The Right Kind of Coup

October 02, 1992

The impeachment of Fernando Collor de Mello for allegedly taking bribes and kickbacks as president of Brazil is a dismaying rebuke to a fragile democracy's choice. But it is even more notable for what did not happen: The army did not march. The president did not suspend the congress. Supporters and opponents did not clash in the street.

Democracy emerges not weak but strong. The news is not that Brazilian corruption exists but that toleration of it is diminishing. What is earth-shaking is not that a president is removed in the world's sixth most populous country, but that the removal proceeds by constitutional means.

The street had a role. Millions of Brazilians have been demonstrating for impeachment since the president's brother, Pedro Collor, publicly accused the president's crony, Paulo Cesar Farias, of peddling influence for gain. Congressional investigations through the summer amplified the charges. Lawyers and press associations sought impeachment. The lower house voted 441 to 38, Tuesday, to impeach. The president, who has neither resigned nor obstructed the process, faces trial before the Senate, which could remove him from office.

This is all progressing at a measured speed comparing favorably with the slow agony by which Washington conducts crises of state. Meanwhile, President Collor de Mello is expected to be suspended from office for 180 days during which the drama will be brought to a conclusion.

Part of this national tragedy is that the 43-year old president seemed to be what Brazil needed. He is from a wealthy political family connected to the 1964-85 military regime. As a well-born insider, he ran a backwoods media empire and became a rural state governor. But in 1987 he started running for president as a self-proclaimed outsider and in 1989 became the first popularly elected president in 29 years on a campaign to rid the country of corruption, statism and protectionism.

His economic policies, after a chaotic start, opened up Brazil to growth. He reduced tariffs and sold off state companies. He was reaching agreement with international lenders to recycle Brazil's crushing foreign debt. He scrapped the nuclear weapons program and began efforts to save the Amazon rain forest and its people.

But this has not prevented recession and inflation. The economic battle is not won. Vice president Itamar Franco, who will become acting president, is part of the old order added to the Collor ticket for balance and not consulted since. Now he stands in for a chief whose policies he opposed, with the man and not the policies discredited. The outside world wants no backsliding toward statism. The Brazilian people want integrity in government.

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