My conscience is clear,’ Rousseff says at impeachment trial

Dilma Rousseff

Dilma Rousseff

Fighting to save her job, suspended Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff told senators on Monday that the allegations against her have no merit and that history would judge the country if she is removed from office.

“I know I will be judged, but my conscience is clear. I did not commit a crime,” Rousseff told senators at her impeachment trial.

Rousseff reminded senators that she was re-elected in 2014 by more than 54 million voters and that at every moment since, she has followed the constitution and done what was best for the country.

“I can’t help but taste the bitterness of injustice,” she said, referring to the impeachment process.

In an emotional address delivered before a packed Senate, Rousseff recalled her torture by the country’s military dictatorship in the 1970s and warned that democracy in Brazil was a stake.

“Proud, wounded, determined, combative I think are the words to describe the speech of Dilma Rousseff,” said FRANCE 24’s Tim Vickery, reporting from the capital, Brasilia, noting that Brazil’s first female president framed “her current plight in the same line as the fight that she led for democracy against Brazil’s military dictatorship for which, she was tortured some four decades ago, saying that she’s come to look the senators straight in the eye and to say that she has nothing to hide, she has committed no crime. She is defending democracy, truth and justice.”

During her 30-minute speech, Rousseff argued that in early 2015 the opposition in Congress began creating a climate of instability by refusing to negotiate and throwing “fiscal bombs” in the face of declining revenues.

She said the impeachment process had exacerbated the recession in Latin America’s largest economy, flipping the blame on the opposition, which often argues she has to be removed for the financial climate to improve.

A noisy, emotional gathering at the Senate

Rousseff’s appearance at the trial was the first time she had come face-to-face with her accusers in the Senate.

Although she spoke mostly in a measured tone, her voice cracked and she appeared close to tears while recalling her suffering as a young leftist guerrilla and in battling cancer.

“Twice I have seen the face of death up close: when I was tortured for days on end, subjected to abuses that make us doubt humanity and the meaning of life itself, and when a serious and extremely painful illness could have cut short my life,” she said.

“Today I only fear for the death of democracy for which many of us here in this chamber fought.”

Supporters, including Workers’ Party founder and ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, crammed into the packed Senate chamber.

They ignored warnings to stay silent from Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricardo Lewandowski, who was presiding, bursting into applause and later chanting: “Dilma, warrior of the Brazilian people!”

An angry Lewandowski briefly suspended the session before Rousseff followed her 45-minute speech by taking questions from both allies and opponents.

However, all indications point to the Senate convicting Rousseff, ending 13 years of rule by the leftist Workers’ Party.

Brazil’s first woman president is accused of having taken illegal state loans to patch budget holes.

But momentum to push her out of office is also fuelled by deep anger at Brazil’s historic recession, political paralysis and a vast corruption scandal centered on state oil giant Petrobras.

High stakes process

Despite the drama of the occasion, there appeared to be little Rousseff could say to save her presidency.

Closing arguments followed her testimony Monday, followed by voting, possibly extending into Wednesday. Opponents say they will easily reach the requisite two-thirds majority — 54 of 81 senators — to remove her from office.

In that case, Rousseff’s former vice president turned political enemy, Michel Temer, will be confirmed as president until elections in 2018.

Temer, from the centre-right PMDB party, has already been acting president since May, using his brief period in power to steer the government rightward.

He plans to leave Tuesday or Wednesday on his first official foreign trip, a G20 summit in China, where officials say he will push to restore the tattered reputation of Brazil’s economy.

Mixed reactions on the streets of Brasilia

Criticised for lacking a popular touch or appetite for backroom politicking, Rousseff has barely double digit approval ratings.

Reactions to the proceedings were mixed on the streets of Brasilia, where thousands are expected to demonstrate in the next few days.

I am fighting to defend democracy and the dignity of the people. This has been a persecution against the Workers’ Party, Dilma and the Brazilian people,” retired teacher Marlene Bastos, 65, told the AFP.

“The impeachment process can’t solve all Brazil’s problems all at once,” a young student told FRANCE 24. “But it can bring some to the public eye. It might help improve the current situation.”

Seeking blame for Brazil’s economic woes

Although her presidency has been mired in the Petrobras embezzlement and bribery scandal, Rousseff herself has never been charged with trying to enrich herself — unlike many of her prominent accusers and close allies.

Temer is hardly more popular, according to opinion polls. He faces harsh questioning over his legitimacy as an unelected president and was loudly booed at the recent Olympic opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro.

The impeachment case rests on narrow charges that Rousseff took unauthorised state loans to bridge budget shortfalls during her 2014 election campaign to a second term.

Allies have spent the Senate trial arguing that these loans were nothing more than stopgap measures frequently employed by previous governments.

Opponents, however, have broadened the accusation to paint Rousseff’s loans as part of her disastrous mismanagement, contributing to once booming Brazil’s slide into recession.

Brazil’s economy shrank 3.8 percent in 2015 and is forecast to drop a further 3.3 percent this year, the worst performance since the 1930s. Inflation stands at around nine percent and unemployment at 11 percent.

Rousseff’s side says that decline was caused by forces far beyond the president’s control, notably a worldwide slump in commodity prices, which hit exports hard.