Fresh Start for Brazil

December 30, 1992

Half the Brazilians in a public opinion poll conducted last summer could not identify Itamar Franco as their vice president. Shortly before he became acting president, on Oct. 2, only 18 percent thought he had the capacity to resolve the country's problems. By the time he was sworn in as president for the remaining two years of his predecessor's five-year term, Tuesday, that figure was up to 58 percent.

What Mr. Franco did in the interim was very little. It included no major speeches. Whether this former supporter of state intervention, who opposed President Fernando Collor de Mello's rapid privatization of the economy, will reverse, slow or fulfill those reforms is sheer conjecture. He will not dazzle the people as his predecessor did, but may convince them he is one of them.

Actually, this former obscure senator is an old politician but not typical. He has an intellectual bent, was never suspected of graft, writes erotica for relaxation and confesses to believing in ghosts -- some of which he now needs to exorcise.

Mr. Franco succeeds the glib, perfectly tailored young Collor who swept to victory in the first fair election in three decades, in 1989, on a promise to rid Brazil of corruption and bring it into the modern world. Mr. Collor scrapped the nuclear weapons program, took the first steps toward protecting the rain forest, froze bank accounts (disastrously) for 18 months and sold off state companies.

What came out slowly, and then in torrents, was that Mr. Collor had institutionalized graft with family and cronies on a scale not seen before, even in Brazil. And what he proved, to his own discomfort, was that the famous Brazilian tolerance of corruption had turned to anger. Mr. Collor was actually hounded out of office by mass rally after mass rally incensed at cynicism in high places.

Mr. Collor's resignation leaves the remaining process, and possibility of criminal prosecution for extortion and bribery, in doubt. But come what may judicially, Mr. Collor at 43 is history. Mr. Franco at 62 is president of a giant country of 150 million that, for all its inflation and disarray, is the world's ninth largest economy.

He is not so flamboyant as Mr. Collar, not so quick on any policy. But in two years, Brazil will hold another election. There is reason to think that the troops will stay in barracks and the one who attracts the most votes will win. Mr. Collor's ultimate service to his country was to be overthrown by a constitution.

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