'The Indiana Jones of Latin America' Faces His Personal Temple of Doom


October 11, 1992|By JOHN M. McCLINTOCK

After he helped commit Britain's "Great Train Robbery" in 1963, Ronald Biggs was on the lam. He had roughly a half million dollars as his share of the loot, but where could he go?

Why Brazil, of course.

As in many other Latin American countries, Brazilian law was often proportionate to the size of one's bank account.

Such was the moral ethos of Brazil that Mr. Biggs felt at home. He had arrived with a suitcase full of money about the time an enraged senator by the name of Arnon de Mello tried to end a political debate by shooting his opponent. (The bullet missed but struck another man.)

The rich senator, the father of the recently impeached President Fernando Collor de Mello, was never charged. After all, this was Brazil, and Mr. Biggs and Mr. de Mello shared the same wink of impunity.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, Brazil's economy was booming, and many people had the same tolerance of corruption as did New Yorkers of Tammany Hall. So long as the trains ran on time who cares if there is a little stealing, a little shooting?

"I may steal, but I get things done," was the motto of a popular politician in Sao Paulo state.

But Brazil, along with the rest of Latin America, hit the wall in the world recession of the late 1980s. By the end of the decade, the crooked things that could be done with impunity were becoming less and less acceptable.

The economy was dead in the water, unable to grow its way out of inflation, and it was being strangled by a $104 billion debt, the Third World's highest. How could a modest politician explain his millions to the disgruntled citizenry?

With his bankroll considerably diminished, the Great Train Robber, Mr. Biggs, was forced to seek outside income. On the theory that it takes one to know one, the retired thief eventually became the star of advertisements for a Brazilian security company and gave radio tips to tourists on how to avoid being robbed by thousands of dispossessed workers.

The military men who had run the country since 1964 decided the economic potato was too hot to handle. People were becoming angry. But what to do?

Let's give the potato to the people, they said. Let's try democracy.

The potato landed in the lap of Senator de Mello's son, Fernando Collor de Mello, the governor of a small state with no major backing from the big political parties. He was an outsider, a movie-star-handsome heir to one of Brazil's media fortunes.

In one of the more amazing election victories in Brazilian history, Mr. Collor won the presidency in 1989, vowing to jail "the maharajahs," the corrupt bureaucrats, politicians and industrialists who had made a mockery of the political system.

The country had fallen in love. At long last, the White Knight was here.

The 43-year-old Mr. Collor was an MGM ideal of what Ross Perot should have been. Not some whiny, diminutive Texan but a tall, virile black belt in karate, a deeply tanned flier of sleek airplanes, a fearless captain of fast boats, given to jogging in T-shirts emblazoned with slogans that dealt with his mission to rid the country of its sleazy corruptors.

The Hollywood persona was provided semi-official credence when President Bush described Mr. Collor as the Indiana Jones of Latin America. A crack of the whip and the Brazilian Temple of Doom would be made safe for American investors.

Unfortunately, Indiana Jones fell off a cliff.

Earlier this month the lower house of the Brazilian legislature impeached the young president, placing him in suspended animation for a trial by the Senate on charges that he stole more than $9 million.

The country was like a woman scorned. It felt it had been seduced by a young president who, it turned out, was no better than the snakes he'd sworn to drive from the Temple of Doom.

This was the upright president who, upon disovering that his young second wife had used a federal charity to line the pockets of her friends and relatives, called a press conference to remove his wedding ring.

This was a man who early in his administration had frozen all bank accounts but never told his relatives in advance so that they could withdraw their funds. They still haven't forgiven him.

In short, Mr. Collor gave every evidence of being Mr. Clean, incorruptible, a can-do kind of guy, who would deliver on Brazil's long-held pretension of becoming a world power.

With Indy at the helm, the "sleeping giant," occupying nearly half the South American continent, would awaken. Its economy, the eighth or ninth largest in the world, was poised to enter the exclusive club of the seven big developed nations.

The Bush administration, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank couldn't take their eyes off this young whippersnapper. The Skull and Bones of economic correctness was readying the ceremonial room to initiate a new member.

Still, there were signs that perhaps the miracle in the making was not a Steven Spielberg extravaganza but "Days of Our Lives."

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