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Brazil Victory for the Great Conciliator

5 minute read
Anastasia Toufexis

In Rio de Janeiro and in Sao Paulo, ecstatic citizens showered paper from office windows, leaned on their car horns and set off firecrackers in the streets. In towns and villages across the vast reaches of the country, Brazilians danced and swayed to the tunes of countless samba bands. The occasion was the election last week of Tancredo Neves as the nation’s first civilian President after 21 years of military rule. Neves, 74, a lawyer and the former governor of Minas Gerais state, quickly promised reform: “I come to make urgent and courageous political, social and economic changes indispensable to the well-being of the people.” A hastily erected billboard in the capital of Brasilia delivered the message more succinctly: GOOD MORNING, DEMOCRACY.

The greeting was not entirely accurate: Brazil’s 131 million people had no direct voice in Neves’ selection. Both the military, which had installed five army generals as President since a 1964 coup, and the departing President, Joao Figueiredo, insisted that the new leader be chosen by a 686-member electoral college made up of the Chamber of Deputies, the Senate and delegates from each of Brazil’s 23 states. Despite that, Neves, the nominee of the opposition Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, tallied 480 votes to 180 for the military-backed candidate of the ruling Democratic Social Party, Paulo Salin Maluf, 53, a conservative, wealthy businessman. Pledged Neves: “This was the last indirect election of the country.”

The Brazilian constitution provides for a six-year presidential term, but Neves has indicated that he will support direct elections for 1988. After the balloting, he called for a constituent assembly to redraft the constitution to permit a popular vote. Despite the limited election, it seems clear that Neves, who will take office on March 15, is a popular choice. A poll published Friday in O Globo, an influential Rio newspaper, showed that 66.6% of some 2,100 voters questioned in eleven state capitals said they had confidence in him.

A slight, balding man with a melancholy mien, Neves confesses that “the hope of the Brazilian people is so great it almost crushes me.” In his first press conference the President-elect vowed that “the first, the most important and the most absolute of all the priorities of my government” would be to solve the economic problems of Brazil’s northeast. This is the most backward region of the country; its inhabitants are so poor that they are known as “the afflicted ones.” A recurrent theme of the press conference was inflation, which is now increasing at an annual rate of about 230%. Neves said that cuts in public spending are vital, but vowed “not to commit the gross mistake of using recession as a deflationary instrument. On the contrary, we will promote the resumption of growth.”

Unfortunately, Brazil’s huge foreign debt of approximately $100 billion will continue to inhibit such expansion. Although the country had a trade surplus of $13 billion last year, $10 billion of that amount had to be earmarked as the annual interest due on the debt. Nonetheless Neves said that he is opposed to the suggestion that Brazil declare a moratorium on its international debts repayments. Said he: “We must pay what we owe. It is a debt of honor for the nation.”

One of Neves’ key economic advisers is Celso Furtado, a liberal economist who was forced into exile by the military. To some, Furtado’s presence heralds the advent of a radical economic policy. But that would be out of character for the moderate Neves. Since his election to the city council of Sao Joao del Rei in Minas Gerais at age 23, he has followed a cautious path as congressman, Justice Minister, Interior Minister, senator, Prime Minister and governor. “I have never made a friend from whom I could not separate and I have never made an enemy that I could not approach,” he says. Neves’ skill as the Great Conciliator, as he is called, helped him weave the coalition of left, center and right that assured his election.

The new leader’s diplomatic skills will be on view in Washington later this month when he meets with President Reagan. An inevitable topic of discussion: U.S. import limits on Brazilian steel, textiles and shoes. The Reagan Administration, which sees Neves’ election as a vindication of its policy of using friendly pressure to bring about change in authoritarian governments, will hear pleas for easier Brazilian access to U.S. markets. Whatever ensues in those discussions, Vice President George Bush will probably attend Neves’ inauguration.

The Brazilian military will continue to exercise influence over some areas of government, including the armaments industry. Unlike his neighbor Argentine President Raul Alfonsin, Neves has indicated that he will not press for investigations of corruption and human rights abuses that occurred while the military was in power. Said the President-elect after his victory: “The nation is not the past but the future, which we will build with the present.” In fact, the military tacitly acceded to Neves’ election several months ago. Outgoing President Figueiredo had originally intended to handpick his successor but then wavered. When the unpopular Maluf emerged with the nomination of the ruling Democratic Social Party, key party members deserted and backed Opposition Candidate Neves.

The President-elect failed to win the distinctive seal of approval of one well-known Brazilian: Jose Alves de Moura, an eccentric publicity seeker known as the Kisser, whose aim in life is to buss visiting celebrities, from Pope John Paul II to Frank Sinatra. De Moura turned up in the Chamber of Deputies as Neves was addressing the electoral college. Guards grabbed De Moura and ejected him from the chamber before he could get close enough to plant a kiss on Brazil’s man of the year.

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