Former president of Brazil Dilma Rousseff speaks on democracy at UC Berkeley event

Xiaoye Yan/Staff

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Former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff spoke to hundreds on the future of democracy in her country at a Center for Latin American Studies, or CLAS, event Monday.

The former president, who was the first woman to hold the office, discussed the condition of the Brazilian state, her impeachment, the imprisonment of her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — known as Lula — and the “blows” to democracy in Brazil.

“There is no more appropriate or timely topic than challenges to democracy in Brazil and no better person to speak about this topic,” said Harley Shaiken, director of CLAS, in his introductory remarks at the event. “What motivated her, with all the sacrifices she has made, is to improve the lives of all Brazilians.”

Rousseff was impeached in 2016 over alleged unlawful budgetary decisions. Lula — whose appointment as her chief of staff was blocked by the courts — was indicted over a corruption scandal in 2017. Rousseff alleged at the event that her impeachment and Lula’s sentence were political moves by the opposition.

Rousseff, who spoke in Portuguese with simultaneous translation, said throughout her talk that there are threats to Brazil’s political system. She said that the “tree of democracy” has been overcome by “parasites” and that Lula’s imprisonment is evidence of the “critical” condition of the country, with her own impeachment as a “blow” in the process of democratic weakening.

“This blow was not a moment, it was a process, and the blow starts in 2016 with my exit,” Rousseff said at the event. “They wanted to use the blow not only to get rid of me … but also to destroy my party, the PT, and (former) president Lula.”

The event drew both supporters and opponents of Rousseff and her Workers’ Party, or PT. Supporters of the PT dressed in red with posters and stickers and advocated for the release of Lula. Protesters holding signs reading “Lula betrayed Brazil” and “Dilma Supports Maduro Dictator” also attended the event.

Among Rousseff’s supporters was visiting political science graduate student Carla Bezerra. She said she is concerned with the increasing polarization of Brazilian politics and criticized the rising far right.

“We are living in a very tense moment in Brazilian politics,” Bezerra said. “Dilma was impeached in 2016. After (the impeachment) Brazilian politics became increasingly polarized because the Workers’ Party partisans say that the impeachment was a political coup.”

In response to an audience inquiry about corruption in Brazil, Rousseff both pointed toward the 2008 financial crisis of “extraordinary” corruption in other countries and claimed that she fought corruption during her time in office.

“I consider myself an optimist, but I am also a realist,” Rousseff said. “We can only change the conditions if we understand what is happening around us. Today we are living a moment that is very dark in Brazil.”

Contact Sophia Brown-Heidenreich at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sophiabrownh.