Thursday, December 3, 2015

Brasil em Crise (Dec. 3, 2015)

The Brazilian political and economic quagmire thickened further: yesterday Eduardo Cunha, speaker of the lower chamber of Congress, agreed to start impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff.

In a harsh reaction to President Dilma Rousseff, Cunha accused her Workers' Party (PT) of having "lied to the nation" when she said she would never accept bargaining that would hinder the functioning of democratic institutions, reports Folha de S. Paulo.

The legal battle -- which could take weeks of delicate political negotiations -- could contribute to the sense of deadlock in the nation's politics, which has already thwarted Rousseff's efforts to pass austerity measures through Congress, reports the New York Times

Cunha based his action on a court's finding that Rousseff's administration violated fiscal responsibility laws by using money from state-run banks to fill budget gaps and pay for government social spending, reports the Associated Press. A special commission with representation from all political parties will analyze the motion to impeach.

But the proceedings might be more hype than substance. Most analysts predict Rousseff will survive. "The chances of President Rousseff being impeached aren't as big as politicians say now, despite this bold move by Cunha," Luciano Dias, a political consultant at the Brasilia-based Analise Politica firm told the AP. "They are not insignificant, but they are not huge."

But it is likely to be a bitter and protracted power struggle in a nation, says the Wall Street Journal, which says the news will add to the uncertainty and volatility already affecting Brazil.

The proceedings will require a two-thirds majority in the lower house, and could still be thwarted. A committee must be formed to analyze the case before recess begins at the end of the month. Given the narrow time frame, it is unlikely that the lower house of Congress could act decisively unless special sessions are convened, according to the NYTimes.

Rousseff's Workers Party will seek a Supreme Court injunction blocking the entire process, reports Folha de S. Paulo.

If two-thirds of the chamber, or 342 deputies, vote in favor of impeachment, Rousseff is temporarily suspended awaiting a final vote by the Senate. There, a two-thirds vote is needed to remove her from office, explains the Washington Post.

"Right now, the government has the votes in Congress that it needs to prevent impeachment from materializing," Brasílio Sallum, a sociologist at the University of São Paulo who is an authority on impeachment proceedings in Brazil, told the New York Times. "But the political situation is so volatile that things could easily change a few weeks from now."

Adding to the soap-operatic nature of the whole political debacle engulfing Brasilia, Cunha himself has been charged with taking millions in bribes in connection to a big kickback scheme that has embroiled state-run oil company Petrobras. Prosecutors allege Cunha has at least $5 million hidden in Swiss bank accounts and it is widely thought he could be arrested. Earlier this week the lower chamber's ethics committee postponed a decision whether to recommend he be stripped of his post as Speaker. (See yesterday's briefs.)

Cunha has denied all the accusations against him. He has hung onto his post using "support from a network of loyal lieutenants and by using his encyclopedic knowledge of parliamentary procedure to hamper efforts to remove him," according to the WSJ.

"I've committed no illicit act, there is no suspicion hanging over me of any misuse of public money," the president said yesterday in a national broadcast. "I don't have any offshore bank accounts, I have no hidden assets."
Critics and analysts say he is retaliating against the president and detracting from his own legal troubles.

"Facing rapidly dimming prospects for maintaining his seat, the embattled lawmaker has finally decided to pull the trigger in a last-ditch effort to shift the attention to Rousseff," Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, Latin America Director at the Eurasia Group, said in a statement. The Eurasia Group estimates Rousseff's chances of staying in office are 60% or better.

Cunha dismissed the idea that his decision was motivated by personal or political reasons, reports The Guardian. "The basis of this [impeachment proceeding] is purely technical," he said.

It looks like the end of a sort of "mutually assured destruction" balance between Rousseff and Cunha, in which the Workers' Party avoided pushing for Cunha's removal for fear he would lash out at the President.

But the party president, Rui Falcão, was concerned the PT would lose credibility if it permitted him to stay on and had been pushing three wavering PT members of the congressional ethics committee to vote to remove him from his post reports the WSJ.

Yesterday the three lawmakers gave indications that they would support removing Cunha from his post and soon after, he announced his decision to launch the impeachment proceedings.

Earlier this year, Cunha acknowledged that an impeachment, which would be the first since 1992, would be a "backwards step for democracy," reports The Guardian. He has avoided acting on more than30 proposals to remove Rousseff, who is one year into her second four-year mandate, reports O Globo.

Yesterday, the two sides traded insults and barbs. See O Globo, for examples.

The newest attack on Rousseff piles onto a growing list of woes dragging down the country, including the worst economic performance in twenty years and an ever growing corruption scandal that is jailing powerful figures adding to the political deadlock. Each element makes the others worst, creating a full on national crisis of confidence. (See yesterday's briefs.)

The New York Times compares the level of political infighting in Brazil, which makes effective governance increasingly difficult, to the turmoil around the impeachment in 1992 of President Fernando Collor, who resigned in the face of an influence-peddling scandal.

Rousseff's supporters compare the move to a political coup, saying it's a manipulation of institutions in order to oust her. But most analysts expect her to fight to stay on. And some lawmakers have said in private that they would be unlikely to push for impeachment without mass protests on the streets calling for Ms. Rousseff’s ouster, reports the WSJ. 

News Briefs

  • Thirty-two companies are currently banned from doing work for Brazil's state-run oil company Petrobras because of an ongoing corruption investigation, according to Reuters.
  • The murder of a Venezuelan opposition politician last week was the result of a gang dispute and unrelated to politics, according to the results of a police investigation, reports Reuters. Luis Diaz, a local leader of opposition party Democratic Action, was gunned down at a campaign rally in his home state of Guarico. The opposition has pinned the death on the governing PSUV. But the government rejects the allegations, saying the opposition is using a gang related death politically. Diaz's murder drew swift condemnation from the United Nations, the United States as well as South American regional bloc UNASUR, which has sent a mission to observe the election. (See Monday's briefs.)
  • Venezuela's soaring poverty will be a central issue in this weekend's National Assembly election, reports the Wall Street Journal. While the late President Hugo Chávez used petrodollars to lift millions of Venezuelan's out of poverty, the money has run out, and residents are struggling with triple-digit inflation, chronic food shortages and a broad collapse in state welfare institutions.
  • Maduro is pushing OPEC to curb oil production in order to boost prices, reports Bloomberg. At a meeting of OPEC ministers in Vienna tomorrow, Venezuela will propose a 5 percent production cut while Ecuador will suggest ways to improve oil prices through output controls. But while the majority of OPEC members would agree to a reduction in output, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Arab countries are opposed. Ministers are expected to decide against curbing production, with important budgetary implications for most OPEC countries.
  • There is a lot of international hype regarding the election -- but less might be at stake than first appears, argues a piece in McClatchy DC. Should the opposition win, the National Assembly could become a place for more democratic dialogue. But it is only one of five branches of power in the government. And Maduro has the ability to shift more power from the legislature to other branches under his party's control, explains Jennifer McCoy, former director of the Americas Program at the Carter Center. "Just because the opposition wins a majority in the legislature, it doesn’t mean it suddenly is going to have this major power, she added.
  • Miami Herald editorial calls U.S. authorities to help ensure the integrity of Haiti's election by getting the Provisional Electoral Council to put off the scheduled Dec. 27 run-off vote to elect a new president, pending an independent investigation into fraud allegations. (See Monday's briefs.) The piece provides a useful review of the situation following the October presidential elections, which have evolved into what the Prime Minister has called a "trust crisis."
  • Argentina's president-elect says he will could reach a deal with so-called "holdout" creditors suing the country over unpaid debt within the next year, reports Reuters. Argentina's decade-long legal battle with a small group of U.S. investment firms tipped the South American country back into default in July last year. A deal would permit the country to regain access to global credit markets and ease an acute shortage of hard currency after its record default on $100 billion in debt in 2002. Macri did not say what the terms of an eventual agreement might look like. The negotiating process will be led by Luis Caputo, the former head of Deutsche Bank’s Argentina unit and ex-chief of Latin America debt trading at JPMorgan Chase who will be Macri's new Finance secretary. As a Wall Street insider, Caputo has access to a lot of big names from the global financial world, reports the Buenos Aires Herald.
  • In La Nación Juan Tokatlian analyzes Macri's new anti-drugs proposal. The plan pins growing public insecurity on drug trafficking and proposes "defeat" it. Tokatlian criticizes the conclusion that ignores the relationship between inequality and crime. The ambitious goals include reducing homicides by 20 percent, the supply of cocaine paste (paco) by 70 percent and cocaine and hard drugs by 50 percent within the first year of government. Tokatlian makes the point that a more gradual process would be more realistic. Nonetheless he concludes that the plan is interesting, though it has aspects that must be "carefully rethought."

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