Beginning anew in Brazil

Ross Laver January 21 1985

Beginning anew in Brazil

Ross Laver January 21 1985

Beginning anew in Brazil


Ross Laver

By tradition, the weeks between New Year’s Day and mid-February are a time of raucous celebration throughout Brazil. Enjoying South America’s high-summer break, millions of Brazilians flock to beaches of brilliant white sand under a tropical sun.

In Rio de Janeiro, brightly costumed revellers sing and dance through the night to the pulsating beat of samba bands, practising their intricate steps for the annual parade down Rio’s “Sambadrome” Avenue in the climax of the city’s pre-Lenten carnival.

This year, the nation has an additional reason to celebrate.

Along with the usual holiday festivities, the southern summer of 1985 marks the return to democracy in a country that for nearly 21 years has been ruled by military dictators.

Indeed, the military’s retreat from government has created a mood of public optimism across Latin America’s largest and most powerful country. This week, in a landmark presidential election, 686 congressmen and state representatives will meet under the glare of television floodlights in Brasilia’s Chamber of Deputies to choose the nation’s first civilian leader since democracy was suspended in 1964. With that, Brazil will become the ninth Latin American nation to convert from dictatorship to democracy since 1980.

This week’s vote represents -

only a partial fulfilment of the military’s 1979 pledge to open up the political process to public participation. Many Brazilians had hoped to cast their own ballots directly for a successor to departing President Joäo Baptista Figueiredo, 67, a retired army general whose policy of abertura—Portuguese for opening—has guided his country’s gradual political liberalization. But in a nation traditionally deprived of federal elections, even an indirect election seems welcome.

One reason for the widespread acceptance of the voting process is the almost certain victory of Tancredo de Almeida Neves, 74, a master political insider with

a paternal, middle-of-the-road image. A

career politician who leads the country’s main opposition group, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), Neves is supported by a broad alliance, ranging from members of Brazil’s outlawed Communist parties to bankers and industrialists. Trained as a lawyer in his native state of Minas Gerais, Ne-

ves turned to politics in 1934. Since then he has held virtually every significant public office, including his state’s governorship. The one exception: the Brazilian presidency.

Last week even that objective appeared within reach. A recent opinion poll showed that 69.5 per cent of Brazilians favored Neves to win the presidency, compared to only 18.7 per cent supporting Paulo Salim Maluf, 53, the official candidate of the militarybacked Social Democratic Party (PDS). Initially, Maluf, a brash and ambitious former governor of Säo Paulo state, held most of the traditional advantages. The PDS controls both houses of the Brazilian congress and a majority of the re-

gional legislatures—from whose ranks the electoral college is chosen. As well, the governing party has a 36-seat majority over the combined opposition parties in the college. But at least 60 PDS legislators pledged their votes to Neves—a testament to his skill in forging unlikely political alliances. Promising PDS defectors a policymaking role in a new government, Neves seemed assured of an easy victory on the eve of this week’s historic vote.

A year ago that outcome seemed impossible. Now, many Brazilians are counting on the election of Neves to inaugurate a period of national consensus in a country riven by social and economic inequalities. “Tancredo is the epitome of the Brazilian tradition—the great compromiser,” said Fernando Henrique Cardoso, an opposition senator. “There is such a profound national feeling that Tancredo should be president—it is almost as though, in a Catholic sense,he has been blessed by the people.” Added José Viera Andrade, 32, who sells coconut sweets on a Säo Paulo street corner: “From what we hear, life is going to get better in 1985. I like the look of Tancredo, and the way he speaks.”

That would be a welcome development for Brazilian consumers and creditors alike. The country has been in a deep recession since 1980, when years of steady economic growth and industrialization ended abruptly. Now, Brazil is trying to make repayments on a $100.2-billion (U.S.) foreign debt—the largest in the developing world. Inflation last year soared to an annual rate of 218 per cent and the combined unemployment and underemployment rate hit 40 per cent in urban centres.

To ensure that Brazil can afford to pay its debts, the International Monetary Fund has imposed a strict austerity program designed to lower government spending while improving the country’s balance of trade. The results so far have been encouraging. Fuelled by a 25-percent rise in exports, mainly to the United States, the Brazilian economy grew by an estimated four per cent in 1984. In addition, the gradual fall in internation-

al interest rates has lowered the cost of servicing Brazil’s foreign debt; payments in 1985 are expected to total about $10.5 billion compared to the $12 billion originally forecast by the Central Bank of Brazil. Declared one U.S. banker: “The turnaround in Brazil’s economic fortunes has been spectacular.”

Still, the euphoria is not shared by the majority of Brazilians. To them, the IMF’s prescribed regimen has only meant lower wages, higher unemployment rates and shortages of imported goods. Moreover, in some regions the austerity program has exacerbated what was already a chronically weak local economy. Many economists speak

of two separate nations within Brazil’s borders—an industrialized, affluent area in the central and southern zones and a deeply impoverished sector in the northeast. World Bank statistics show Brazil with the world’s most uneven income distribution—the richest 10 per cent of the population controls fully half the national income. While 86 million Brazilians eat less than the minimum diet recommended by the United Nations, a small but privileged elite can afford gourmet meals at lavish establishments such as Maxim’s, the Rio branch of the famed Paris night spot.

At the same time, luxury slimming resorts—where rooms cost $500 a week and up—cater to wealthy, weight-con-

scious businessmen, but the Roman Catholic Church estimates that at least one million people in the drought-ravaged northeast have died of malnutrition since 1979. About 32 million Brazilians live in the northeast, and the region’s infant mortality rate is 240 per 1,000 births—roughly three times the national average. Those who survive often remain permanently impaired. Said Joäo Alves Filho, governor of Sergipe state, one of nine states in the region: “We know that children who do not receive adequate food up to the age of 6 suffer permanent shrinkage of the brain and will never attain normal intelligence.”

Even in Säo Paulo, the industrial engine that powered Brazil’s vaunted “economic miracle” of the 1960s and early 1970s, poverty is widespread. A state-run child welfare agency, FEBEM, estimates that two million of the city’s 13 million inhabitants are needy or abandoned children under 18. Despite their numbers, there is room for only 80,000 destitute children in the bleak walled compound that FEBEM operates. Many of the rest haunt the city’s sooty, traffic-choked streets, begging from passing motorists, picking pockets in the crowded central business district or rummaging for food in the favelas, grimy shantytowns that ring the metropolis. Said Caïlda Asciutti, a FEBEM

staff worker: “The capitalist system here has thrown these boys out. It is just like 19th-century industrial England.” Indeed, the severe economic problems were at least partially responsible for the generals’ decision to yield power to a civilian government. The declared intentions of the conspirators who seized power in 1964 were to hold down inflation and Brazil’s mounting foreign debt—as well as to curb the socialist proposals of toppled president Joäo Goulart. Instead, both inflation and borrowing soared dramatically, while the military’s insistence on controlling the levers of economic power gave the country the most centralized economy

outside of the Soviet Bloc.

Directly or indirectly, the government is responsible for more than a third of all economic activity. One Brazilian magazine editor called the foreign debt “Brazil’s equivalent of the Falklands conflict”—a reference to Argentina’s unsuccessful 1982 war with Great Britain which toppled the Argentine military junta and restored an elected government. Added the editor: “Brazil’s debt has totally discredited this military government.”

Although not as repressive as military dictatorships in Argentina or Chile, Brazil’s record of human rights abuses includes 81 people killed and 45 “disappeared” during a crackdown on

left-wing guerrillas between 1966 and 1975. Another 10,000 people were exiled during the same period, according to Amnesty International. Shortly after taking office in 1979, however, Figueiredo promised “to make a full democracy of this country.” Since then, the ailing general—he spent last week confined to a Rio hospital after surgery to remove a slipped disc—has restored state and municipal elections, relaxed press censorship, ended the imprisonment of political dissidents and declared an amnesty for many citizens exiled or stripped of their civil rights by the junta. Explained a U.S. diplomatic observer: “To avoid confrontation, the Brazilian military has had to know when to give. They have held on as long as they feasibly can.”

As recently as three months ago, many Brazilians doubted that the army would return to the barracks so willingly. For one thing, the junta had steadfastly rejected popular calls for Diretas Já—direct elections now—fearing that a poll in which Brazilians cast their own ballots would almost certainly result in a left-wing candidate sweeping to power. Then, last October, when it became clear that the electoral college was likely to support Neves, whom the military mistrusted, rumors began circulating in Brasilia that the junta might attempt to alter the succession rules in an effort to ensure his defeat. Indeed, some senior military officers began talking openly about more overt moves to thwart the durable Neves. “Coups are not proclaimed, they are carried out,” declared José de Magalhäes Pinto, a PDS deputy who played a pivotal role in the historic 1964 coup. “And if I had the power in my

hands, I would carry one out now.”

But Neves devised ways to defuse the tensions between the old and new regimes. Using a nephew employed by Brazil’s taxation department as an intermediary, the opposition candidate negotiated terms for a peaceful transfer of power. To the military government’s planning minister, Antonio Delfim Netto, Neves offered assurances of continuity in economic policy, including a pledge not to adopt any radical measures aimed at redistributing income. Neves also endorsed the outgoing government’s strategy of seeking agreement with Brazil’s creditors to postpone repayment of $50 billion of the country’s debt until at least 1990.

To the government’s army minister, Gen. Walter Pires, Neves pledged not to sanction reprisals against members of past military regimes. According to some reports, the army officers were

concerned that a new ci-

vilian government in Brazil would follow the example of Argentine President Raúl Alfonsin,

57, by creating a national commission to investigate and prosecute former junta members for alleged torture and other abuses. Neves may also have privately agreed to forgo investigation of a series of simmering corruption scandals involving the Figueiredo government.

Neves’s concessions and his warm relations with conservative

groups—his running mate, José Sarney, was a former leader of the PDS—have prompted many Brazilians to question his commitment to liberal reform. “I would be selling an illusion if I said that Tancredo will change this country,” said left-wing labor leader Luis Ignacio da Silva, who refused to join the Neves coalition. “How can a candidate supported by 90 per cent of the bankers and businessmen help the workers?” An unemployed metalworker in Säo Paulo, Sebastiao Aguiar, 54, also expressed concern about the new president’s ties to the sistema—the network of financiers, industrialists and big landowners who control much of Brazilian life. Said Aguiar: “I support Tancredo, but I do not believe in him very much. He is making lots of promises.”

Despite those misgivings, most Brazilians last week clearly welcomed the end of the military era and looked for-

_ ward to Neves’s arrival

in the Planalto, Brasilia’s presidential palace. But with the army watching carefully, the new president will have to move quickly to begin fulfilling his country’s heady expectations for the future—particularly in the area of narrowing the gap between rich and poor. Otherwise, the tender roots of democracy that Brazil has tentatively put down may not long survive.

Richard House