South American leaders watched from sidelines as Rousseff fell

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff waves as she attends the May Day celebrations in Sao Paulo, Brazil, May 1, 2016. — Reuters pic
Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff waves as she attends the May Day celebrations in Sao Paulo, Brazil, May 1, 2016. — Reuters pic

RIO DE JANEIRO, May 14 — So much for having good neighbours.

South American leaders basically sat back and watched as Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff flailed and fumed and fought for her political life and ultimately lost, at least the first round.

Rousseff was suspended from office Thursday to face an impeachment trial on charges she cooked the government’s books in an election year to make her budget look better.

Leaders in other South American countries had no interest in meddling. They were focused more on domestic issues than in helping Rousseff in a months-long political battle that laid bare grassroots fury over corruption and recession in the continent’s biggest economy.

These leaders had an eye on her likely successor and wanted to be on good terms, because Brazil is, well, Brazil — an economic powerhouse, albeit an ailing one.

Plus, Rousseff is certainly no Luis Inacio Lula da Silva — her charismatic predecessor and political mentor, a towering figure of the Latin American left and wildly popular to this day.

Rousseff never enjoyed such an aura, and as the Brazil economy tanked and the impeachment drive gathered pace, her approval ratings hit single digits.

As that noose tightened around Rousseff in recent months, the leftist governments of Uruguay, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia expressed explicit support for her.

Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and Evo Morales of Bolivia adopted her terminology, calling the proceeding a parliamentary coup.

Rousseff argues that her accounting practices were nothing new in Brazil and while not strictly above board, they were certainly not grounds for removing her from office.

But the support from her neighbours stopped there, with words.

Four years ago, when the president of Paraguay was impeached in a matter of days over a deadly clash between farmers and police, the whole region rose up in arms.

Paraguay was suspended from a regional trade organisation called Mercosur. Brazil and Venezuela were vocal supporters of that dumped president, Fernando Lugo. The case was taken up by the Organisation of American States, in Washington DC.

But this time no consensus emerged to get regional organisations involved.

The reaction, or lack thereof, from Argentina, Brazil’s main partner in the region, was particularly stinging for Rousseff. Its new conservative president simply said he respected the government institutions of his neighbour.

There is a “tradition in diplomacy of not interfering in other countries domestic affairs,” said Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, director of Latin America issues at Eurasia Group, a consultancy.

Cautious approach

“Overall what prevails is a certain cautious approach not to pick fights,” he said.

Although the impeachment proceedings are widely supported at the grassroots level in Brazil, they are controversial because so many lawmakers in both chambers of the legislature have been convicted of corruption or face charges.

Michael Shifter, president of The Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank focusing on Latin American issues, said many countries were uncomfortable with the process and thought it had become politicized.

“Brazil is not just any old country. Because of its size and importance, the countries cannot afford to show strong support for Dilma at the cost of not being able to work with the Temer government,” Shifter said.

The OAS said it would ask the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to examine what happened to Rousseff.

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has given clear signs of support for Rousseff, visiting her twice over the past month.

But her case has not been taken up by the OAS Permanent Council, the body’s top panel.

Keep peace with successor

There are also practical concerns in the neighbours’ failure to come to Rousseff’s aid. They are looking ahead to dealing with her successor as acting president, ally-turned-enemy Michel Temer, until now the vice president.

When dust settles Brazil will still be Latin America’s largest economy, despite an acute recession and a corruption scandal centred around state-owned oil company Petrobras that has ensnared many in the political and economic elite.

Rousseff, however, seems unlikely to return to power.

If she is removed from office at the end of her Senate trial, which has yet to begin, Temer will serve out her term until 2018.

Other countries “do not want to antagonise Temer because he may be around until 2018,” said Shifter.

Dilma is no Lula

No one would have expected all this a decade ago. That was a golden era for the Latin American left, which enjoyed strong support for its anti-poverty social welfare policies. And commodity prices were high, which helped pay for them.

Lula made Brazil a household name around the world. With support from Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, he won Brazil a seat at the global negotiating table.

But economic conditions are worse now, and many leftist leaders are no longer so popular.

“Domestic problems are demanding more attention from these leaders,” said Castro Neves.

Ten years ago, Rousseff would have received much more support from her neighbours, said Shifter.

Others point to the widespread feeling that Dilma, a technocrat seen sometimes as stiff and distant, is not in the same league as the plain-talking hero that Lula was, the former labour leader who took the Workers’ Party to power for the first time in Brazil’s history. — AFP

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