World·CBC in Brazil

On the eve of Rousseff impeachment trial, PR war waged over former Brazilian leader

As former president's trial begins, Brazilians protest in support of Dilma Rousseff and in opposition to her - trying to win the world's favour.

Pro-Rousseff protesters occupy a concert hall, impeachment supporters take to social media

A group of protesters have taken over an abandoned music hall to demonstrate against the impeachment and interim president Michel Temer. Close to 20 tents have been set up since the end of July when they were kicked out of Rio's Ministry of Culture building. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

In an abandoned music hall, in the dark, about 20 people live in tents amid old beer cans, artists posters and other detritus of concerts past. They've been here since the beginning of August, since they got kicked out of the last place they occupied.

Teacher Lisa Brito, 36, re-arranges her tent fly in the orange glow of a distant stage light. She says this encampment is a statement. Everyone here has their own cause — labour rights, the poor, people of colour, the arts. But they have one goal: They want their president back.
Lisa Brito, 36, a teacher, says Rousseff's transgressions are fairly minor compared to the scandals that have seen more than half the Senate investigated or charged. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"The opposition was unhappy with (Dilma)Rousseff's victory in the 2014 election," Brito says. "And ever since then they've been trying to bring her down." 

Rousseff to be tried by Senate

The final phase of Rousseff's impeachment — the endgame of a process that began late last year — starts four days after the Olympic Games ended, when the trial session starts in the Senate on Thursday. Rousseff herself will only take the stand the following week on Aug. 29.

The trial's expected to last until the 31st, and if two-thirds of the senators vote for impeachment, as is widely expected, Rousseff will be permanently removed from office and barred from running for the next eight years.

Now, with Rousseff's fate hanging in the balance, both sides are making a last attempt to change public opinion any way they can.

Supporters like Brito believe Rousseff's transgressions — moving money around to mask her government's budget deficit — are fairly minor compared to the scandals that have seen more than half the Senate investigated or charged.

"The fiscal creative accounting that she's accused of is something that happens at the federal level, the state level, in various spheres of government," Brito says. "So it's not unique to her."
Many on the left feel the Temer government is an illegitimate administration that, as this cartoon suggests, is the result of a 'golpe' or coup. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

That's why the music hall is covered in graffiti accusing interim president Michel Temer of orchestrating a "golpe;" the process of impeachment, Brito says, is "a parliamentary coup."  

Ridiculous, says 32-year-old marketer Renan Santos, who's standing in a massive public square in the Old Port area, looking for tourists to interview.
Renan Santos, right, interviews a Dutch couple about what would happen if a prime minister were caught lying about the country's budget (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"Our left says it was a coup! It was a coup d'état," he says, mockingly, to a Dutch couple he stopped as they were sightseeing.

Santos is one of four young men who are shooting a video for social media, asking foreigners what would happen if their head of state got caught fiddling with the numbers.

Jail for fudging the figures

"They would go to jail for sure," the Dutch man says.

"Certainly," echoes his wife. 

That was the answer Santos was looking for.

"Our reputation internationally became really low, (Rousseff) caused lots of problems, and we live in a crisis caused by her responsibility," Santos says. "And for sure we have corrupt politicians involved in the scandal that belong to all parties, but it doesn't make her less guilty."
Santos, 32, believes, with Rousseff's impending impeachment, the 'Brazilian Spring' is finally over. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

And on this both sides generally agree — the impeachment process so far has been legal and constitutional.

"Right now we see the end of the fight and the Brazilian people won," Santos says. "And definitely this is like a very nice, democratic way to end the 'Brazilian spring.'"

Temer's government called 'racist'

But opponents of the interim president are alarmed by his government's rightward shift. Temer has watered down protection for workers and eliminated departments that protect women and the poor. His new cabinet, says Julio Barroso, is all male and all white. 
A protester enters the old music hall to attend an anti-Temer concert. Many inside are alarmed because the interim president has watered down protection for workers and some point to the fact that his cabinet is all white and all male. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"It's a racist government," he says. "As a black Brazilian, I'm very worried. We're going to be hurt the most by this, not just by the Temer government but by what could come after it."

Barroso opens up a massive, tattered sheet of paper torn from a flip-chart easel and spreads it over the old DJ's table at the back of the concert hall. It's covered in phone numbers: more contacts for the next protest. The next call-to-action is imminent. 

If Rousseff is impeached, he says, these occupiers will be demanding new elections, to prevent Temer from consolidating power. He's already begun, Barroso says — earlier this month Temer transferred control of Brazil's intelligence agency to the military.

"I lived under the dictatorship," he says. "People were terrified of speaking out against the government, and that's the direction the Temer government wants to take us." 
Those who live here say they will continue to occupy this hall until Temer leaves power. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

I ask Brito how long she plans to live in that dark concert hall.

"We don't leave, until Temer leaves," Brito says. 

Or, much more likely, until they're kicked out.

About the Author

Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.