Brazil's Congress Begins Debate on Whether to Impeach President Dilma Rousseff

If 342 of the lower house's 513 legislators vote in favor of impeachment, the process moves to the Senate

The lower chamber of Brazil's Congress on Friday began a raucous debate on whether to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, a question that underscores the deep polarization in Latin America's largest country and most-powerful economy.

If lawmakers approved the measure in a vote slated for Sunday, it gets sent to the Senate, where an impeachment trial could take place, prompting the president's suspension from office.

The atmosphere in the lower Chamber of Deputies was electric, as Rousseff's critics festooned themselves with yellow and green ribbons and brandished placards reading "Impeachment Now!"

Lawmakers backing impeachment allege Rousseff's administration violated fiscal rules, using sleight of hand accounting in a bid to shore up public support. However, many of those pushing for impeachment face grave accusations of corruption themselves, prompting Rousseff and her supporters to decry the whole process as a bold-faced power grab by her foes.

Rousseff's defenders insist she did nothing illegal, pointing out that similar accounting techniques were used by previous presidents.

Miguel Reale Junior, author of the impeachment petition, said Rousseff's maneuvering directly led to the ills plaguing the recession-hit nation today, such as high inflation and the Brazilian real's precipitous slide against the U.S. dollar in recent months.

"Are you going to tell me that isn't a crime?" Junior told the body.

Solicitor General Jose Eduardo Cardozo contended exactly that, warning lawmakers in his impassioned speech before the chamber that because Rousseff hadn't committed any crime, her impeachment would constitute an act of "violence without precedent" against democracy and the Brazilian people.

"Violence has been committed against the democratic state," Cardozo shouted, gesticulating wildly.

Flanked by supporters holding signs showing the constitution being ripped apart, Cardozo insisted the whole process was an act of personal vengeance against Rousseff by the house Speaker Eduardo Cunha.

The driving force behind the impeachment, Cunha has been implicated in the so-called Car Wash probe into corruption at Brazil's state-run oil company Petrobras, as well as other schemes.

On Friday, a report in the respected Estado de S. Paulo newspaper quoted plea bargain testimony as suggesting Cunha had received more than $4 million in bribes as part of a Rio de Janeiro port renovation project tied to the August Olympics. The report said Ricardo Pernambuco Junior, of the Carioca Engenharia construction company, told investigators the company paid Cunha 1.5 percent of the deal in kickbacks. The report included spreadsheets that appeared to show the company funneled payouts amounting to more than $4 million to Cunha through several accounts abroad.

Cunha has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and continues to wield substantial power despite legal woes including money laundering and other charges in the Petrobras scheme and ethics committee proceedings in the Chamber of Deputies over allegations he lied when he insisted he held no foreign bank accounts.

But while the ethics committee against Cunha has limped along and is far from reaching a conclusion, the speaker has pushed the impeachment proceeding against Rousseff forward swiftly — prompting many critics to denounce the process as deeply flawed.

The political infighting paralyzing Brazil comes as the giant South American nation is being buffeted by problems on multiple fronts: the economy is expected to contract nearly 4 percent this year, the Zika virus, which causes birth defects, has become a health crisis in northeastern states and the country is less than four months away from hosting the Summer Olympic Games.

The political crisis has dragged on for months, hamstringing attempts to help jumpstart the economy and hanging up other measures observers say are crucial to getting the country back on track.

Leonardo Picciani, a congressman from Rio de Janeiro state who's gone against the pro-impeachment position of his party, said the most important thing for the country is not whether Rousseff remains in power, but rather that the situation get decided soon.

"This issue has been an open wound for a long time," he said. "It must be closed on Sunday, whatever the result."

The pro-impeachment camp needs two-thirds of the 513 votes in the lower house, or 342 votes, to send the proceedings to the Senate for a possible trial. If the Senate agrees to take it up, Rousseff would be forced to step down until the measure is voted on. The Senate would have six months for a trial.

Both government and opposition forces say they have enough votes to win Sunday, but daily counts by Brazilian media suggest the opposition is much closer to victory.

Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Rousseff's mentor and predecessor, released a video warning lawmakers that impeachment would make it even harder to address the country's ills.

"To topple a government that was democratically elected without any proof of any fiscal crime is not going to fix anything," Silva said. "All it will do is make the crises even worse."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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