Exclusive: Dilma Rousseff on Her Ouster, Brazil’s Political Crisis & Fighting Dictatorship
As Brazil is engulfed by a political crisis, we are joined in studio for an extended exclusive interview by Brazil’s former President Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached last year in what many describe as a legislative coup. Her removal ended nearly 14 years of rule by the left-leaning Workers’ Party, which had been credited with lifting millions of Brazilians out of poverty. Rousseff is a former political prisoner who took part in the underground resistance to the U.S.-backed Brazilian dictatorship in the 1960s. She was jailed from 1970 to 1972, during which time she was repeatedly tortured. Rousseff would later become a key figure in the Workers’ Party under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. She was elected president in 2010 and re-elected in 2014. Her successor, Brazilian President Michel Temer, is now facing mounting calls to resign or be impeached, following explosive testimony released by the Supreme Court accusing him of accepting millions of dollars in bribes since 2010. This week, he authorized the deployment of the Army to the capital Brasília as tens of thousands of protesters marched to Congress to demand his resignation.
AMY GOODMAN: As we continue to look at the political crisis in Brazil, we turn now to Brazil’s ousted president, Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached last year in what many describe as a coup. Her removal ended nearly 14 years of rule by the left-leaning Workers’ Party, which had been credited with lifting millions of Brazilians out of poverty.
Rousseff is a former political prisoner who took part in the underground resistance to the U.S.-backed Brazilian dictatorship in the ’60s. She was jailed from 1970 to 1972, during which time she was repeatedly tortured. Dilma Rousseff would later become a key figure in the Workers’ Party under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. She was elected president in 2010, re-elected in 2014.
I spoke with President Rousseff when she came to New York in April. I began by asking her how and why she was ousted from power last year.
DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] I believe that the motives that led me to be removed from my position as president—and in what was really a coup d’état, because there was no real high crime and misdemeanor in my case—I could attribute this to three motives. One, which is more important than all the others, has to do with great misogyny. And for the first time, a woman was elected president. This misogynist treatment has to do with how men and women are seen and described in politics. Women are harsh and insensitive; men are strong and sensitive. Women, when working intensely, are considered obsessive-compulsive, whereas the man is considered a hard worker. So, all of these uses of instruments to attack a woman were mobilized against me, in addition to the many low-quality words.
But what led to the impeachment were two major things. One, they sought to keep—they, the coup mongers from the PMDB and PSDB, two political parties in Brazil—they were trying to keep the corruption investigations from reaching them, so they said, “We’re going to get rid of her in order to keep the investigations from continuing and for this thing to continue.”
In addition, we had won four elections in a row with a government program that was clearly against many of the trends that were in vogue in the United States and Europe, which were exacerbating inequality. We were fighting inequality. And we had secured some very important results. We took Brazil off of the U.N.’s map of poverty, and we lifted up some 86 million from extreme poverty. We were not selling our lands without any limitations to foreigners. And above all else, we had a whole structure of social protection in Brazil. So, for the coup mongers, it was a question of implementing the only way—the only thing they could do to stop our program, which was to support social rights. They wanted to set back our gains for workers. They were not able to do this through elections, so they did it through the impeachment.
AMY GOODMAN: The man who led the charge against you, who led your impeachment, Eduardo Cunha, now faces 15 years in prison for corruption. Your thoughts?
DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] What I regret is the fact that what led him to be put on trial and to be convicted for 15 years—well, I’m not in a position to give an opinion about the situation of the inquiry, the right to defense and so forth, but what I do know is that all of the evidence that led to his conviction was available to the judiciary and the prosecutorial authorities before my impeachment. The strange thing is that they let that process run before my impeachment, and they didn’t take any measures, because no one was unaware of it. There was a whole set of evidence before April 17th, 2016, that incriminated Mr. Eduardo Cunha. So that’s my first assessment.
My second assessment is that he came forward. He wasn’t just one person. He represents a very bad process in Brazil, a very dangerous process, which is the following. Brazil always had to construct a democratic center for governance, and that need to have a democratic center stemmed from the 1988 constitution, when we emerged from the dictatorship and embarked upon democracy and having this democratic center while it was progressive.
Now, what happened with the arrival of Eduardo Cunha on the scene? He was ultraconservative with respect to social rights, but especially with respect to individual and collective rights. He’s a homophobic man. He opposed the women’s policy having a gender bias, for example, which is absurd. So, what happened is that he led to the hegemony of the far right over the democratic center, which led to this coup.
Those who are also part of the group are as responsible for the coup as he is, so the fact that he is in prison doesn’t mean that those kinds of political practices that he represented were extinguished. Quite to the contrary, today they’re all in the government, those who supported the coup and who constitute a very strong political group along with him.
AMY GOODMAN: In addition to Cunha, Brazil’s Supreme Court ordered corruption probes into 98 politicians, including a third of the current President Temer’s Cabinet. Would you say part of the reason you were impeached is that they feared being investigated themselves? They were trying to stop this?
DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] I’m not the only one who thinks that. Before my impeachment, the press put out a recording, and that recording was a conversation between two senators—well, one senator and one former senator, both of the same party, of PMDB, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party. What did this recording say? One of the senators, who was a major leader of the coup, Senator Romero Jucá, said to the other one, who was recording the conversation, “Look, the president needs to be removed, so that we can stop the bloodletting.” Now, what does that mean? Well, he continued to explain it. “Because she will not interrupt the investigations into the Car Wash scandal. She will not interrupt any investigation into corruption. And so we need to remove her by forming a national pact that would impede those investigations from reaching us.” This reason is the reason that led the politicians to carry out the coup, the politicians that always lost the elections to us, the Brazilian Social Democratic Party, the party of the last senator and the current senator, who were foreign ministers of the republic. And let me tell you, I don’t believe that the reason that led to the coup was just that. That’s part of the reason.
The other part of the reason had to do with trying to bring Brazil economically, socially and politically into neoliberal policies, because we had blocked part of the neoliberal policies, which would transform the public budget into a budget empty of any social content. And this part, this was the most important part. It was strategic to draw part of the market, the media, the big Brazilian media, to support impeachment, because they were losing the hope of their programs becoming viable by democratic means. So they had to suspend democracy. But you can’t suspend democracy like you might have suspended a military coup before. But they introduced exceptional measures into democracy. And one of these, which would be an exception in the United States and Brazil, would be impeachment without what is called a crime of responsibility. And that is equivalent to what in the U.S. Constitution is called high crimes and misdemeanors.
The allegation for removing me was that I had issued three decrees, which represent 0.15 percent of primary expenditure, not even of the total budget is 0.15 percent, and that I had set aside a subsidy for farmers, small, medium and large, which is something that’s been done in Brazil since 1994. It’s just that—well, they changed the understanding and had a backward-looking understanding. In other words, I was accused of something that I didn’t even participate in.
AMY GOODMAN: Temer was your vice president, the man who would replace you when you were ousted.
DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] I don’t like to mention his name, it was—is the vice president of the republic, who, unfortunately, is not someone you can trust. And I can’t trust him, and Brazil can’t trust him.
AMY GOODMAN: The Wall Street Journal just reported that a former construction executive in Brazil said that the Brazilian president, Temer, was involved in a deal to funnel a $40 million bribe to his political party—an allegation that threatens to erode his ability to govern. Your thoughts on this latest news?
DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] Look, I think that if this happened, it’s extremely serious, because $40 million, that would be 130 or 140 million reais, the Brazilian currency. This is appalling. Now it will have to be proven. This is an accusation. And even though the president is my political adversary, I still think he should enjoy the right to defense. But I can let you know that this is very serious, if it’s proven. I don’t think someone should be free, much less be president, if that’s the case. But, as I say, it has to be proven, if one is democratic-minded for one’s adversary, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: President Rousseff, you have a very important history that expresses the history of Brazil. Can you talk about your years in the underground, how you got involved with politics, and then being imprisoned?
DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] Look, I was 20, going on 21, years old. When I was 15, 16 years old, the military coup occurred. The military coup in Brazil had two moments: that moment in 1964 and then again in 1968. It was in 1968 that they really shut everything down. From ’64 to ’68, there was still a democratic space with people debating, discussing. It was a time of great cultural activity in Brazil—music, theater. And the opposition movement began in the streets. There was the march of 100,000, which was so important in Brazil. In 1968, they shut things down.
Shutting things down in Brazil meant the following. No one can express disagreement. If a student were to express disagreement, they would be put in prison, and they might be in prison for a long time. In addition to that, the whole process of repression began, the harshest repression. I am a person who was affected. My generation was very much affected by this shutdown. And we went into the resistance. The resistance could only be, as you said, underground, because if you were resisting or arguing against them reducing workers’ rights, or supporting students, then you’d be put in prison. So there was no way. You either had to go into the underground—and so people went underground and moved about there.
In that process, gradually, as of 1968, they established centers, centers that were responsible for investigation, for investigating people and taking people to prison. Now, as of 1970, they began to kill people. Depending on their assessment of a given activist, they might kill him or her. Many of the people I worked with were killed in those situations. I was taken to prison January 16th of 1970. So I survived. I wasn’t on that list of people who are going to die, because it was as of September that they began to kill.
So it was a very tough process for me. Why? Because you were taken prisoner. Immediately you were tortured, so that you could turn in your companions. And there, it was a fight against time. Torture is a fight against time. No one is a hero in torture. People are capable of resisting. Each of us is capable of resisting in his or her own way. How did I do so? Well, you try to find resources within yourself to gain time against the interrogator. And you have to keep certain things in your mind always. You know more than they do about yourself. Second, you can never believe—well, if you think you can put up with it for a day, that’s a good strategy. Or you have to put up with it for one minute, two minutes, three minutes, 10 minutes. For 10 minutes is an eternity in the face of pain. So, it’s a very tough process.
I will tell you something about women. It’s very interesting. Women and men face torture. They grow weak in the face of torture, because it’s not a simple thing. But I will tell you about women. We have an ability to deal with pain which is different from men. I think it’s because we bear children, for various reasons. But what I perceived was great strength among women to maintain their integrity in the face of torture, which is very important. Torture can’t destroy you. And what you have to do with respect to your companions and your colleagues to keep them from being destroyed, those who are weaker are the ones who you have to support the most, so that they can recover afterwards. You can’t think about your colleagues and your companions that because someone might have turned someone in or said something under torture, that they become your enemy. No, you have to support them and protect them. And that’s what women do very well.
So, it’s a very tough process. No one should have to suffer torture because a military regime. But I think that those of us who experienced what we experienced, well, I learned several things. I learned how to resist. I also learned that you can’t ever think that you’re going to be defeated in prison, unless you want them to defeat you. Defeat is not just an objective reality. Defeat is a reaction in the face of difficulty. So I suffered two coups, two blows: torture and this parliamentary coup. And they’re not going to defeat me. And I owe this to all of my colleagues who did not survive.
AMY GOODMAN: When you were imprisoned, how did they torture you?
DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] It was absurd that they had a protocol. The protocol for torture was like this. I was taken prisoner by a military and semi-military group that was under military control, that was called Operation Bandeirantes. It was a center that was controlled by the Brazilian armed forces you would be taken to. Immediately there would be a strong din and murmuring, people shouting. It’s a way to thrown you off. And then—well, the first thing they would do, in my time—well, later it was different because they’d put a hood on peoples. But when I was a prisoner in Rio de Janeiro, they did the following. They would throw water at you. And they would also connect wires to your toes, when they still hadn’t taken off your clothes, and they would also place on your hand and ear these electric cables. The worst thing in torture is electrical shock. And then, they would do what was called the “parrot’s perch,” which was a method where they would place a stick or a bar under your knees and then place your hands on the same bar, and there they are. And they would combine this technique with electrical shock. The problem is that your ligaments begin to hurt a lot. Up to—and then, at a certain point in time, the blood stops running, and the pain diminishes somewhat. It’s unimaginable. People would withstand it because we were 20 years old. I don’t think somebody my age today would be able to withstand it. At the time, I was 20 years old. And if you’re 20 years old, you can withstand anything. Basically, the torture was like that.
Now, there’s a basic component of torture in all torture, in all times of history and everywhere. The person who is torturing, the group that is torturing you, wants you to perceive, first of all, that you are not part of the category of human beings and also that no one likes you and that no one has a relationship of understanding with you—that is to say, a relationship whereby I recognize you, you recognize me, and we have a certain empathy because we’re the same gender or because we have common experiences, for several reasons, or even just that because we’re all human beings. So, they want to short-circuit that perception. And they have two ways of doing so: aggression, but there’s also another, which was to block you, that is to say, by placing a hood over you, and you don’t see the person who’s talking with you, so you have an issue of sensory deprivation. And that is also very common. They want to cut off all contact with the outside world.
AMY GOODMAN: You knew what happened, when you became an underground guerrilla. What gave you the courage to take on the state in this way? You knew that people were being killed and that that’s what you risked, losing your life.
DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] What makes people struggle in those conditions anywhere in the world is the conviction that you are fighting for a better world. You have to believe it. No one is able to struggle if they don’t think that they’re fighting for a better world. And we were convinced that we were fighting for a better world. More than believing in it, we were absolutely certain of it.
I believe that the force that led to movements at that time, in many parts of the world, not just Brazil, in the 1960s and 1970s—and there’s the question of democracy. I think the most serious thing that can be done to a country during military dictatorship is for its youth to not have any hope in democracy, because if there’s one thing that you learn in that struggle, you learn democracy is the only regime, mechanism, space for action. For what? For you to be able to transform your country. Always in Brazil, when democracy was reduced, it was through these coups, through exceptional measures, through the saviors of the homeland. Democracy mitigated, and so social transformation is reduced or eliminated, or there are setbacks. I learned in life that if you have a commitment to your country, you have to expand democracy. That’s why the name of this program is so important, Democracy Now! It’s very important, this idea in Brazil, democracy now, because we only win with democracy, and we lose when democracy is attacked. And so we have this expression in Brazil: Democracy is the right side of history. And I believe in this, because democracy is the right side of history.
And democracy emerged with two concepts. There are two concepts that emerged in the time of the Greeks, which is our tradition: the concept of democracy and the concept of politics. Even where there is a selective democracy—that is to say, when it is possible to have a democracy in the public plaza, in the public space—politics means you have to take a position in society upholding the interests of all your community or in your activity. Without that, it’s impossible to have a democratic process. I don’t believe that there is any country in the world with democracy without politics. Technocrats don’t engage in politics in the broad sense of the term.
AMY GOODMAN: Ousted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Since we talked in April, the political crisis in Brazil has only intensified. Her successor, Brazilian President Michel Temer, is now facing mounting call to resign or be impeached, following explosive testimony released by the Supreme Court in Brazil accusing him of accepting millions of dollars in bribes since 2010. On Wednesday, Temer authorized the deployment of the Army to the capital Brasília, as tens of thousands of protesters marched to Congress to demand his resignation. Facing public outcry, Temer has since ordered the troops off the streets. When we come back, I’ll ask Dilma Rousseff, the first female president of Brazil, about democracy, corruption and President Donald Trump. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “To Our Children” by Elis Regina, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return now to my recent conversation with former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, recorded in April.
AMY GOODMAN: Madam President, I wanted to ask your thoughts today. You’re in the United States this week, when the U.S. dropped the largest bomb in the history of the world—the Pentagon calls it the “Mother of All Bombs”—a Massive Ordnance Air Bomb, on Afghanistan, the largest bomb in the history of the world since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This followed last week’s bombing of Syria and the continued U.S.-backed bombing in Yemen. Your thoughts?
DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] Now, I’m not the president of the republic, but I would tell you what we would have said as president: Without a shadow of a doubt, we are against that kind of action. Why? First, I don’t think it resolves the problem of ISIS. Why do I think that this kind of repression isn’t the appropriate approach? What I’ve read in the United States newspapers is that oftentimes, when bombing Syria or Afghanistan—well, I know there is no dialogue with ISIS. With ISIS, it’s a different kind of relationship. But what has happened is that, when bombing, civilians and allies are killed. So I ask myself: What’s the point of such an action, if it’s going to kill civilians and allies? What might someone think who’s living in Syria or anywhere, and all of a sudden a bomb is dropped?
I think it’s extremely dangerous, because those groups don’t gauge consequences. It’s a very radical policy. So I am extremely concerned about the reaction afterwards. That is to say, I don’t believe that there’s any circumstance in which we can come up with some easy answer. When the war was taken to Iraq, when the war was taken to Afghanistan, when there was a bombing done in Syria, it’s very difficult. And this unleashes the whole process of such violence that the consequences are uncontrollable. How long has it been that they’ve been fighting in Syria, and they’re not able to stop ISIS? How long has al-Nusra and al-Qaeda continued doing what they’re doing? So I think we need to ask about this.
And I’m very concerned when civilians and allies are the ones who are killed. That’s what it says in today’s newspaper. So, I don’t think that such bombardments produce results, and I’m not in favor of dropping bombs when they kill civilians and allies, because it’s just putting more fuel on the fire.
AMY GOODMAN: The bomb was developed during the Bush years. He didn’t use it, George W. Bush, in Iraq. President Obama didn’t use it. Within two months of the Trump presidency, they have engaged in this historic act, the largest bomb in the history of the world, outside an atomic bomb. Your assessment of the Trump administration, of President Donald Trump?
DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] I don’t evaluate the performance of presidents of other countries, because I’m a former president, so I don’t talk about that. Obviously, I have an assessment, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to talk about it. I can talk about positive accomplishments, but otherwise I won’t say anything.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you feel has been done right?
DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] I don’t have anything to say. Well, I’m not going to talk about that. My assessment of the Trump administration is something I’m not going to talk about. It’s not up to me to do that. That’s your job.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end by sharing a clip of Noam Chomsky with you, the world-renowned dissident, linguist, who recently appeared on Democracy Now! and talked about Brazil.
NOAM CHOMSKY: There was just enormous corruption. It’s just—it’s painful to see the Workers’ Party in Brazil, which did carry out significant measures, just—they just couldn’t keep their hands out of the till. They joined the extremely corrupt elite, which is robbing all the time, and took part in it, as well, and discredited themselves. And there’s a reaction. I don’t think the game is over by any means. There were real successes achieved, and I think a lot of those will be sustained. But there is a regression. They’ll have to pick up again with, one hopes, more honest forces that won’t be—that will, first of all, recognize the need to develop the economy in a way which has a solid foundation, not just based on raw material exports, and, secondly, honest enough to carry out decent programs without robbing the public at the same time.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Noam Chomsky, who said, “There was just enormous corruption.” He said, “painful to see the Workers’ Party in Brazil, which did carry out significant measures, [but] they just couldn’t keep their hands out of the till.”
DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] The first thing I want to say is the following. I want to put some things in perspective. The greatest corruption in recent years occurred with the subprime crisis. Now, I don’t know that as a result of the subprime crisis, I don’t believe that all of the companies that were involved in corruption were destroyed. Maybe their CEOs or others who committed corruption had to answer for it, but they didn’t destroy the institution. Rather, they took the person who committed the crime. The company is not a thinking and speaking entity. The company is all of its compounds together. Now, unless the entire—it’s corrupt in its entirety, then you don’t destroy the organization.
So, why do I say this? Well, first to say that Brazil has the greatest corruption in recent years. Brazil’s corruption is significant. It matters to Brazil. It has to be fought. Later, I can tell you about what my government did, but I don’t think that it has to, that the party has to be destroyed. I don’t believe that banks were destroyed or agencies were destroyed or that persons who were not involved were prosecuted. Same thing applies to a political party, because the political party, as an institution—well, some say it’s different from a company, but I don’t believe that one should criminalize the Workers’ Party. One should criminalize and prosecute the individual members of the party who committed crimes. But one should not combat the entire Workers’ Party in Brazil, which is the largest party in Brazil, without a doubt. No.
And I’m sorry to get so excited, but I want to explain the following. I think it’s fundamental in Brazil to fight corruption. I think it’s fundamental, because corruption in Brazil is a way in which economic power interferes with political power. And one of the processes in this corruption is characterized by the fact that in Brazil, before—even though it’s spelled out in the law—those who come to corrupt public officials have never been prosecuted. In 2013, for example, there was a law on fighting criminal organizations that we sent to Congress, and two measures had been taken.
So the one who made the mistake should pay for it. The law exists. It should be properly applied. The Workers’ Party will answer for its mistakes—it has to—but not by putting an end to the party. Punish the individuals who committed the crime, but not the party. This whole story of punishing the whole party dates back to 1946, when all opposition parties in Brazil that had—well, the more radical opposition—the Communist Party, Brazilian Socialist Party—were made illegal. I don’t agree with that whole process.
I don’t agree with destroying companies. I’ve never seen a single bank or company destroyed. I saw CEOs have to answer. Now, what I find extremely unusual is that they take Petrobras, the state oil company, and make it—paint it as being corrupt per se. There are many people in Petrobras who are corrupted and who are accused of corruption. So I think it’s very clear, the one who corrupted—the one who was corrupted should be prosecuted, with a right to defense, without spectacular media treatment. Because what’s happening in Brazil is that the media places people on trial before the case even goes into the courts. Now, I don’t think that in any democracy in the world, as far as I know, the media can take the place of the judiciary. I don’t believe the media guarantee the right to defense. It plays a fundamental role in democracy. Now, the role of meting out justice has to be performed by those who have an institutional mandate to do so.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, President Rousseff, in the 1960s, you were involved with the underground resistance to oppose dictatorship. Are you seeing a right-wing shift in Latin America and the United States? And what form do you think that resistance should take today?
DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] Today, it’s difficult. I believe that our resistance today—and this is a major gain for us in Latin America—today, we can resist without having to go into the underground, without—rather, using the most important weapon of democracy, which is the word, discussion, debate. We can do that today. Before, we couldn’t. Before, we were somehow shackled by the dictatorship.
Today, our resistance and the resistance in the United States is the same. That is to say, I think we are all going through the following process. There is an increase in financialization. Instead of the financial industry serving productive industry and productive services and all activities, the financial sector became the master. On becoming the master, it channels to itself the largest part of income. And this produces inequality, stagnation, precarious employment and cooptation by some of the press, which means that shareholders, CEOs, all of management are the models who are above and beyond the workers, the consumers and so forth. In other words, it creates a world which is not going to bring well-being and affluence for the population as a whole. We’re all going through that neoliberalism, financialization, greater inequality and more and more exceptional-type measures—here in the United States, as well. The PATRIOT Act, in a way, was an exceptional act, because when you put persons on trial without guarantees, then, well, that’s an exceptional type of act. This happens in Brazil with several measures. For example, a court has said that I can suspend the constitution, because the Car Wash scandal is an exceptional event, and therefore we can suspend the law. But that’s not possible.
We have, in a way, a mitigated democracy that we have to expand. We are experiencing a time of greater inequality and financialization. In a way, taking stock of the history of our experiences, of our movements, we have a lot—all of those of us who defend democracy have a lot to share with one another.
AMY GOODMAN: Ousted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. If you’d like a copy of today’s show, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. Tune in Monday, Memorial Day, when we’ll spend the hour with world-renowned linguist and dissident Noam Chomsky.