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Dilma Rousseff's impeachment, explained in 500 words

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff walks in the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation on March 10, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff walks in the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation on March 10, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has just been impeached. On Wednesday, the Brazilian Senate voted 61-20 to remove her from office. Vice President Michel Temer will now takeover as president for the forseeable future.

On the surface, the impeachment charges were about allegations that Rousseff cooked the government's books to hide the scope of Brazil's deficit problem during her 2014 reelection campaign. But they were really about a bigger slate of problems in Brazil — most importantly, something called the Petrobras scandal.

Between about 2004 and 2014, the state-run energy firm Petrobras — which is Brazil's largest company and one of the largest corporations in the world — engaged in one of the most astonishing corruption schemes ever to be uncovered. We're talking upward of $5.3 billion changing hands.

Basically, construction executives secretly created a cartel to coordinate bids on Petrobras contracts and systematically overcharge the company. They then sent some of the profits they made from this to Petrobras workers as bribes, as well as to some politicians.

An unrelated police investigation uncovered the Petrobras scandal in 2013; the first public arrests were made in 2014. To say the Brazilian public was infuriated would be an understatement. Literally millions of people joined street protests.

The scandal played into Brazil's defining political issue: inequality. Ever since colonial times, Brazil has been dominated by wealthy elites who thought they could get away with anything — and usually did. Petrobras implicated leaders of Brazil's largest state-owned company, its biggest construction firms, and political leaders from across the spectrum. It exposed elite corruption on a level that, even in Brazil, was previously unimaginable.

This was devastating for Rousseff. Though there's no evidence she was directly involved in the corruption, Rousseff was the chairwoman of Petrobras's board from 2003 to 2010. This all occurred under her watch, a seemingly damning indictment of her judgment and competence.

Moreover, her party — the leftist Workers' Party (PT) — has cultivated a reputation for cleanliness, for sticking up for the common people against a corrupt system. Evidence that a number of PT politicians were involved in Petrobras has tarnished that brand considerably.

The most notable PT figure that's been implicated is Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil's last president and Rousseff's political mentor. In March, she tried to appoint Lula to her cabinet; a released wiretap recording suggests she was trying to shield him from charges.

To make matters even worse, Brazil is going through a devastating economic crisis. The Brazilian real (its currency) is rapidly losing value at the same time as the country is experiencing a recession.

This all prompted massive protests calling for Rousseff's ouster, mostly made up of people from Brazil's upper-middle class. These protests emboldened Rousseff's political enemies to pursue impeachment, even though the charges were unrelated.

But Temer has been convicted of corrupt electioneering, and is barred from running for office for eight years. So his time in office is limited — meaning Brazil is in for a chaotic several years.

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