Pall Hangs Over Brazil’s Presidential Palace as Dilma Rousseff Prepares for Trial

Source: By SIMON ROMERO, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, June 8, 2016

BRASÍLIA — The first time the lights went out in her presidential palace, Dilma Rousseff grimaced. The next time, she rolled her eyes. The third time, she jumped out of her chair, demanding that someone find out what was going on.

“This was my area,” she fumed during an interview, pointing out that she had made Brazil’s electricity grid a top priority before she was suspended last month as president. “I don’t know why this is happening.”

With Ms. Rousseff stripped of her authority, a sense of powerlessness and indignation pervades the Palácio da Alvorada, the cavernous residence where she is allowed to stay while the fight to oust her once and for all grinds on in the Senate.

It was not supposed to be like this. Brazil was hoping to celebrate its triumphs in the run-up to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, not play host to a jaw-dropping spectacle of political dysfunction.

Ms. Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president, was supposed to be preparing to greet world leaders, not enduring the humiliation of an impeachment battle that has her hanging by a thread.

“These parasites,” is what she called her rivals trying to impeach her, many of whom are facing their own scandals.

For now, she is still surrounded by the trappings of luxury in the palacedesigned by Oscar Niemeyer: the battalion of servants serving tiny cups of coffee, the heated pool in a well-manicured garden, the modernist masterpieces by Emiliano Di Cavalcanti and Alfredo Volpi hanging on the walls.

And yet, she has relished a few unexpected glimmers of hope.

Ever since legislators suspended her, the interim government led by Michel Temer, the vice president who took over the nation last month after breaking with Ms. Rousseff, has suffered a series of embarrassing blunders.

First, one of Mr. Temer’s top allies stepped down as planning minister after a secret recording emerged late last month. On it, an aide laid out how their party — the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, or P.M.D.B. — had pursued Ms. Rousseff’s ouster in order to thwart the investigation into the colossal graft scheme surrounding Brazil’s national oil company, Petrobras.

Then, the new transparency minister — essentially Mr. Temer’s anticorruption czar — resigned after another recording seemed to show that he had also tried to stymie the Petrobras inquiry.

On Monday, Brazilian news organizations reported that the country’s chief prosecutor was seeking to arrest several leading figures in Mr. Temer’s party — including the head of the Senate, a former president and the former speaker of the lower house — after recordings suggested that they had sought to interfere with the Petrobras investigation.

“I am perplexed, indignant and revolted,” the former president, José Sarney, said in a statement.

Beyond that, Mr. Temer, 75, a lawyer who speaks an archaic Portuguesethat flummoxes his countrymen, decided not to name any women or Afro-Brazilians to his cabinet. His choices opened him to withering criticism in a country where more than half of the people define themselves as black or mixed race, and where women feature prominently in the halls of Congress, the Supreme Court and the executive suites of large corporations.

“It’s a provisional government of rich white men,” Ms. Rousseff, a self-described leftist who was an operative in an urban guerrilla group in her youth, said about the administration of her adversary. “I never thought that I would see in Brazil a government as conservative as this one.”

Ms. Rousseff and her allies hope that the recent blows to Mr. Temer’s legitimacy can tilt the impeachment vote in her favor. She pointed out that all she needs is a handful of senators to change their votes for her to be reinstated as president.

Still, for every misstep by her adversaries, Ms. Rousseff and her own top confidants have also found themselves caught off-guard by new revelations in federal graft inquiries, reflecting the challenges that her Workers’ Party faces in its ambition to win her impeachment trial and return her to the presidency.

Ms. Rousseff remains rare among major political figures in that she has not been accused of stealing for personal gain. Instead, she faces charges of manipulating the budget in order to hide the depths of Brazil’s economic woes.

But a former Petrobras executive has also testified that Ms. Rousseff lied about her knowledge of a bribery-fueled refinery deal when she was the chairwoman of the company’s board. She denies the claim.

Potentially even more damaging, the Brazilian magazine Isto É reported in recent days that a construction magnate testified that Ms. Rousseff negotiated an illegal $3.5 million donation for her 2014 re-election campaign.

Ms. Rousseff rejected the account, calling it a “slanderous” part of a news media campaign attacking her “personal honor.” But together with other developments — her campaign strategist and the former treasurer of the Workers’ Party are among Ms. Rousseff’s allies already in jail on graft charges — the reports have further eroded her credibility.

Josias de Souza, a prominent political columnist, described the latest revelations tarnishing the camps of both Ms. Rousseff and Mr. Temer as “a classic power struggle between criminal factions” taking place before a recession-weary society.

Despite such grim assessments, Ms. Rousseff is avidly preparing her defense. She consults with aides, bounces strategies off lawyers. Sometimes, her legal team convenes in the quiet chapel on the grounds of the palace.

“They’ve always wanted me to resign, but I won’t,” she said, arguing that her rivals were carrying out a coup, albeit one with the Supreme Court’s stamp of approval. “I really disturb the parasites, and I’ll keep on disturbing them.”

Senate leaders said on Monday that the impeachment trial was expected to conclude sometime in early August, potentially producing embarrassing street protests as the Olympic Games get underway, regardless of how the Senate rules.

In the meantime, Ms. Rousseff expresses irritability, if not resignation, over the toll that the political upheaval has had on the young democracy established in 1985 in Brazil after a long military dictatorship.

“This is a turning point,” she said about the rupture producing Mr. Temer’s ascension. “A pact that existed has broken.”

Glossing over criticism that her policies laid the groundwork for Brazil’s economic crisis, she argued that the economy would already be on the mend if congressional leaders had not thwarted measures aimed at restoring confidence.

Otherwise, Ms. Rousseff said that she hewed to routines each day, riding her bicycle in the morning and reading at night, devouring each digital edition of The New York Review of Books. Lately, she has been reading “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome,” by the English classical scholar Mary Beard.

Ms. Rousseff said that she found some amusement in investigators comparing Eduardo Cunha, who led the impeachment campaign as the speaker of the lower house before he was suspended to face corruption charges, to Catiline, the senator who conspired to overthrow the Roman Republic in the first century B.C.

The sentence was from one of the speeches, which questioned how much longer Catiline would continue abusing the republic’s patience. In the question repeated by Ms. Rousseff, Cicero asked, “How long is that madness of yours still to mock us?”

Cicero, the orator and constitutionalist, denounced Catiline in a series of speeches before the Senate, and Ms. Rousseff, smiling as she recalled her schoolgirl Latin, said: “Quam diu etiam furor iste tuus eludet?”