On Tuesday, former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff left the presidential palace in Brasilia and boarded a plane for her adopted home city of Porto Alegre.
She left behind a successor, Michel Temer, who risks indictment for far worse offences than the ones that brought her down and a country that has lost its right to a place among the Brics.
Brics began as a collection of large, fast-growing countries in the poorer parts of the world that Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs identified as emerging global powers in 2001: Brazil, Russia, India and China. (South Africa and the capital S were added in 2010.)
Brics even started holding annual summits, although they were rarely more than orgies of self-congratulation.
Nobody enjoyed their new status more than the Brazilians, but it was always an illusion. China and India were indisputably great powers. Russia was a recovering great power, not a new one. But Brazil, like South Africa, was an imposter, lacking the critical combination of population, resources and industry that entitles a country to a place in the first rank.
Brazil was a fairly plausible imposter during the years of the great boom in commodity prices, but for the past two years, it has been in deep economic trouble.
It was Rousseff’s misfortune to win the 2014 presidential election just as the bottom dropped out of the country’s economic “miracle”. Her predecessor as president, Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, exploited the boom to build a modest welfare state that lifted 50 million Brazilians out of poverty.
Rousseff struggled to maintain those gains in the midst of Brazil’s worst recession since the 1930s – the economy shrank by almost 4% last year – and became the least popular president in Brazilian history. Her unpopularity, plus a huge corruption scandal that implicated some members of her Workers’ Party (though not herself personally), created the atmosphere in which it became possible for the Brazilian Congress to impeach her.
She describes it as a “constitutional coup” designed to remove an elected left-wing government from power – and she is quite right. It is universally acknowledged that the Brazilian Congress is one of the most corrupt legislatures on the planet. Fifty-eight percent of the members are under investigation for involvement in the “Lava Jato” (car wash) scandal, in which they allegedly got kickbacks on contracts with the state-owned Petrobras oil monopoly.
Few of these people are associated with Rousseff, since the Workers’ Party holds less than one-tenth of the seats in Congress and depends on coalitions for a majority.
A cynic might say that that’s why Rousseff has supported federal prosecutors who are investigating Lava Jato – but the same cynic would also have to acknowledge that one of the motives for impeaching Rousseff is to shut the investigation down.
Temer himself has been accused of skimming $300 000 (R4.3 million) off a nuclear energy contract, so it shouldn’t be too long before some kind of amnesty is cobbled together for everybody who faces indictment in the Lava Jato case. What’s especially sad about Brazil is that it really did use its boom to rescue a generation of the very poor from misery and was starting to address the extreme corruption of its political system.
Now most of that will be rolled back. The crooks are back in charge.