Brazil’s Rousseff says democracy at risk in Senate trial

A defiant President Dilma Rousseff warned Brazilians on Monday that her conservative opponents were trampling on democracy by using trumped-up charges to oust her and roll back the social advances of the past 13 years.

Presenting her defense at a trial in the Senate, in what may be her last public appearance as president, the leftist leader said Brazil’s economic elite had sought to destabilize her government since her narrow re-election to a second four-year term in 2014.

Rousseff is expected to become the first Brazilian leader in more than 20 years to be dismissed from office when the Senate rules on Tuesday or early Wednesday on allegations that she broke budgetary rules by using money from state banks to boost public spending.

In an emotional speech from the Senate podium, Rousseff denied any wrongdoing and recalled her persecution during Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship.

She said the impeachment process that has paralyzed Brazilian politics for nine months was a plot to protect the interests of the privileged classes in Latin America’s largest nation.

“We are one step away from a real coup d’etat,” the former leftist guerrilla said. “I did not commit the crimes that I am arbitrarily and unjustly accused of.”

She warned that a future conservative government would slash spending on social programs that helped lift 30 million people out of poverty in the past decade and sell off state assets, including Brazil’s massive offshore oil reserves.

The 68-year-old Rousseff, a trained economist and daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant, was handpicked by the founder of the Workers Party, ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to succeed him when he stepped aside in 2012, despite her lack of political experience and her mentor’s charisma.

Rousseff faces no allegations of personal enrichment. But she has been charged on the sidelines of the impeachment process with obstructing a sweeping investigation into bribery and political kickbacks at state-run oil company Petrobras , Brazil’s biggest-ever scandal.

She chaired the board of Petrobras from 2003 to 2010, when the worst of the corruption was taking place.

After riding the commodities boom in her first term, Rousseff saw her popularity dwindle to single figures this year amid a deep recession that many Brazilians blame on her government’s interventionist policies and huge scandal involving Petrobras under the Workers Party government.

Brazil’s first female president told senators that history would judge them and recalled her trial under the military dictatorship in 1970, when officers hid their faces to not be recognized in photographs.

She began to choke back tears recalling how she faced death when she was tortured day after day in detention. “Today I only fear the death of democracy,” she said.

If the Senate convicts Rousseff, as expected, her vice president Michel Temer will be sworn in to serve the rest of her term through 2018.

Temer, 75, has been interim president since mid-May, when Rousseff was suspended after Congress decided it would continue the impeachment process that began in the lower house.

His business-friendly government vows to take unpopular austerity measures to plug a growing fiscal deficit that cost Brazil its investment-grade credit rating last year.

Twenty of Rousseff’s former Cabinet ministers were in the Senate gallery to support her, along with Lula himself.

With the odds stacked against her, Rousseff’s testimony appears to be aimed at making a point for the history books that her impeachment was a travesty, rather than a bid to sway the 81-seat Senate to block her ouster.

Rousseff said she never pocketed public money, and yet her impeachment was led by the former lower house speaker, Eduardo Cunha, who is facing charges of corruption, including taking bribes in the Petrobras kickback scandal and having millions of dollars hidden away in Swiss bank accounts.

“Curiously, I will be judged for crimes I did not commit before the trial of the former speaker who is accused of very serious illegal acts,” she said.

Her appeal is unlikely to alter the outcome in a Senate where one-third of the members are under investigation for corruption, graft, fraud or electoral crimes, according to Congresso em Foco, a prominent watchdog in Brasilia.

Temer is confident he has the two-thirds of the chamber needed to remove Rousseff, and he has planned an address to the nation on Wednesday before heading to China to attend the summit of the G20 group of leading economies.

“We need 54 votes and we expect to get at least 60,” Temer’s press spokesman, Marcio de Freitas, told Reuters.

He said the more votes Temer received, the stronger would be his mandate to take the difficult measures needed to restore confidence in Brazil’s economy, which is caught in a two-year recession.

Rousseff is accused of using money owed to state banks to bolster spending during an election year in 2014, a budgetary sleight of hand employed by many elected officials in Brazil. She says the money had no impact on overall deficit levels and was paid back in full the following year.

A survey published by O Estado de S.Paulo newspaper on Monday showed 53 senators would vote against Rousseff and only 19 would back her – nine short of the 28 she needs to avoid being ousted. Nine senators have not stated their position.

But even senators not convinced that the accounting charges brought against Rousseff warrant her removal will vote against her because they do not believe she has enough support to govern anymore and end Brazil’s political crisis.

“I will vote against her even though I think it is a tragedy to get rid of an elected president, but another 2-1/2 years of a Dilma government would be worse,” centrist Senator Cristovam Buarque said in a phone interview.

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