Dilma’s situation is more complicated than Collor’s in 1992, says historian

BBC BRASIL, 7/09/2015


Boris Fausto, a leading Brazilian historian and former Wilson Center Fellow, finds it hard to relate the political crisis President Dilma Rousseff currently faces with the one that ended João Goulart’s presidency  in 1964 – a comparison made by PSDB’s Senator José Serra last Sunday (July 5th). Fausto, however, sees similarities between her situation and the fall, in 1992, of the first elected president after re-democratization in Brazil, Fernando Collor.

Fausto, who voted for candidate Aécio Neves in last October’s presidential elections, says there are more technical reasons today for Dilma’s impeachment than there were in Collor’s case, particularly because of  “problems with budgeting [referred to as ‘fiscal pedaling’] and campaign financing”.

“The comparison with Collor is interesting, because,  for doing much less, he was impeached”, he affirmed in the interview conducted by BBC Brasil.

Asked about the president’s lack of direct links to corruption, Fausto stated that Dilma “made efforts to control the worst aspects of corruption and gave Petrobras a course to follow; but the problem is that she is involved in a political institution to which she belongs [the Workers Party], regardless of her supposed intentions”.

The historian considers that the corruption accusations that contributed to the fall of Getúlio Vargas and culminated in his suicide in August 1954 were “a small pond” compared to the rumors involving Petrobras.

The comparison refers to the expression “a sea of mud”, popular at the time of crisis in Varga’s government. Below are the main excerpts of the interview:

BBC Brasil – In light of a possible rupture between PT and PMDB, and statements given by PSDB leaders affirming they would be ready to take over the country, Dilma went on the offensive to affirm she will not fall [from power]. Does this type of statement tend to produce the desired political result? 

Boris Fausto – To some extent, there is result. She is the president of the Republic, and she is trying to fight off this situation. I presume the Worker’s Party probably took that statement well. Other circles, not so much.

 BBC Brasil – Was it a good step within the political dispute?
Fausto – I don’t think it was. She should have said more, because her presence in moments of crisis would be very important, and she does so infrequently. I don’t like the content [of what she said]. Her phrase “I am not afraid, I am ready for battle” seems as if she is proposing a challenge, and those are not words a president should use. While the recurring focus on the fact that she was tortured and politically persecuted could generate sympathy and praise, the overemphasis on  relating those historic days to current times doesn’t make much sense.

BBC Brasil – Senator José Serra claimed Dilma’s government “is the weakest” he has ever witnessed. “Jango’s [João Goulart, deposed in 1964] government was rock solid  in comparison to Dilma’s”, Serra affirmed. Do you agree?
Fausto – I do not agree with parts of the statement. It is hard to measure the strength  of a government. I think Jango’s government, particularly in the last phase, had a very erratic behavior, it weakened itself and was overthrown by a coup. The times are very different, the reasons (behind the weakness of governments) are very distinct, and the social forces have changed. I do not see the parallel.

BBC Brasil – The press had a very important role in the fall of both Jango and Getúlio Vargas. The Worker’s Party tends to blame the press of targeting the party and its government. How do you see the media’s current behavior?

Fausto – The press has always had an important role in Brazil. In the past, we had something we don’t have today any longer: newspapers  with different positions (as to who or what they supported). For example, that is the case of the O Globo  and Última Hora  (newspapers which supported Vargas). Today this do not exist. I am certain that today, the conspiracy theory about the press manipulating the situation is false. In general, the media has had a very important role in the clarification of facts. Instead of censuring media, it is best to censure the behavior of those whom the media speaks of.

BBC Brasil – In the Vargas’ case, there were also charges of corruption. Is there similarity between the two [Dilma and Vargas] cases?  

Fausto – A very genetic similarity does exist, because the theme of corruption did appear in both cases, but the level of corruption in current days is infinitely larger than those at the time of Vargas. After all, what he himself called a “sea of mud” was in reality, a small pond compared to today’s situation. This means that corruption is a much more important element today than it was during Vargas’ time. Still, corruption allegations were use to overthrown him from power.

 BBC Brasil – Do you still see “class struggles” like we used claim in earlier times? The government tends to classify its critics as “elites who are opposed to reforms for the country and  worry only about their own interests”.

Fausto – That’s a tough question. The panorama in Brazil is much more complex. Of course there are declared  interests coming from the elites. But a complication is that the Worker’s Party, which  is supposedly  the party of  workers in urban area  has been transformed into a party where the main leader has united itself with construction contractors,  to the extent that its national leadership publicly defends such alliances. Thus, all of this shapes much of the scenery of the Brazilian political battle. It is hard to say if today, the Worker’s Party is truly the party of the workers.

 BBC Brasil – Today, Dilma has less popular support than Jango or Vargas  had before they were ousted. Does this increase chances of her not finishing up her mandate?

Fausto – The historical comparison doesn’t increase [her chances]. But the lack of popular support, added to her low prestige, destabilize her government and do increase chances of arriving at a situation of impeachment. Especially from a leader whose government reached 60%-65% of approval at the beginning of her first mandate.

 BBC Brasil – José Sarney was a very unpopular president, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso also faced moments of low approval rates, but neither fell. What are the similarities and differences between these two cases and the current?
Fausto – These are different situations. Sarney had an issue with be see as a legitimate president: he had links  to the Arena (the political party that supported the military dictatorship), and only got to power after Tancredo’s death (Tancredo Neves, indirectly elected president by the Congress). Later, Brazil also faced economic hardship. Thus, the reasons behind low approval rates are understandable, but the political situation was never as unstable as we have it today.

 BBC Brasil – What about Fernando Henrique’s case? He also faced low approval rates, there was even a call for  his ousting.

Fausto – During his second mandate, FHC lived with moments of popular disapproval, particularly when he faced an adverse economic situation, which caused unemployment to rise. In reality, a very curious thing happened to him:  he lost popularity, but never credibility.

 BBC Brasil – The Brazilian democracy, although still young, overcame Collor’s impeachment. The predominant notion today, is that the overthrow of the president was fair and correct. Dilma’s government, however, accuses those who propose her impeachment of plotting the equivalent of a coup. Today, does an impeachment have constitutional foundation, or would it be considered a coup?

Fausto – Impeachment is in our lwas, so it is not a coup d’état. However, the impeachment is essentially a political tool, meaning that there must be a strong trend of belief that the government no longer meet the conditions to remain  in power. Moreover,  it is necessary to spell out the reasoning behind the impeachment. Dilma is surrounded by allegations  that could motivate it  –  budget [accounting]  problems, campaign and party financing [irregularities], and others.

Thus, it is very important that we don’t get ahead of ourselves, because we are in the middle of a   bad storm. But it is hard to challenge  that there aren’t enough technical reasons for an impeachment. The  comparison to Collor is interesting because he was impeached for doing much less [than she is accused of].

BBC Brasil – In Collor’s case, he was accused of using corruption for his own benefit. Dilma, on the other hand, maintains that her biography is clean and that she is honest. Would these be two different issues then? 

Fausto – Dilma made efforts to control the worst aspects of corruption and gave Petrobras a road map to follow. But the problem is that she is involved in a political institution [the Workers Party] in which she belongs, regardless of her supposed intentions.

 BBC Brasil – The country is once again  discussing the adoption of the parliamentary system. The idea is  supported by the Chamber’s president, Eduardo Cunha, and also by senator José Serra. The system was adopted in Jango’s government, as a means to reduce his powers as president. What do you think about this discussion?Fausto – It is necessary to understand the conditions under which the parliamentary system would be adopted first. I am very hesitant. Although I recognize its higher quality as a political system, I keep wondering if we have a constitutional framework that could sustain a true parliamentary system ,considering  institutions like our current  National Congress and our 32 political parties.

 BBC Brasil – When you mention 32 political parties, are you referring to the possible difficulties in building alliances?

Fausto – Today, in a presidential system, where the Congress is extremely relevant, there are difficulties that need to be overcome – such as lack of coherence, the creation of political parties that are free-riders in pursuit of their own interests, and others. This makes it very risky for the implementation of a parliamentary system.

BBC Brasil – What is your opinion about Eduardo Cunha, a controversial figure who emerged with great force?

Fausto – I don’t know him enough to opine. I will only say one thing: Eduardo Cunha knows the regulations of the Chamber very well. He knows how to use and manage it, which is another reason for us to be in doubt about [the adoption of] the parliamentary system.


  • The original article in Portuguese can be found here
  • Boris Fausto is a Brazilian historian, political scientist and writer, and was a Wilson Center Fellow in 1981
  • Translated from Portuguese by Júlia Cardoso, an undergraduate senior at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, and summer intern at the Brazil Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.




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