brazil. We lose when that democracy becomes more imperfect due to our own errors as Brazilians.”
Rousseff compared the parliamentary coup to the precision associated with surgery. Military coups, according to Rousseff, attack everyone regardless of class, race, and sector; whereas, the implications of the parliamentary coup are concentrated and disproportionately affect specific, vulnerable groups in society, including workers, minorities, and women.
The discussion of the implications of her impeachment allowed Rousseff to comment on the nation’s strides towards inclusivity and globalization. Through the implementation of the socialized health system and affirmative action programs, Rousseff argued that Brazil was able to transform society. However, for Rousseff, this progress is not complete.
“It is very important to see what we haven’t done and where we can do more. Sometimes you cannot do everything [in your term],” Rousseff explained.
The address also highlighted the role of gender and misogyny underlying the impeachment and tainting her image in Brazil.
“I was a woman who was hard, who didn’t like to do political negotiations. I was very hard and avoided questions. Men were strong and capable of doing things. Women, on the other hand, did not have logical coherence in their view. This is prejudiced logic: a woman is hard and emotional, a man is strong and sensitive,” Rousseff said.
Although she noted the negative impact of misogyny and gender roles, when asked about her advice to Brazilian women in politics, Rousseff took an optimistic tone.
“To become president of Brazil as a woman, it is clear that women can become president.”
To Rousseff, her removal is symbolic of Brazil’s regression—a sign of attacks against democracy, basic freedoms, and the power of the electoral process. Likening the state of Brazil to the state of the U.S., Rousseff detailed how increasing fragmentation and polarization fuels the rise of the extreme right, destroying democracy and breeding social and economic exclusion. To respond to this concern, Rousseff urged for the amplification of democracy to address the needs of the people.
“When a government cannot respond to society’s demands, the people, the population, start to think that the government is irrelevant for their life,” Rousseff commented. She continued, explaining that the perception of an irrelevant government further hinders the well-being of the state because it “impedes that participation and transformation of the people.”
Rousseff ended her address by emphasizing the importance and power of democracy. She focused on the Brazilian general elections in 2018 as a chance to resuscitate democracy and push politico-electoral reforms.
Despite recent setbacks to democracy in Brazil, Rousseff told the audience of her personal conviction that democracy will be on the right side of history. Although she does not plan to seek public office again, she used the opportunity to further her call to action and democratic participation.
“I can help my country without being president. I served before, and I will continue to serve. You can rest assured that I will be there fighting,” Rousseff concluded.