The Palácio da Alvorada, the residence of the Brazilian president, is a place where you can feel very lonely. The building, designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer, is on a lake surrounded by the green no-man's-land of the capital city Brasilia. Tall fences enclose the property. The nearest person lives a kilometer away, but Dilma Rousseff, who lives with her mother in the Palácio da Alvorada, isn't exactly keen on that man's company at the moment.
One could put it this way: This neighbor, long a close ally of Rousseff, is now the man who wants to send the furniture movers to her house.
It's a cool June morning as Dilma Rousseff, whose presidency has been suspended for the last few weeks due to impeachment proceedings, walks through a set of tall double doors into the library of her palace. A petite clothed woman dressed in understated clothing, she says she has been spending a lot of time in the library recently.
Rousseff doesn't seem to have any illusions about the seriousness of her situation. She had time to organize the thoughts in her head while her neighbor was hurriedly creating new facts. His name is Michel Temer, he served as her vice president until May, and he is performing the official duties of the president for the duration of the proceedings. He has dismissed 20 members of Rousseff's advisory staff, and he has cancelled Rousseff's flights on air force jets and the president's credit card, and dismissed the gardener who attends to the flowers in the palace garden. Rousseff worries that it won't be long before Temer moves into the palace himself.
'Our Democracy Is a Sick Tree'
Rousseff sits down at the end of a long, polished wooden table. She has been living in the house for the last six years. She has always been filled with pride for taking up residence in the presidential palace -- as the first woman president, and as the first former guerilla fighter, who was tortured in military prisons during Brazil's dark years. Rousseff believed that her country had turned its back on those dark times, but now she isn't so sure anymore.
"Back then," she says, "the dictators cut off so many branches from the tree of democracy that the tree eventually died. It's more subtle today. Our democracy is a sick tree today, a tree filled with parasites, but these parasites won't let it die because it's such a wonderful source of food for all of them."
The parasites Rousseff is referring to are men like her neighbor, Temer, who she counts as part of an old, conservative elite that has been trying to depose her for months. She calls these people traitors without the slightest concept of the pain that someone like her had to endure when she was tortured. These days, Rousseff is thinking in grand, epoch-spanning terms, as she bids farewell to this house and the office of president.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way.
The Olympic Games, which will begin on Friday in Rio de Janeiro, were intended as a big red carpet where Rousseff would accept congratulatory statements from around the world. She had imagined that these games would shine a spotlight on a country that had found answers to the questions of the 21st century.
It was a magical moment when Rio was awarded the games in the fall of 2009. While the rest of the world was sliding into a major economic crisis, people lay in each other's arms on Copacabana Beach. A little later, the Economist depicted the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio on its cover as a rocket about to take off. The image became a symbol of the fact that Brazil had finally joined the club of the world's biggest economic powers. Millions of people had risen from poverty to join the middle class. Hunger was on the decline, as was the number of people who couldn't read or write.
It appeared that a new class of politicians had found a third way to reconcile Brazil with its past.
It was Lula's achievement.
In his biography, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former metalworker, first elected president in 2002 after three failed attempts, embodied the feeling that suddenly everything was possible. He was the opposite of Hugo Chávez, who was pursuing radical leftist policies in Venezuela. Lula exuded a joyous, all-embracing charm to which even then US President George W. Bush succumbed.
It long seemed as if the Olympics would become the project's coronation ceremony, a frenzy of outstretched fists. Lula and the heads of other countries. Lula and Dilma, who he championed as his successor when he was unable to run for a third term in 2010. It's important to remember this in a week in which Rousseff has said publicly that she will not attend the opening ceremony because she refuses to sit in a second-class box.
A Rocket Off Course
It isn't easy to say when exactly the Brazilian rocket went off course. When the world turns its eyes to Brazil today, it sees a country whose economy is in one of the worst recessions in its history. It sees a political system that appears exhausted after a seemingly endless series of corruption scandals. Large portions of the political elite, long considered untouchable, are now in prison for plundering the coffers of the partially government-owned oil company Petrobras.
It isn't easy to keep track of all the trials currently underway against members of parliament and senators, and against party treasurers, money launderers and the directors of large construction companies. There are so many that it sometimes feels as if they were crippling the country.
But it's a breathless standstill, at least in Brasilia, where politicians are afraid of what each new day will bring, and of every new star witness who could incriminate them. The capital is now a nervous biotope that has become disconnected from reality, where large automakers are temporarily laying off workers, and where inflation is reducing the buying power of low wage earners.
It isn't clear who turned away first: politicians from the people or the people from politicians. No one believes in their good intentions anymore. It is clear, however, that something became pent up, that what was ultimately needed was a valve, and that this valve now consists of some sugarcoated budget numbers with which Rousseff sought to obscure the truth about major holes in the government budget. This is the official reason for the impeachment proceedings. The numbers are an excuse for a political trial that is being used to judge Rousseff's entire term in office.
The question now is not so much what will happen to her, but what will happen to Brazil. What happens to a workers' party that is inextricably linked to Brazil's advancement?
When the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) came into power, it fueled hopes among the people that everything would change. That they would become more than a group of voters who put politicians into office and provide them with funds. Today, 13 years later, the PT itself is one of the parasites that have infested the tree of Brazilian democracy.
When Rousseff is asked, on this morning in the presidential palace, why she has so much trouble talking about her party's failings, and about her own involvement in the many crises, she changes the subject. This isn't the time to talk about that yet, says Rousseff.
But others are talking, men who jumped off the train when they realized that it was heading straight for a wall. The stories they tell are about disappointments, disaffection and betrayed ideals. A feeling of hopelessness has permeated all conversations in the weeks leading up to the Olympics.
The Olympics, once envisioned as a symbol of Brazil's ascent, now represent a lost dream.
Rousseff cuts her own flowers these days. Sometimes she invites senators to dinner at the palace. The goal of these meetings ought to be to convince fickle politicians to vote for her return to the office of president in the critical vote this autumn. Rousseff believes she is now missing six votes. The outcome is still uncertain, and yet she spends most of her time talking to her guests about literature.
Cristovam Buarque, a short, older man dressed in a suit, is one of those brooding figures that were recently at the palace. We meet with him in his office above the Senate on a morning in July. Buarque was a cabinet minister in the Lula administration. Today he represents a small leftist party. He's one of those former allies who now hold the key to Rousseff's future.
"These budget issues she is being accused of are not actually that serious," he says. "If we looked at them in isolation, an impeachment would be like someone being given a life sentence for being involved in a car accident. On the other hand, should we ignore the fact that the woman at the wheel previously ran over a number of people?"
Buarque, who earned a doctorate in economics in Paris during the dictatorship, was long the dean of the University in Brasilia. When he joined the PT in 1990, Lula had just failed in his first bid for the presidency. The story that connects him to the PT is one that many in Brasilia are telling today. Buarque says that one needs to have a sense of the spirit of optimism in those early years to understand the full dramatic impact of the collapse.
The PT, which emerged in 1980 from a coalition of leftist resistance groups, labor unions and liberation theologians, was essentially Brazil's first mass political movement. The street was its home, says Buarque. At first, when the generals were still in power, it built its image by calling for strikes on a regular basis. Later, when Buarque had already joined the party, Lula spent weeks traveling through remote provinces in a pickup truck, talking to small farmers and the landless, people in whom no one in Brasilia was interested.
It was something new: Politicians who didn't just appeal to the people when they happened to be campaigning for office. Who offered an ideological program instead of merely trying to buy a few votes for the price of a plate of beans. Lula called the events citizens' caravans, and Brazil's minorities realized for the first time that they were in fact the majority.
In those years, says Buarque, it became increasingly clear that the recipes recommended by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund only benefited a post-colonial upper class. A call for more social justice resonated throughout the entire South American continent, not just in Brazil -- and a demand for a new, more honest generation of politicians. That was the initial situation, in the fall of 2002, when Lula seemed presidential for a majority in Brazil for the first time.
Reopening Old Wounds
"But the betrayal had already begun before things were really getting started," says Buarque.
He describes an open letter in which Lula appealed to the Brazilian people before the election as the original sin. To dispel the fears of the middle class that Brazil would follow in the footsteps of Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez had just declared the Bolivarian Revolution, Lula promised economic stability. "It was a manifesto of the status quo. The only utopia that survived was the promise that corruption would no longer be tolerated," says Buarque.
Lula entrusted the Education Ministry to Buarque. Perhaps it was out of gratitude, or perhaps because he liked an idea that Buarque had developed as governor of the capital district. It was later incorporated into the Bolsa Familia program, which remains one of the PT's greatest achievements to this day: social welfare for families that is tied to their children attending school.
Buarque would have liked to have implemented the program himself, but in 2004, a year after he came into office, Lula called to inform him that he needed his post for someone else. "The call lasted less than a minute," says Buarque.
Buarque is one of many whose thoughts are filled with an undertone of melancholy these days. Old wounds are being reopened, or they are being covered up by fundamental questions. Many in Brasilia believe that the PT needs to reinvent itself, preferably in the opposition, but they question its ability to do so. Others are calling for new elections, but that would require an amendment to the constitution. Besides, what would happen then? Where are the presidential candidates who can credibly say today that no one will denounce them tomorrow?
"Sometimes," says Ivan Valente, a member of the Brazilian parliament, "it seems to me that class warfare has returned."
He too had his reservations when Rousseff's suspension was recently debated in the congress, but Valente refuses to pave the way for a man like Temer, who represents everything they have always fought, to come into power.
Valente is sitting in his office in São Paulo. A bearded man with shaggy hair who, like Rousseff, was tortured during the dictatorship, he is now a member of parliament for a small leftist party called PSOL.
"I still remember," he says, "the days when I used to tie a loudspeaker to the roof of my Beetle and drive up to the factory gates in the morning to recruit members for the PT. And then we were suddenly standing on this stage here in downtown São Paulo, looking out at thousands of people waving red flags. I looked at Lula, who had just been elected president, and I still remember thinking: Damn it, it's going to get complicated now."
Vestiges of the Colonial Era
In Brasilia, the PT encountered a world that was subject to different laws than the streets. Its coordinates have remained the same since the colonial era. Even though Brazil is no longer a monarchy today, but a so-called coalition presidential system, the political world still revolves around succession, privileges and providing favors.
Many view this system as the root cause of Brazil's many crises.
The Brazilian constitution does not contain a five-percent clause, like the one that requires parties in Germany to secure at least five percent of the vote to enter parliament. There are no coalition agreements, and lawmakers are not subject to party discipline. As a result, the PT, which held only 91 of a total of 513 seats during Lula's first term in office, had to secure the support of at least 166 members before every vote. These lawmakers were distributed among 32 other parties.
The Brazilian parliament is like a big marketplace, one in which, as Valente puts it, it helps to have the disposition of a horse trader. Those who need majorities obtain them by handing out ministerial posts or influential positions in government-owned companies.
While Lula jetted around the world and was celebrated at international summits, his chief of staff, José Dirceu, negotiated with a few dwarf parties that were considered particularly open to these types of deals. Most of all, he sought to establish ties with a party that, more than any other party, treats politics as a comprehensive business.
The PMDB, an ideologically flexible centrist party founded in the days of the dictatorship, is a collection of the old Brazilian elite, large land owners, media moguls and family clans that have controlled entire states since the colonial era. They are politicians whose main objective is to ensure that no one gets in the way of their private business dealings. In the year in which Lula swore the first PMDB minister into office, Michel Temer, a lawmaker representing the party, was the president of the parliament.
What should I do? Lula asked. We need majorities. The higher purpose, as he saw it, justified the means of forming an unholy alliance with the class enemy.
Valente says he was surprised at the time, when his party leader, a man he had known in his guerilla days, was caught with a suitcase filled with cash as he was taking it to the office of an affiliated party.
It wasn't until 2005 that Valente learned the significance of this suitcase, when it gradually emerged that government positions were not the only bargaining chips at play in the political backrooms of Brasilia. The so-called Mensalão was the first corruption scandal involving the PT.
Private firms that sought to do business with government-owned companies had been coerced to pay bribes to the party leadership. The money went into election campaigns or took the form of monthly payments into the accounts of lawmakers whose votes the administration wanted to secure -- hence the term Mensalão, which roughly translates as "big monthly payment."
Did Party Throw Values Overboard?
The scandal exposed that the PT was now part of the system it had set out to change. It was as if Lula had thrown everything overboard, says Valente -- all of the party's values and morals.
The party was suddenly holding its meetings in luxury hotels instead of monasteries. Expensive PR agencies were hired to organize its election campaigns. And then there was the party treasurer, who rebuffed inquiries into illicit funds with the words: Too much transparency is idiocy. When Valente left the party in 2005, no one stopped him.
While high-ranking politicians like Lula's chief of staff Dirceu were sentenced to long prison terms in the wake of the Mensalão scandal, the president denied any knowledge of these payments. Lula's first term was coming to an end at the time, and it seemed as if he was floating on a cloud on which he was unassailable.
The Brazilian export economy grew, fueled by China's thirst for raw materials. Domestic demand exploded, thanks to cheap consumer credit. In those years, many Brazilians bought their first refrigerator, their first car or their first apartment. Soon many of these people had multiple credit cards.
When geologists discovered massive oil fields off the coast of Rio in 2006, Lula dubbed Brazil the Saudi Arabia of the West. Brazil was now a global player, and it was even demanding a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
In the year after his reelection, Lula launched a massive investment program to further stimulate growth. Under the supervision of his then-energy minister, Dilma Rousseff, Brazil now planned to build a railroad line that would enable soybean farmers to transport their goods to the country's Atlantic ports. The government diverted the flow of the Rio São Francisco to irrigate dry fields in northeastern Brazil.
Years of Gigantism
There was one project in particular that embodied the gigantism of those years: The construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam complex, which was intended to quench the economy's thirst for energy.
The plans, which called for the construction of the world's third-largest dam on a tributary of the Amazon River, was a holdover from the military dictatorship. It meant penetrating deep into the rainforest and resettling thousands of small farmers and fishermen living along the banks of the Rio Xingú.
The PT had once derived a portion of its identity from the fight against the dam. Celebrities like singer Sting had protested by the side of Indians whose habitat was threatened by the project.
"When Lula came into power, we actually thought: Now Belo Monte is finally dead," says environmental activist Antonia Melo in Altamira, a small, dusty town on the Trans-Amazonian Highway. She was one of the founders of the PT in the region, and she has devoted her life to protesting against the dam. "It came as a shock when Lula announced that it was going to be built, after all," she says.
To calm the waves, Lula invited the opponents of the project to Brasilia, where he told them that the lights would go out in Brazil without the dam. He promised that everyone affected by the dam would receive compensation. He spoke of hospitals and schools that would be built in Altamira, but nothing ever happened, says Melo.
More than 30,000 people were resettled because of Belo Monte. Prosecutors are now investigating many cases of alleged human rights violations. New slums developed in Altamira, where many of the now unemployed dam workers ended up. The city, says Melo, is now home to many loggers, and is a place where young Indian women sell their bodies.
Belo Monte is only one example. Major projects like the Belo Monte dam are scattered throughout the country, and they have all contributed to people like Antonia Melo losing faith in politics.
Lula shifted priorities, but without ever allowing any public debate of his plans. Rapid growth was given priority over sustainable economic management. Consumption was more important than the environment.
The End of an Illusion
Belo Monte, long a symbol of unbridled growth, now represents the end of an illusion.
It was long suspected that something wasn't quite right about the dam. Costs had exploded from 4 billion euros to just under 7 billion euros, which, in Brazil, is an unmistakable sign that larger sums are flowing into dark channels. But only now, with the first turbine up and running, is it becoming clear that the government, as in the Mensalão scandal, gave preferential treatment in the awarding of construction contracts to companies that expressed their gratitude. Some 40 million euros in bribes were allegedly paid in connection with construction of the dam.
More than 3 billion euros went to the partially state-owned oil company Petrobras, which is unprecedented in Brazilian history. The same construction companies were involved in both scandals, the same money launderers and the same power brokers from the PT and PMDB, who had divided up the top management jobs at these companies among themselves. The old and new elites joined forces in lining their pockets.
They siphoned off up to three percent of all Petrobras revenues and diverted the funds into the accounts of leading politicians. The company is deeply in debt today. Its market value has plummeted, and trials are underway in the United States in which investors are claiming compensation in the billions.
Dilma Rousseff is not accused of enriching herself. However, as the former chairwoman of the company's supervisory board, few believe that she knew nothing about what was going on.
When Lula anointed Rousseff as his successor in 2010, she was virtually unknown by the public. "I could just as well have put up a lamppost," he later joked, alluding to his popularity at the end of his second term.
But the rocket engine simply shut itself off a short time later. The shock waves of the world economic crisis reached the country with some delay. Demand plummeted at first, followed by a decline in prices in the commodities markets and slowing growth.
The money Rousseff used to stimulate demand merely enlarged the holes in the government budget. Rating agencies downgraded the country. Foreign investors, who had found a growth market in Brazil during the crisis, moved their capital to parts of the world where earning profits seemed more likely.
Many of the roughly 30 million people who seemed to have risen into the new middle class are now sitting on a mountain of debt and have no idea how to get rid of it. Fear of decline, unemployment, mismanagement and corruption are the reasons millions of Brazilians have taken to the streets to protest in recent months.
According to current polls, less than 20 percent of Brazilians want to see Rousseff return to office. Interim President Michel Temer has an even lower approval rating. He was forced to fire three of his ministers in the first few weeks. In recorded telephone conversations, they had admitted that they see the impeachment of Rousseff primarily as an opportunity to stop corruption investigations against them.
Does Brazil's Future Lie in Its Past?
There is a sense of perplexity in the country on the eve of the Olympics. After 13 years, Brazil seems to be back where it was when Lula came into office. The only difference is that today there is no longer a party capable of raising any hope that a different Brazil is possible.
Rumor has it that Lula is also uninterested in attending the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. He echoes the sentiments of most Brazilians, whose euphoria has long since turned into disinterest.
Lula himself has now become a target of the Petrobras investigation. Prosecutors assume that construction companies renovated two properties he reportedly owns -- as a thank-you gift for all the contracts he landed for them. Lula denies the charges.
While his former allies, like Valente and Buarque, believe that admitting mistakes would be an important first step in reestablishing the parties' credibility, Lula remains in combat mode.
Sitting in a leather armchair on the first floor of the institute that bears his name, Lula insists that he hasn't committed any crime. He isn't afraid of prison, he says. What he does fear is the return of a police state, in which suspects are consistently put under pressure until they say what investigators want to hear.
He's now 70. He has survived cancer and spends his days in this room. He loves the large maps hanging on the walls, because they illustrate the true magnitude of his country. Like Rousseff, his thoughts revolve around his legacy. He talks about hunger, which he says hardly exists in Brazil anymore because of his efforts. He talks about the lack of great utopias in a world filled with technocrats. And he talks about his encounters with former US President George W. Bush and former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Lula leans forward and looks deep into his interviewer's eyes. He grabs his arm and holds onto it for a while. "This is the secret," he says. "This is how you create alliances."
It is something his successor, Dilma Rousseff, never understood, he says. That dinner with politicians doesn't have to be boring. That you have to talk to people, even your rivals, even someone like Temer. And that you have to make deals. It's the way he sees things.
It's also the reason he has started traveling again. He recently spoke to a group of goatherds in northeastern Brazil. It's possible that he will run for office again in 2018. Lula remains extremely popular. If the polls are correct, Brazil's future lies in the past.