WORLD

RAIN ON A PARADE

A CORRUPTION SCANDAL MAY DRIVE BRAZIL'S REFORMING PRESIDENT FROM OFFICE

SCOTT STEELE September 21 1992
WORLD

RAIN ON A PARADE

A CORRUPTION SCANDAL MAY DRIVE BRAZIL'S REFORMING PRESIDENT FROM OFFICE

SCOTT STEELE September 21 1992

RAIN ON A PARADE

A CORRUPTION SCANDAL MAY DRIVE BRAZIL'S REFORMING PRESIDENT FROM OFFICE

WORLD

Independence Day parades in Brazil usually draw large, festive crowds. But last week, on the 170th anniversary of their nation’s freedom from Portuguese rule, many Brazilians saw little reason to celebrate. Throughout Latin America’s largest country, thousands of citizens dressed in black in a symbol of defiance against the government, instead of traditional holiday garb in the national colors of green and yellow. And while rain cut attendance at parades on Sept. 7 in Rio de Janeiro and Säo Paulo, in the capital, Brasilia, where skies were clear, a dark cloud hung over the official ceremonies. Only 12,000 spectators showed up—less than half the number that turned out last year. The reason: public outrage at President Fernando Collor de Mello, who appears likely to face an impeachment trial on charges that he used Brazil’s highest office for personal profit. As the embattled 43-yearold leader watched a military parade from atop a reviewing stand, members of the crowd booed him. And in another part of the city, more than 5,000 protesters staged an antigovernment rally near the Brasilia television tower, with banners reading “Get Out, Collor!” Grassroots demonstrations against the president, who in 1989 was elected on an anticorruption platform in Brazil’s first fully democratic vote in 29 years, have been spreading dramatically in recent weeks. On Aug. 24, after a three-month investigation, a congressional committee released a damaging 200-page report charging that, over the past 2lh years, Collor, along with his family and friends, had received millions of dollars from an illegal influence-peddling ring. The president has vehemently denied any impropriety and he has refused to resign, but his chances of political survival seem to be fading. An opinion poll published last week in the Folha de Säo Paulo newspaper showed that fully 75 per cent of Brazilians now favor impeachment. “Collor was very immature to be president,” said Nair Soares Siqueira, a 76-yearold retired ship stewardess from Rio de Janeiro. “He lacked a notion of politics, but he was young and handsome and the women fell for him. He fooled a lot of people.”

When Collor was elected, Brazilians were hopeful for change. Hyperinflation, running at nearly 50 per cent a month, was ravaging the country’s economy. Collor quickly introduced a radical austerity program that more than halved that rate. But-in recent months inflation has again begun to rise. And a program to restructure a significant portion of Brazil’s staggering foreign debt of $136 billion has been jeopardized by the current political uncertainty. Coupled with the corruption scandal, such economic woes have helped to fuel public anger at Collor’s administration.

Congress launched its investigation after Collor’s 39-year-old brother, Pedro Mello, alleged in May that the president had profited from kickback deals involving government contracts organized by Paulo César Farias, Collor’s former campaign treasurer. Basing its findings on about 40,000 cancelled cheques, the panel estimated that payments to Collor, his political allies and family members totalled $26.5 million.

Despite the evidence, Collor has vowed to stay in office until his fiveyear term ends in 1995. In a nationally televised address six days after the report’s release, the president acknowledged that he had made “mistakes” by “trusting too much in people who proved not to be worthy of trust.” But he criticized congressional investigators and said: “I’m not the kind of man to resign. I fight, and I always throw myself into a fight.”

The scrappy young president, who jogs regularly and has a black belt in karate, is clearly facing the fight of his life. Charging that Collor had “lost all moral authority to govern the nation,”

Brazil’s bar and press associations jointly petitioned the Chamber of Deputies, the country’s lower house of congress, on Sept. 1 to open the impeachment process. A vote to authorize an impeachment trial is expected to be held later this month. Its passage requires a

two-thirds majority in the 503-member lower house. In that case, Collor would automatically be removed from office for 180 days—and replaced by Vice-President Itamar Franco— while he faces a formal trial by the 81 members of the Senate, the legislature’s upper house.

Last week, the president’s prospects looked increasingly grim. His congressional opponents appeared to have more than the 336 votes required to initiate impeachment proceedings. The newspaper Folha de Säo Paulo published a tally showing 360 deputies in favor of impeachment, 34 against and 109 undecided. Permanent removal of a president from office would require a similar two-thirds majority in the Senate, after a trial. And recent

surveys indicate that Collor’s opponents now have that level of support.

Still, he is actively lobbying members of congress for their support and is preparing a formal defence, which he must present to a skeptical nation next week. But the president’s political base is rapidly withering. Even Paulo Maluf, a longtime political ally who in 1984 was Collor’s best man at his wedding, has instructed the 40 members of his Social Democratic Party in the lower house to vote for impeachment. And last week, Jorge Bomhausen, Collor’s minister of government, stepped down amid the deepening crisis. Bomhausen was the second cabinet minister to resign since the scandal came to light.

The investigation is not confined to the president alone. His 28-year-old wife, Rosane, who has a fondness for designer outfits and

But the honeymoon may soon be over. Police have reported that at least $575,000 of the charity’s money was embezzled while Rosane Collor was at the helm. And in late August, a federal judge ordered her to return $29,000 in state money that she allegedly used to throw another extravagant party for a friend at the presidential palace. Collor, who denies that she broke any laws, is also named in 25 other legal proceedings. And she has become a popular target at antigovernment protests, where participants often chant: “Rosane, you ugly thing! You’re going to jail, too!”

expensive shopping trips abroad, is also under suspicion of misusing funds. Last year, the Brazilian media reported that as director of the Legion of Brazilian Assistance, the First Lady spent $19,200 of that national welfare charity’s money on a lavish birthday banquet for a friend and had diverted other funds to her family and associates. The reports provoked marital problems between husband and wife. Collor tried to force his spouse to resign her post, even removing his wedding ring in protest until she finally stepped down in August, 1991. They have since reconciled, and Rosane Collor recently said that they are enjoying the “best phase” of their marriage.

At last week’s independence celebrations in Brasi-

lia, Collor did not wear the green and yellow presidential sash as he did last year. In-

stead, he wore a funeral-

black suit, an odd choice of dress given that black has become a symbol of public disdain for his government. It was his third Independence Day as head of state, and many Brazilians openly predicted that it would also be his last.

SCOTT STEELE

with

DEAN GRABER

in Rio

de Janeiro