Brazil: What we talk about when we talk about “coups”

Rio de Janeiro — This was a historic week in Brazilian politics. The Brazilian Senate voted suspected President Dilma Rousseff definitively out of office by a substantial margin. The interim President Michel Temer took office, briefly, before going abroad for a G20 meeting in China. And though the streets did not fill with enraged multitudes, as they did many times over the last two years, the Brazilian population is deeply divided on how to interpret – and how to speak about – the events that have unfolded over the last several months.

Dilma faz sua defesa no plenário do Senado - 3

The debate has centered around one word: “golpe” or coup. In most of the political discourse and press, there are two sides to this rhetorical coin. Dilma and her supporters – including, it seems, many in the international Latin American studies community – denounce her ouster as a “coup.” Dilma repeatedly did so in her impassioned, 12-hour defense in the Senate on Monday. She also repeatedly termed Temer “the usurper.” (Dilma picked Temer as vice-president, one of many odd wrinkles.) For those who were glad to see Dilma and her left-of-center Workers Party (PT) go, the word is “constitutional.” In the words of the newspaper Folha de São Paulo the day after the vote, “The process unfolded in strict obedience to the Constitution.” Constitutional or coup: which was it? As I’ll explain below, I don’t this dichotomy illuminates much; furthermore, I think the widespread use of the term “coup” is both an analytical and a political mistake.

First, a very brief summary for anyone who is interested but has not followed the messy and complicated process over the last several years. As a baseline, Brazilian legislative politics are…special. The system is incredibly fragmented, with nearly 30 parties having some level of representation. Many of these parties are hardly parties at all. They are personal or local projects through which politicians take advantage of the country’s obscure campaign finance laws and low barriers for entry to the political game. Only a few of the parties have much in the way of infrastructure, organization, or even a consistent platform or ideology. Even fewer parties have all three of those. This picture makes governing in the Brazilian Congress tricky. In practice, it also leads to a lot of horse-trading and outright corruption.

Everyone basically knew this. However, over the past several years, a bolder and more independent judiciary has brought the size of this corruption to light. It started in part 12525252_798910810211172_7362317626303184102_owith exposing a system of monthly payments for legislative cooperation called the mensalão. Another investigation called Lava Jato, or Car Wash, exposed an even bigger web of kickbacks, bribes, and money being siphoned from the government and parastatal banks and enterprises. Many of the biggest names in Brazilian politics and industry were implicated; many began to turn on one another, unleashing a two-year stream of revelations, depositions, and surreptitiously taped phone calls. Meanwhile, Brazilian’s decade of impressive economic growth ground to a halt and then went into reverse. The combination produced a wave of indignation.

One person who wasn’t implicated, however, was Dilma Rousseff. While the corruption investigations helped created the climate for her impeachment, she has not been accused of corruption for personal gain. The investigation may have encouraged some of her opponents to push her out, hoping a successor would press judges to back off – two ministers of the interim government were forced to resign after revelations suggesting that was the case. Instead, Dilma was impeached for something much fuzzier: a “crime of responsibility,” which is given as a reason for impeachment in Brazilian law. I am not an 160317023657_impeachment_brasil_protestas_ps_624x351_gettyexpert on Brazilian law, so I won’t give a definite opinion on the legality of the charges or of Dilma’s guilt or innocence, but it is worth noting that this is a not a clear-cut category and reasonable people disagree about what would constitute such a crime. Dilma’s “crime” was essentially mishandling state accounts in a way that presented a rosier picture before she ran for re-election through a series of misclassified short-term loans. There was certainly a glut of spending before the elections – and I think some very poor macroeconomic and fiscal policy enacted. Previous presidents had played a similar fiscal shell game. Dilma also pulled a bit of a bait and switch, making pre-electoral promises and then changing direction after winning. But that’s closer politics-as-usual than the stuff of impeachment. Regardless of the exact nature of the “crime of responsibility,” few believe that is what led to Dilma’s downfall. Instead, public anger over economic conditions, widespread condemnation of a corrupt political class, and poor management of Brazil’s web of party systems created the climate. For the public, the impeachment was, in many ways, more of a no-confidence vote than a legal case. However, Brazil’s constitution does not provide for no-confidence votes.

There has been a great deal of discussion here about whether the Brazilian Senate had the moral authority to put Dilma on trial. About 60 percent of the body’s members are themselves under investigation for corruption – in many cases much more blatant than Dilma’s wrongdoings. One of the most surreal moments of the past week was watching former president Fernando Collor de Mello, who was impeached for corruption and resigned right before the vote, stand up as a current senator to condemn Dilma and favor impeachment. Many of the machinations that led to the impeachment started shortly after Dilma’s re-election, which Brazil’s center-right party was shocked to lose and never fully accepted. Most of the major media companies in Brazil have been harshly anti-PT over the last few years (some of the post-impeachment editorials have been gleeful). These are the factors that are normally cited in making the argument that the whole messy process is, in fact, a “coup.”

A 22-year-old Dilma faces her military accusers.

I am not so sure “coup” is the most helpful word, for a few reasons. But before I get into those, it is worth asking why this has been the word of choice. The major reason, I think, is that the term “coup” carries a particular historical resonance in Brazil and elsewhere in the Southern Cone. Until recently, “coup” would have been understood to mean the 1964 military overthrow of democratically elected President João Goulart (side note: U.S. involvement is still hotly debated; for me, the available historic record indicates the effort was Brazilian inspired and led, but that the U.S. anticipated it, welcomed it, signaled that it welcomed it, and made plans to help if called upon). This led to two decades of repressive military government, and it was during this period that today’s PT was formed and former President Lula first came to national attention. Dilma Rousseff herself was a militant against the dictatorship, was captured, and was tortured. So, when Dilma and her supporters call the current process a coup, this is the history they are invoking. In fact, Dilma drew these connections explicitly in her Senate defense. Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay suffered similar military coups and repressive governments (actually, even more violent and repressive than Brazil’s) in the following years, so the word has a similar resonance in South America.

The rhetorical power, then, is strong – at least for a certain audience. However, I think the word “coup” is unhelpful for a few reasons. First, there are definitional and conceptual problems. Second, I think it misuses those historical experiences in ways that risk minimizing how drastic and terrible those periods were. Third, I think the growing use of “coup” in Latin America risks being one-sided in a way that undermines the credibility of the term of those (largely on the left) that are using it. Finally, while the term packs a political-rhetorical punch, I think that is actually obscures issues that are relevant to the Brazilian left now and will be absolutely necessary in its recuperation.

  1. Definitions and concepts. This point risks sounding pedantic, but I think it is important, especially if the people using the term are scholars or political analysts (see the LASA debates around this subject: pro-“coup” and anti-). The basic, Merriam-Webster definition of a coup d’etat is “a sudden attempt by a small group of people to take over the government usually through violence.” The only part of that definition that really
    Protests at LASA led a former Brazilian president to withdraw.

    fits the Brazilian situations is “to take over the government.” The process has hardly been sudden, the group launching it is not small, and it has not been carried out through violence. Many have implicitly recognized this by increasingly saying a “parliamentary coup.” In the political science literature, until recently, work on coups focused heavily on the military’s intervention in politics. There is an element of extra-legality: “At a minimum, therefore, the practice of coup d’etat is the technique of making exceptions from old rules and creating new rules of these exceptions,” one scholar wrote. More concretely, the end result is change of political regime and not only or even necessarily a change of political leader (Fujimori is the salient example). In Brazil, there was an attempt to scrupulously follow the letter of the old rules (if not the spirit) and the political regime remains the same as last week and last year.

  2. History. The argument for historical equivalence is basically that democratic leftists are being forced from office by political and economic elites from the right. However, I think that equivalence does a disservice to the violence and repression that followed the 1964 coup in Brazil, the 1973 coups in Chile and Uruguay, and the 1976 coup in Argentina. This is linked to the point above, asking just how far we want to stretch important concepts like this one. The political-rhetorical point is exactly meant to emphasize this equivalence. We should first stop to ask just how equivalent the processes really are; otherwise, it can pave the way for those would like to minimize just how bad the repression of those periods was.
  3. “Coups” in Latin America today. “Coups” and attempted coups seem to be rampant in Latin America today. Political competition, civil society opposition, corruption investigations, and many other political and judicial processes are being labelled coups. There are real reasons for concern about some of these events, but when there is outrage about the Brazilian impeachment but largely silence about Daniel Ortega’s consolidation of one-party rule in Nicaragua, there are reasons to question how the term is being applied. Likewise, the uncomfortable truth is that some of the political leaders decrying coup attempts were silent for far too long about the dramatic erosions of democracy, transparency, judicial independence, and rule of law in Venezuela. When a corruption investigation takes down Otto Pérez Molina in Guatemala, no one is crying “coup” – and with good reason. (Actually, Pérez Molina tried this, and no one bought it.) Many of parties of the center-left came to power promising to clean up corruption. Some of the PT’s early reforms set the stage for the investigations that followed. The seemingly reflexive tendency recently to call corruption investigations into leftist parties “coups” risks undermining the credibility of the broader, more important agenda of expanding political cooperation and pressing for greater redistribution in some of the world’s most unequal societies. For example, FMLN official in El Salvador have tried to derail necessary investigations by labeling them a coup. In the long run, that’s bad news for the left and for Latin American societies.
  4. Political ramifications. OK, I get that most of the use of the term “coup” in Brazil is political and not analytical (though honestly I worry about academic debate on this subject at both LASA and SLAS). The question for those saying “coup” is not whether the term really holds as compared to prior usage, but about what the political effect is. But even in opposition to impeachment, I think the term is unhelpful. One simple reason is that “coup” may rally supporters, but it persuades no one and halts political dialogue. “Coup” paints a large part of the Brazilian population that said they would vote for impeachment (two-thirds in a recent survey) as part of the cabal and not part of the solution. “Coup” insists on the illegitimacy not just of the process but of the political system – a system in which the PT is now badly needed to serve as the leading political opposition. “Coup” does not help advance crucial political reforms – cubing the stunning levels of official immunity and impunity, changing campaign finance, more narrowly defining “crime of responsibility,” or reducing the plethora of parties, for example. Perhaps most worryingly, “coup” risks discrediting Brazil’s judicial institutions and the larger process of investigations that have uncovered dirty dealings well beyond the PT. For those who suspect that Temer and his supporters want to put the brakes on Lava Jato, crying “coup” at every turn could end up playing into the hands of those who would like to go back to business as usual, but with the PT as a more radical, but less electable minority party.
President Michel Temer, who appointed an all-white, all-male cabinet to represent a country where a majority identify as black, indigenous, or mixed. Half are also women.

None of this is to say that what happened this week in Brasilia was a a good thing. I don’t find much to celebrate. Turning impeachment into a no-confidence vote, even if following the letter of the law, has potentially destabilizing consequences. Dilma’s government has been replaced by a government no one seems to want, which seems unconcerned about representing Brazil’s diverse society, and which is dogged by corruption issues as serious as the PT’s. No one gives the Brazilian Senate high marks for moral probity, but ultimately it is as irrelevant as it is unpalatable. The source of the Senate’s authority in the process was constitutional, not moral. An impeachment is essentially a political process more than it is a judicial one. There were almost certainly deals made to ensure votes. The question is less about the individuals who occupy these positions, and more about the institutions are in place (and effectively practiced). Those institutions guided a process that many see as deeply flawed. No coup overturned them this week. Crying coup is unlikely to improve them.


  1. First of all, although I’m sure it doesn’t mean much coming from a mere former student, I thought this was excellent.

    Secondly, I do think that it raises the interesting question of what a coup actually is. The removal of Lugo in Paraguay is an interesting case: like the removal of Dilma, the legislature made sure to meet the absolute bare minimum procedural requirements of impeachment. Unlike the Brazilian case, though, in Paraguay they didn’t even really attempt to hide the fact that they weren’t willing to go any further than that: Lugo was given two hours to prepare and present a defense, and he didn’t even manage to get to the Congress before a pretty nakedly kangaroo trial removed him for purely political purposes. Was that a coup?

    Taking your lead, I’ll risk sounding pedantic myself and disagree with you in that I actually do think that change of a regime is probably needed for something to be properly be called a coup. You use Fujimori as an example of a coup without regime change, but certainly the total scrapping of the Constitution, permanent shuttering of the Senate, complete closure of the Congress, illegal firing of all the judges, and ascendancy of a newly powerful military in Peru counted as a change in regime, even if Fujimori continued on at the helm of it.

    In the same way, I’d argue that your identification of Uruguay 1973 as a coup is correct precisely because the regime changed, even though Bordaberry technically remained on as the president. If all that had happened in Peru in 1992 and Uruguay in 1973 was that the military came out and paraded around on the president’s orders and then went back to the barracks, we wouldn’t today call those occurrences coups. But we do call them coups because they instead changed the whole regime.

    1. tsl2m5 says:

      Well, coming from my favorite student, it means a lot!

      I think we agree on the change of regime, though perhaps I was not clear in how I wrote it. I think change of regime is the key issue (not change of leader). I mean to include Fujimori as the salient example of a coup where the leader stays the same. I am somewhat pushing for suddenness as a factor, but there are many elements of gradual regime shift in Venezuela, too. Both include military in more notable ways than Brazil today. But for me what really matters is that there was no change of regime in Brazil.

      A comparison of Honduras and Paraguay really underscores your point. Honduras looked like a coup (the military kidnapping the president is pretty illegal despite Congressional declarations later). It is less clear that the regime really shifted, but I think there was a clearer break in constitutional order. But man, Paraguay comes close, just without the kidnapping. Obviously these things are fluid, and actors adapt to new norms around coups, but I don’t think that is a justification for turning the term into pure rhetoric.

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