Olympics arrive, but life goes on in crisis-stricken Brazil

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, August 9, 2016


Just as the political crisis in Brazil heads toward the final Senate vote on the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, Brazilians have turned their attention to the XXI Olympiad that began on August 5 in Rio de Janeiro.


Because most Brazilians anticipate that Rousseff will not return to power and that interim leader Michel Temer will finish the current presidential term due to end in late 2018, the political theatre in the Brazilian Congress surrounding the accusations against the suspended president — which dominated news for most of 2016 — has been replaced by the more upbeat sports arenas where the Olympic Games are taking place. Though the final Senate vote against Dilma will likely occur before the end of the month (the Senate is expected to announce the date this week) and the investigations of the “Lava Jato” (“Car Wash”) corruption scandal continue to implicate important politicians — now including ministers in Temer’s Cabinet — Brazilians seem determined to take a break from the political scandals and focus, at least for the next two weeks, on sporting events.


From a political standpoint, 2016 has been a year to forget for Brazil. The impeachment process against Rousseff has been the most important political scandal, but the breadth of the Lava Jato investigations has reached proportions that nobody anticipated when the probe first began under Judge Sérgio Moro in early 2014. In addition to Rousseff, the leaders of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies have had to resign from their posts. Several prominent politicians have been implicated, including former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2002-2010) and dozens of other lawmakers. Most Brazilians believe that many other politicians are involved too. The perception that the political class has used its position to pocket money and favour political allies is widespread.


Though the accusations against Rousseff have generated a political divide, with the elites and middle class supporting her removal and people in lower income groups supporting the Workers’ Party (PT) leader, there is widespread agreement among all Brazilians that there is plenty of corruption among the governing elite. Rousseff’s supporters reckon that she is unfairly being singled out for a practice that was common under previous governments. Dilma’s critics argue that — even though corruption is widespread — you have to start somewhere in order to put an end to the practice. Thus, while there is a deep partisan divide over whether Rousseff should be permanently removed from office, there is widespread agreement that the political elite is unresponsive to voters as much as it is to special interests. In the eyes of the public, politicians are up for sale.


Before being temporarily suspended from the presidency, Rousseff had the lowest presidential approval on record over the past 20 years. When her vice-president — and now foe — Michel Temer was appointed as interim president, most polling companies did not even bother to look into his approval ratings. Temer seems to be fully aware that Brazilians have no special sympathy for him. During the inauguration of the Olympic Games, Temer had a brief, unannounced moment of participation. When he started speaking to formally inaugurate the games, the stadium ostensibly booed him. Though Temer is supposed to be more popular among the middle and upper class than among low income Brazilians, the fact that he received such a noisy rejection in the stadium, filled by people who were sufficiently well-off to afford a ticket, shows that most Brazilians are in no mood to give the nation’s politicians the benefit of the doubt.


Since he assumed office on May 12, interim-President Temer has received the benefit of the doubt from the international financial community and the national business sector. People’s confidence in the economy has improved and observers are cautiously optimistic about his ability to put the national economy on the path to economic recovery. Yet, there is no popular enthusiasm behind the new government. At most, people believe that Temer is only better than Rousseff, who was widely perceived as ineffective and incapable of building coalitions. In contrast, Temer’s most celebrated attribute is that he is a coalition builder, even at the cost of turning against his former running-mate.


Anticipating that he would be jeered, Temer kept his speech exceptionally short. He knows Brazilians are in no mood to hear from their politicians. People want the political class to put the house back in order and, preferably, people want to bring in new blood to the capital city of Brasilia. Yet, most people are growing tired of the ongoing scandals and have begun to pay less attention to recent developments. Though the trials are ongoing, the public has already reached its verdict. For example, a revelation made this past Sunday by the former CEO of Oderbrecht, one of the construction companies involved in scandal, about alleged illegal campaign contributions to former opposition presidential candidate (and now Minister of Foreign Affairs) José Serra was overshadowed by news about the Olympics. It seems that after months of revelations from the Lava Jato scandal, Brazilians are ready to take a break and focus their attention on the more upbeat news of the so-far fascinating Rio 2016 Olympic Games.