Page 5, 16th February 1990

16th February 1990
Page 5
Page 5, 16th February 1990 — Brazil's new president was in London last week. Peter Stanford

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Brazil's new president was in London last week. Peter Stanford

begins his account of his trip to the Latin American nation with CAFOD by listening to views on Collor

Populist president empty vessel or establishment man?

WE are fortunate in this country in that the hand-over of the reins of power from one government to the next is swift once the electorate has expressed its wishes at the ballot box. Mrs Thatcher will have her bags packed in the back of a waiting removal van in Downing Street the very day her run of success at the polls deserts her, as have countless previous occupants of the tied cottage at number 10.

In Brazil, by contrast, they favour the American model with an interregnum of seemingly interminable length. My recent visit to Brazil with CAFOD coincided with the dying days of the lame duck Sarney regime (indeed it could be argued that President Sarney has always been somewhat lame given that he was not elected five years ago, but rather stepped into the shoes of the incoming candidate in 1985, Tancredo Neves, when the latter, considerably more progressive than Sarney his colourless running mate, tragically died before installation as head of state).

Brazil's new president is to be Fernando Collor de Mello, who can best be described in political shorthand as a conservative populist. Although out of the country as I toured Brazil, Collor's name was a feature of every conversation while his face beamed out of every newspaper cover as he made what was almost universally portrayed as a triumphant tour around the capitals of the world. (It came as something of a culture shock, therefore, when Collor's visit to London, which coincided with my return, evoked only minimal interest from the European media.) Beside the simple fact that every nation is bound to be concerned with its future ruler in the weeks before he or she takes power, Collor's grip on

the minds of Brazilians can be

explained by the fact that few are able to predict clearly what

to expect in his five year presidency which begins on March 15.

Fr Francisco Ivern, a Jesuit who heads an organisation in

Rio de Janeiro called IBRADES which runs training courses for church people involved in the field of politics and social development, described the new president as "an amoral and empty vessel who owes nothing to the people who brought him to power". Fr Ivern, who acts as an advisor to the Brazilian

bishops' conference (CNBB), bases such a description of Collor on the tactics of the election (which incidentally featured considerable mudslinging and personal accusation in its last days).

Collor, in the second round of the presidential contest, became the candidate of the powerful in Brazil, those who own land, those involved in finance and industry. He was not their first choice — that was a toss-up between two former mayors of Sao Paolo, Mario Covas and Paulo Maluf, both of whom lost out in the initial presidential ballot — but faced with a strong and well organised candidate from a broad alliance of popular organisations, trade unions and progressive sections in Luiz !flack) da Silva, known simply as Lula, in the second round run-off, the Brazilian establishment put their weight behind Collor in a spirit of faute de mieux.

This, according to Fr Ivern's analysis, gives the new president considerable leeway in drawing up his battle plan since he is not so closely linked with the vested interests in Brazil as would have been, for example, Mario Covas had he achieved victory. Furthermore, Fr Ivern opined, Collor had won the election with the votes of the very poor, those with little understanding of politics, who had seen in Collor's striking good looks (he was known to his school friends as a playboy) and in the handouts of food and money liberally distributed in the most deprived areas by his electoral agents, a saviour, one who would liberate them from their drudgery.

If Collor was to retain such populist appeal, he must act now to at least make some gesture towards the poor, ran Fr Ivern's thinking. Some attempt to tackle Brazil's inflation, running at three per cent a day, would be a start (a popular joke was that shoppers in supermarkets were racing staff there to get products off the shelves before the price tag was changed).

More to the point, Fr Ivern pointed out, the establishment in Brazil had been frightened by the success of the leftist Lula who came within three million votes, in a country of 135 million people, of winning the presidency. The spectre of a radical president would be enough for Collor to persuade the wealthy who make up roughly 20 per cent of Brazilians to make some concessions. Principal amongst them would be a reform of the tax system where at present no duties are levied on land, on investments and profits, on inherited wealth, leaving the treasury dependent on VAT which takes no account

of ability to pay, and on income tax which hits mainly the working class dependent on a wage.

However, Fr Ivern's cautious optimism in Collor's willingness to bring reform to Brazil's crippled and unjust economic system was not shared by many other church observers. They pointed to Color's debt to men like Roberto Marino, head of a communications empire that includes both the most popular

television channel, Rede Globo, and the daily newspaper 0 Globo. Marino had been among a small group of industrialists who had built up Collor from a small-time governor of the small state of Maceio into a national

figure, recognising his popularist potential. It had been the money of such captains of industry that bought Collor's victory, and he could not now turn his economic fire-power on them.

And the first appointments that Collor has made to his cabinet would seem to suggest that such an analysis is not too much off the mark. As economic advisor s he has opted for continuity with those who advised the outgoing Sarney and who have done little to ease Brazil's enormous external debt burden, nor to curb the soaring inflation, but who have protected the investments of the wealthy.

In the crucial area of land reform, Collor too appears to be showing conservative leanings. The clamour of the landless for a patch of ground to practise what is essentially subsistence agriculture is one of the loudest in Brazil today. While I was in Goiania visiting the headquarters of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), an organisation linked to the bishops' conference and funded by European agencies like CAFOD, assisting those involved in the struggle for land, the news came through that Collor was considering one

Aristo da Riva as Minister for Agrarian Reform.

The said Mr da Riva features in several of the CPT's files. A major landowner he has been involved in prolonged and bloody battles with groups of mineral prospectors over titles to land, which ended in illegal evictions.

Collor's thinking on the vital area of land reform would seem clear if only by the fact that he even considered da Riva. He is on the side of the landowners against the aspirations of the people – as is borne out by his negligible track record on agrarian reform in Maceio.

The CPT's pessimism about Collor was shared by many other figures I met. Fr Nadai, deputy general secretary at

the bishops' conference headquarters in Brasilia, saw little hole of a real dialogue between he church and the new president. Collor, alone of the presidential candidates, had not visited the bishops' central office it the run up to the campaigt, an indication of his attitude.

Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga of Sao Fefix do Araguia was preparedlo concede that Collor was a deer man, but held out little prospect of the kind of reform tat would answer the all-too-apparent social and economic crises in Brazil, that would reancile that 20 per cent who liven a first world Brazil with the ast majority who live in a thirdvorld state, on a knife edge of lie and death.

Next wek: Lula and poverty

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