Political Tragedy in Brazil

August 25, 1992

The political jolt being applied to Brazil's fragile democracy is worse than if John F. Kennedy had been hauled before our House Judiciary Committee accused of taking bribes.

A popular, reformist young president in Brazil faces formal condemnation by a congressional panel tomorrow. Even if he staves off the impeachment that is likely to follow, Fernando Collor de Mello is already a political cripple, unable to push through his ambitious plans to pull Brazil out of its economic morass. If he is forced from office, there is no Lyndon Johnson in the Brazilian vice presidency to carry out a fallen president's program.

The Collor scandal is a political tragedy. Then the 41-year-old governor of a small state, Mr. Collor swept into office little more than two years ago as Brazil's first democratically elected president in three decades. He rode in from the underdeveloped northeast as the white knight who would batter old, backward institutions and create a "new Brazil." His first two years resembled John Kennedy's Thousand Days of Camelot, rich in initiatives to deal with Brazil's domestic woes.

Just as his economic program was starting to take effect, a seemingly petty quarrel between the president's younger brother and his campaign treasurer, a wealthy industrialist, slowly developed into a political earthquake. Pedro Collor accused Paulo Cesar Farias of diverting campaign funds to his personal use, and of taking bribes to exert his influence on President Collor. Gradually it became evident that a good chunk of that money was being passed on to President Collor in goods and services, if not actual cash. Even if that can't be proved in a trial, there seems ample evidence President Collor knew what was going on. Popular disgust reached a peak last weekend when it was disclosed that Mr. Farias and the president's personal secretary, who managed his private funds, benefited from inside information in a banking crisis.

Brazil's three-stage impeachment process is complicated. Mr. Collor is desperately casting about for enough votes to block it in Congress by shoveling out money for all sorts of pork barrel projects, exacerbating inflationary pressures in the process. But politicians agree that, even if he manages to stay in office, Mr. Collor's days as a political leader are over. His vice president has neither the strength nor the will to carry out the stringent changes needed to get the economy on its feet again. Whether or not Mr. Collor goes to trial, Brazilians will be the losers.

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