Suspended Brazil leader blasts critics; fill-in urges unity

Supporters of President Dilma Rousseff shout during clashes with the police outside Congress, in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, May 11, 2016. Brazil's Senate is nearing a historic vote on impeaching Rousseff, likely ending 13 years of government by her party amid a spate of crises besetting Latin America's largest nation. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — Brazil’s suspended President Dilma Rousseff vowed Thursday to use “all legal means” to fight her permanent ouster in an impeachment trial, raising the specter of continued political turmoil as acting leader Michel Temer tries to rescue a sinking economy.

Hours later, Temer called for unity, promising to improve the economy and support a big corruption probe at state oil company Petrobras.

Speaking in the morning after the Senate voted to impeach her, in what might prove her last official event within the presidential palace, the nation’s first female president blasted the process as “fraudulent” and said it was an injustice more painful than the torture she endured under a past military dictatorship.

She again rejected critics’ accusations that she used illegal accounting tricks in managing the federal budget.

“I may have committed errors but I never committed crimes,” Rousseff said during a 14-minute address, flanked by dozens of top officials and brass from her left-leaning Workers’ Party.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff greets supporters as she leaves Planalto president palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, May 12, 2016.  Hours after the Senate voted to suspend her, Rousseff blasted the impeachment process against her as "fraudulent" and promised to fight what she characterized as an injustice more painful than the torture she endured under a past military dictatorship. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff greets supporters as she leaves Planalto president palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, May 12, 2016. Hours after the Senate voted to suspend her, Rousseff blasted the impeachment process against her as “fraudulent” and promised to fight what she characterized as an injustice more painful than the torture she endured under a past military dictatorship. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

The Senate’s vote came after a months-long battle that laid bare Brazil’s fury over corruption and economic decay just months before it hosts the Summer Olympics.

Speaking to several thousand supporters as she left the Planalto presidential palace, Rousseff said the allegations against her are nothing more than a red herring, part of a “coup” orchestrated by power-hungry foes.

“I am the victim of a great injustice,” she said, adding, “I fought my whole life and I’m going to keep fighting.”

Temer, a 75-year-old career politician who many call the “butler” for his subdued manner, struck a conciliatory note in his first words to the nation Thursday afternoon.

Brazil's acting President Michel Temer arrives to address the nation in Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, May 12, 2016, after the Senate voted to suspend President Dilma Rousseff pending an impeachment trial. In his first words to Brazilians as acting president, the former vice president promised to beef up the fight against corruption, and in particular said he will support the sweeping investigation into a mammoth kickback scheme at state oil company Petrobras. Temer himself has been implicated by witnesses in the probe, though he has not been charged. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
Brazil’s acting President Michel Temer arrives to address the nation in Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, May 12, 2016, after the Senate voted to suspend President Dilma Rousseff pending an impeachment trial. In his first words to Brazilians as acting president, the former vice president promised to beef up the fight against corruption, and in particular said he will support the sweeping investigation into a mammoth kickback scheme at state oil company Petrobras. Temer himself has been implicated by witnesses in the probe, though he has not been charged. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

“Now is not a moment for celebrations, but rather for profound reflection,” he said, adding that reducing unemployment was a top government priority.

Temer also mentioned the upcoming Olympics, slated for August in Rio de Janeiro. “We won’t again soon have another opportunity like his one,” he said, adding that it was a chance to showcase Brazil as a “serious country.”

Rousseff has repeatedly said she would fight against her removal, but hasn’t said how and most avenues have already been closed off. So far, the Supreme Federal Tribunal, the country’s highest court, has declined to weigh in on the merits of the case against her.

The Senate has 180 days to conduct a trial and decide whether Rousseff should be permanently removed from office — in which case Temer would serve out the remainder of her term, which ends in December 2018.

Some of her supporters have promised a campaign of protests and strikes that could complicate the efforts of Temer to govern.

Impeachment supporters contend Temer, a career politician and constitutional expert who has published a collection of poetry, is the best hope for reversing Brazil’s economic collapse.

Temer has promised to cut spending and privatize many sectors controlled by the state. But he has also repeatedly denied Rousseff’s allegations he intends to dismantle the popular social programs that helped the Workers’ Party lift an estimated 35 million people out of poverty during its 13 years in power.

As Rousseff’s impeachment looked increasingly inevitable, Temer began quietly putting together a new Cabinet. Its uncontested star is Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles, the former head of Brazil’s central bank.

The markets reacted positively to news of Rousseff’s impeachment, and the Brazilian currency, the real, continued its recent rebound from a precipitous fall against the dollar over the past year.

When the impeachment measure was introduced last year in Congress, it was generally viewed as a longshot. As late as February, experts were predicting it wouldn’t even make it out of committee in the lower Chamber of Deputies.

But its champion, former House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, outmaneuvered the government at every turn, and the process built momentum with each of Cunha’s successful maneuvers. Rousseff contends that Cunha, who was suspended last week over allegations of corruption and obstruction of justice, used the impeachment to wreak revenge on her.

But analysts say Rousseff’s lack of skill as a politician and Brazil’s tanking economy played major roles in her undoing. The Brazilian economy is expected to contract nearly 4 percent this year after an equally dismal 2015, and inflation and unemployment are hovering around 10 percent, underscoring a sharp decline after the South American giant enjoyed stellar growth for more than a decade.

Making matters worse for Rousseff, the massive graft scheme uncovered at Brazil’s state-run Petrobras oil company revealed deep-seated corruption that cut across the political spectrum, ensnaring top officials from the Workers’ Party and the opposition alike as well as some of the country’s top businessmen.

“Dilma is a bad president and waiting until 2018 was a horrible option,” said cab driver Alessandro Novais in Rio de Janeiro, minutes after the Senate vote. “I don’t think Temer will be much better, but at least we can try something different to overcome the crisis.”

While polls have said a majority of Brazilians supported impeaching Rousseff, they also suggest the public is wary about those in the line to take her place.

Temer has been implicated in the Petrobras corruption scheme as has Renan Calheiros, the Senate head who is now No. 2 in the line of succession.

Rousseff has vehemently denied her administration’s budget moves constituted a crime and argued that such maneuvers were used by prior presidents without repercussions. She has stressed that unlike many of those who have pushed for impeachment, she does not face any allegations of personal corruption.

In her parting words at the presidential palace, Rousseff evoked her travails under the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, when she was imprisoned.

She said that neither the pain she was subjected to by the regime’s torturers, nor the suffering she would later survive as a cancer patient, compare to the feeling at being what she regards as unjustly removed from office.

“It’s the most brutal thing that can happen to a human being to be condemned for a crime you didn’t commit. There is no more devastating injustice,” she said before leaving the palace.

___

Associated Press writer Jenny Barchfield reported this story in Brasilia and AP writer Mauricio Savarese reported from Rio de Janeiro.

 

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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