The Campaign to Impeach Brazil’s President Is Viciously Sexist

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Many protesters held signs reading "Tchau Querida," or "bye bye dear."
Many protesters held signs reading "Tchau Querida," or "bye bye dear."Photo: Luiz Souza/NurPhoto

On Sunday, Brazil’s lower house (the Chamber of Deputies) voted to proceed with impeachment hearings against Dilma Rousseff, the nation’s first female president, by an overwhelming 2:1 majority. The case now moves to the Senate, which is expected to vote on Rousseff’s ouster by May 17. Much like in the U.S., both houses are overwhelmingly male. And just like in the U.S., the treatment of the country’s most prominent female politician is largely a function of sexism.

The stated reason for Rousseff’s impeachment is her alleged misappropriation of funds in an effort to cover budget gaps and boost confidence in the economy (and her administration). The accusations come from a sweeping anti-corruption campaign, Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), that has uncovered a dizzying array of malfeasance at nearly every level of government.

So the proceedings against Rousseff might not seem so remarkable, if not for the mind-blowing contradictions involved. Brazil’s previous two presidents, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Rousseff’s mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, both faced numerous similar — in some cases, more serious — charges (17 counts against Cardoso, 34 for Silva), none of which prompted impeachment hearings.

Meanwhile, Eduardo Cunha, the leader of the Chamber of Deputies and architect of the impeachment, is himself under investigation for corruption and taking bribes. Unlike Rousseff, who has never been accused of taking public funds for herself, Cunha and several other politicians leading the charge against her are accused of siphoning spectacular sums of money from public coffers into their own pockets. What’s more, Michel Temer, Rousseff’s vice-president, is also accused of corruption — while working avidly against Rousseff. At least for now, he seems destined to replace her, which would make for the ultimate sexist double standard.

Of course, it’s more complicated than simply sexism. Widespread intractable corruption and persistent inequality, compounded by lavish spending on the 2014 World Cup and this year’s Olympic Games — not to mention Rousseff’s hard-nosed (many say stubborn) political style and Brazil’s worst recession in decades have helped push Rousseff’s approval ratings to microscopic levels. There are plenty of reasons that large numbers of Brazilians feel fed up with the system at large and Rousseff’s Workers’ Party in particular. The impeachment vote reflects a larger crisis of confidence and credibility.

But Sunday’s vote took on a troubling tone, like a combination of a Donald Trump rally and the vengeful, violent politics of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, when Rousseff herself was imprisoned and tortured for her Marxist activism. The raucous proceedings (complete with singing, shouting, chanting, confetti, and spitting) were cartoonishly sexist. As the process unfolded, it was hard not to think of it as a witch hunt.

Leading the way was right-wing playboy Jair Bolsonaro, the homophobic, racist, pro-military politician who has also been called “the most misogynistic, hateful official in the democratic world.” In 2014, he called a congresswoman “not worth raping.” This weekend, he dove even further to the bottom, “dedicating” his anti-Rousseff vote to Carlos Ustra, a notorious military official who oversaw the department responsible for imprisoning and torturing Rousseff in the 1970s. Perhaps the most vivid symbol of the true motivations behind the impeachment — were the signs that many of Bolsonaro’s supporters waved during the vote on Sunday. In bold green-and-yellow lettering to match Brazil’s flag, the signs carried a snarky, biting phrase: “Tchau Querida” (bye bye, dear).

And there is no doubt that the impeachment proceedings draw from a longer history of misogynistic treatment of Rousseff. Her critics routinely place her femininity front and center — and mock it mercilessly. Like Marcia Clark during the O.J. trial, her short hair and professional suits are widely lampooned and contrasted with the (also sexist) depictions of the “typical” voluptuous, sexual Brazilian woman. Crude, grotesque images of Rousseff have long circulated online and have been turned into car stickers that fit around the gas tank, depicting Rousseff with legs splayed and inviting drivers to penetrate her every time they fill up. One blogger, meanwhile, photoshopped an image of her covered in mud, emerging from the depths of the earth. The post called her “The Lying Prostitute of the Planalto (Brazil’s presidential palace),” a particularly ironic label given recent revelations of male politicians using state money to hire actual prostitutes. In March, the United Nations office on women’s rights in Brazil issued a statement protesting the “sexist political violence” against Rousseff, and last year, an organization of female workers published a similar statement.

Rousseff’s feminism is hardly unblemished — her record on abortion is uneven and she has opposed same-sex marriage in favor of civil unions. But her actions as a guerrilla and a politician would make Elizabeth Jennings and Clare Underwood proud. While fighting the dictatorship, she led bank robberies, taught classes on Marxism, and belonged to not just one but two militant organizations. When authorities caught her in 1972, she spent 22 days being tortured with electric shocks from car batteries and beatings forceful enough to dislodge a tooth and cause physical problems that carry on today. That she has a political career at all is a remarkable testament to her passion and perseverance — she was stripped of all political rights for 18 years after leaving jail — and she has been a champion of social reform and for the poor.

One of Rousseff’s most poignant moments as president came in 2014 at the press conference where she announced the findings of Brazil’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body tasked with studying human-rights abuses by Ustra and others during the dictatorship. During her remarks to reporters, she broke into tears. This was neither conventional political language nor cynical performance, but the raw emotion of someone who had lived through a horrific period of violence and now found herself in a position of remarkable power. Now, men like Cunha and Bolsonaro are close to taking it all away.

Much like Trump a few months ago, Bolsonaro seems to be moving improbably, scarily towards electoral relevance. He is already being discussed as a serious candidate for president in 2018 and his poll numbers have risen from 6 percent to 8 percent since March, putting him within 20 points of the leading candidates. Early returns after Sunday suggest that his spiteful performance is likely to cause another spike in his popularity.

But his venom is about much more than his own political gain; it boils from deeper, darker places. The spectacle of an almost entirely white-male political mob clamoring in the Chamber of Deputies, placards raised, faces red, and voices hoarse may become the enduring image of Brazil’s current political moment. As these men say “bye bye, dear,” Brazil is prepared to say hello again to a past that — despite remarkable efforts by Rousseff and others — has not yet been left behind.