Brazil's Real Miracle

October 08, 1994

Brazilian voters have had enough excitement for one decade. They just elected Fernando Henrique Cardoso president on the strength of the currency reform he drafted while finance minister, which since July 1 has stopped lunatic inflation dead.

Monday's was the second election in a row in which Brazilians chose a free market economic reformer over the siren songs of a charismatic socialist named Lula. The first president, chosen in 1989, proved a fraud and a thief. But Mr. Cardoso, a 63-year-old professor of sociology who was exiled as a dangerous leftist by the military dictatorship of the 1960s, looks like the real thing.

Five years ago the glib-talking, wealthy Fernando Collar de Mello, promising to privatize the statist economy, squeaked through over Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva in the first free election in three decades. Despite subsequent cabinet goings-on worthy of a singles bar, the country believed in the young free enterpriser. Then a scandal launched by a jealous brother in 1992 exploded into evidence of graft and bribes in the millions. He resigned that year during impeachment proceedings.

But Brazil's seemingly fragile democracy proved robust. The obscure vice president, Itamar Franco, ascended to the top and will serve out the term. He made Mr. Cardoso, a senator and author of 21 books on Latin American development, his foreign minister and then finance minister. When persona non grata in Brazil he had been a professor in such universities as the Sorbonne in Paris, Cambridge in England and Stanford in California. President Franco bet that he knew something.

Back in May, Mr. Silva led Mr. Cardoso in the polls by 26 percent. But the Real Plan, named for the new currency -- the real -- that Mr. Cardoso introduced to replace the battered cruzeiro, went into effect July 1. This election turned into a referendum on that reform. Mr. Cardoso and his reform were vindicated by an electorate in which 16-year-olds were given the vote and anyone 18 or over was required to vote.

Mr. Cardoso calls himself a Social Democrat, but won with conservative coalition support. He promises a sound currency in which businesses and their workers can flourish. That offers the best chance the unemployed have to get out of poverty. They know it. Just before the election, he warned that he is not a miracle worker. Brazilians suspect he is, and want more. So should the hemisphere.

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