Rio Olympics over, final decision on Brazil president looms

FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2015 file photo, a woman holds a sign that reads in Portuguese; "Dilma Out" during a demonstration in favor of the impeachment of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Just days after the Rio Olympics ended, Brazilian senators are now gearing up for a final decision on whether to permanently remove Rousseff from office. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 6, 2014 file photo, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff listens to a question during a re-election campaign news conference at the Alvorada Palace in Brasilia, Brazil. Just days after the Rio Olympics ended, Brazilian senators are now gearing up for a final decision on whether to permanently remove President Dilma Rousseff from office. The months-long leadership fight has brought to the surface deep polarization in Latin America's most populous nation, fueled by anger over endemic corruption and angst about an emerging economy that has gone from darling to depression amid its worst financial crisis in decades. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres, File)
FILE - In this May 12, 2016 file photo, Brazil's acting President Michel Temer arrives to address the nation at Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil. While Rousseff has accused him of being the ringleader of the push to oust her, Temer has presented himself as a reluctant savior who just wants to do what is best for a divided country. If Rousseff is permanently removed, Temer will serve the rest of her term, which goes through 2018. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres, File)
FILE - In this April 13, 2016 file photo, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff is framed between two Brazilian national flags during a meeting at the Planalto Presidential Palace in Brasilia, Brazil. On Thursday, the Senate will begin the final phase of Rousseff's trial for allegedly breaking fiscal rules in her management of the federal budget. Several days of deliberations, including an address by Rousseff herself, will culminate in a final vote early next week. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres, File)
FILE - In this May 13, 2016 file photo, a woman holds a sign that reads in Portuguese; "Never Temer!" to protest the government of acting President Michel Temer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Just days after the Rio Olympics ended, Brazilian senators are now gearing up for a final decision on whether to permanently remove President Dilma Rousseff from office. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
FILE - In this March 21, 2016 file photo, soldiers stand guard outside Planalto presidential palace where protesters projected the word "Impeachment" on the building, as they call for the impeachment of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia, Brazil. On Thursday, the Senate will begin the final phase of Rousseff's trial for allegedly breaking fiscal rules in her management of the federal budget. Several days of deliberations, including an address by Rousseff herself, will culminate in a final vote early next week. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres, File)
FILE - In this April 24, 2012 file photo, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, right, talks with Vice President Michel Temer, during a ceremony at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil. Three ministers in the government of interim President Temer, who took over when Rousseff was suspended in May, were forced to resign right after taking office because of corruption allegations. And Temer himself has been fingered for bribery by witnesses in the Petrobras investigation who have reached plea deals with prosecutors, though so far he has not been charged. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

RIO DE JANEIRO — The last medals have been handed out, the athletes have all gone home and the fireworks at Rio de Janeiro's Maracana stadium are fading into memory. Now Brazil's real drama begins.

Just days after the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics, Brazilian senators are about to decide whether to permanently remove President Dilma Rousseff from office, the climax of a months-long political battle that has laid bare deep polarization in Latin America's largest nation.

The Aug. 5-21 Summer Games were a welcome distraction for many Brazilians angry over endemic corruption and an emerging economy that has gone from analysts' darling to severe recession amid its worst financial crisis in decades. Street parties erupted when their beloved soccer team beat Germany to win gold, a measure of redemption after being humiliated 7-1 by the Germans in the World Cup semifinal two years ago.

With the Olympic bash over, "we return to the divisions, to the fighting," said Fabiano Angelico, a political consultant based in Sao Paulo.

On Thursday, the Senate begins the final phase of the trial of Rousseff, who was suspended in May for allegedly breaking fiscal rules in managing the federal budget. Several days of deliberations, including an address to lawmakers by Rousseff herself, will culminate in a definitive vote expected early next week.

Rousseff's opponents argue that she used sleight of hand budgeting to mask the depth of government deficits and ultimately exacerbated the growing economic crisis, which has led to 10 percent inflation, daily announcements of layoffs and repeated credit downgrades from ratings agencies.

Brazil's first female president denies any wrongdoing, pointing out that previous presidents used similar accounting measures. Rousseff alleges that something more nefarious is at play: a bloodless "coup" by corrupt legislators who want to oust her so they can water down a wide-ranging investigation into billions of dollars in kickbacks at the state oil company, Petrobras.

A letter signed by 22 international artists and intellectuals was published Wednesday voicing support for Rousseff. Among them were actor Danny Glover, film director Oliver Stone, linguist Noam Chomsky, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, actor Viggo Mortensen and composer Brian Eno.

"The legal basis for the ongoing impeachment is widely contested and there is compelling evidence showing that key promoters of the impeachment campaign are seeking to remove the president to stop the corruption investigations that they themselves are implicated in," the letter said.

But much of the alleged graft happened over the 13 years that Rousseff's left-leaning Workers' Party has been in power. Several businessmen and top politicians have been jailed, including some connected to Rousseff's government, and a number of opposition officials are also in investigators' sights.

The probe has blown the lid off a political culture of corruption that spans the ideological spectrum: About 60 percent of lawmakers in the Senate and lower house are being investigated for various crimes, many related to graft and the Petrobras scandal.

Rousseff has never been personally implicated, but her detractors say she must have known what was happening and bears responsibility. She refused to block the investigations even as she paid a steep political price through her impeachment, saying it is a process that Brazil badly needs to go through.

The interim government that stepped in for her has also been stung, with three Cabinet ministers forced to resign right after taking office due to corruption allegations. Acting President Michel Temer, who was Rousseff's vice president and is known as a behind-the-scenes dealmaker, has been fingered for alleged bribery by witnesses who have reached plea deals in the Petrobras case, although he has not been charged with any crime.

The result has been widespread popular disgust and anger at both Rousseff and Temer: A national poll by Datafolha last month found that 62 percent of respondents favored holding new elections rather than keeping either one as president.

Rousseff has promised to hold a referendum on whether to call new elections if she survives the Senate trial. But for that to happen, both she and Temer would have to resign or be removed.

Temer, a 75-year-old career politician from the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, has shown no indication he would step down. He casts himself as a reluctant savior who just wants to do what's best for a divided country, and denies Rousseff's accusations that he's the ringleader in the push to oust her.

If Rousseff is permanently removed, Temer would serve out the remainder of her term through 2018.

"Michel wants to remain president, but he can't show himself to be trying to do that," Brasilia-based political consultant Alexandre Barros said. "It's a complicated equation for everybody."

In any case, Rousseff's odds of surviving the Senate trial appear slim.

In May, 55 of the body's 81 senators voted to impeach and suspend her — one more than the 54 it would take to kick her out for good. Since then Rousseff has embarked on a campaign to change their minds, hunkering down with supportive senators, tweeting regularly against the "coup," holding rallies around the country and meeting with Brazilian and international media.

Earlier this month, 59 senators voted to move forward with the trial.

___

Peter Prengaman on Twitter: http://twitter.com/peterprengaman

Mauricio Savarese on Twitter: http://twitter.com/MSavarese

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