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‘Coup’ bid, misogyny behind impeachment attempt, Rousseff says

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff greets women during a rally in support of her and against her impeachment in front of Palacio do Planalto in Brasilia on Tuesday.

UESLEI MARCELINO/REUTERS

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff says she is aghast that the country's political climate has deteriorated to the point that members of Congress can openly praise torturers and dictatorship, and she says her opponents are waging a campaign to seize power without facing voters at the polls, one she vows will not succeed.

"The impeachment process is an attempt to indirectly elect a group that otherwise wouldn't have access [to power]," she said in a wide-ranging address to foreign reporters in the capital on Tuesday. "It's a coup. You don't need arms for it to be a coup."

Ms. Rousseff faces impeachment on charges of having masked a gaping hole in the federal budget by borrowing from state banks, in violation of a fiscal-responsibility law. She reiterated Tuesday that she did nothing previous governments did not routinely do, and said the instrument of impeachment is being misused by an opposition that never accepted a narrow election loss in late 2014.

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There is also a significant streak of misogyny in the attempt to unseat her, added Ms. Rousseff, the country's first female president. In the overwhelmingly male Congress, members voting to impeach her Sunday held signs reading "See ya, sweetie."

"There are attitudes toward me that wouldn't exist with a male president," she said, citing what she called sexist stereotypes that the Brazilian media have been ascribing to her. "They can't accept that I'm not nervous, hysterical or unhinged.

"I'm not prone to despair, I'm not prone to not have the capacity to fight for my convictions. I fought for them my whole life," Ms. Rousseff added. "I regret profoundly the great prejudice against women, the fact that women have to be fragile, or have to be seen as fragile. Brazilian women are anything but fragile."

The lower house voted to send the question of Ms. Rousseff's impeachment to the Senate for trial, something more than half of Brazilians have said in surveys should happen, because they hold her responsible for a massive graft scandal that has revolted a public struggling with inflation and unemployment rates over 10 per cent.

As Congress members lined up one by one to vote during the raucous eight-hour session, many cited a reason (God, the people, their mothers, defence of Christianity) for their choice.

Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right member who represents Rio de Janeiro, dedicated his vote to Carlos Brilhante Ustra, a colonel who headed an infamous torture operation during the dictatorship. Mr. Bolsonaro invoked the colonel as "the source of Dilma Rousseff's dread."

Ms. Rousseff, 68, was a Marxist guerrilla during the dictatorship. She was caught by security forces in 1970, held for three years and tortured at the cell that Col. Ustra oversaw. While she rarely speaks of this period, years ago she told a researcher about being beaten and electrocuted, and of the terror being kept naked on the floor of a freezing-cold cell.

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Mr. Bolsonaro's son Eduardo, who is also a Congressman, chose to dedicate his vote to the military leaders who carried out the 1964 coup. The Bolsonaros' comments evoked disgust in some quarters in Brazil, but admiration in others. According to a survey conducted earlier this month by the polling company Datafolha, Jair Bolsonaro is the top choice to be president among the wealthiest 5 per cent of voters, with 23 per cent of that segment saying they would vote for him.

Ms. Rousseff's voice was raw as she talked about hearing her torturer praised and her suffering mocked, on the floor of the house.

"I regret that this moment in Brazil has provided an opening to intolerance, to hatred, to this kind of talk," she said. "In a [country] like ours, where democracy is the result of a great fight, of resistance, that enlisted a wide range of sectors, it's terrible to see someone voting in tribute to the greatest torturer that this country has known.

"I was arrested in the 1970s and, in fact, I knew this man he is referring to well."

The newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo reported on Tuesday that senior political aides who were with Ms. Rousseff while she watched the broadcast of the vote say that when she heard the torturer praised she gripped the arms of her chair, got up and silently left the room.

Others who voted for the President's impeachment expressed their desire to salvage the country's economy: It shrank by 3.8 per cent last year and is expected to contract further this year. The opposition, and many of her former political allies, blame Ms. Rousseff for a series of disastrous economic policies that exacerbated the impact of the commodity crash.

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Vice-President Michel Temer is poised to take power if the Senate agrees in the coming days to open an impeachment trial, forcing Ms. Rousseff to step aside for 180 days. Mr. Temer has promised a "national unity government" in which he would maintain all the existing social programs but also implement a fiscal austerity package to revive the economy. Ms. Rousseff derided that plan on Tuesday, without mentioning her vice-president by name.

"They're selling real estate on the moon," she said.

She also refused to speak the name of lower house Speaker Eduardo Cunha, a former ally who has been the chief architect of the impeachment process, but she described it as ironic that she is being tried by someone who "is better qualified to be a defendant, not a judge. … [He] is being investigated for corruption, for having bank accounts abroad, for money laundering and other issues." He wanted members of her party to vote to stop a house ethics committee investigation into his activities, and they wouldn't, and his campaign of "vengeance" began at that moment, she said.

The President chose to begin her interaction with the foreign press with a 25-minute discourse on the technical aspects of financial exchange between federal bodies and state banks. It was a reminder that she is not a politician by nature (she had never held elected office before she ran for president) but rather an economist and technocrat who blizzarded colleagues with data when she ran state companies and ministries.

Only 11 of the 511 deputies who cast votes in the impeachment poll mentioned the actual charges against Ms. Rousseff; the great majority cited corruption. Among them was Congresswoman Raquel Muniz, who voted in favour of impeachment and invoked her husband, a mayor in the central state of Minas Gerais, as a contrasting model of upright administration. Her husband, Ruy Muniz, was arrested on corruption charges the next morning.

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