Power and patronage turn into headache in Brazil

Rise of obscure lawmaker to influential position is problem for president

June 19, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BRASILIA, Brazil - Nepotism is good. Homosexuality is bad. Getting pregnant through rape is a "horrible accident."

Severino Cavalcanti, the author of these sentiments, is on a roll. When he was an obscure congressman, such public pronouncements might have earned him a passing sneer in a political column. Now that he's one of Brazil's most powerful men, Cavalcanti's controversial declarations have landed him on the front pages of newspapers across the country.

The lawmaker has commanded the spotlight since February, when he stunned just about everyone in Brazil by getting elected president of the National Congress.

His supporters in Congress rejoiced: He was one of their own, a man who might do them a few favors - such as giving them a pay raise, one of his chief promises when he campaigned for the leadership. However, many in Brazil were mortified.

Depending on who is talking, Cavalcanti is either a champion of legislative independence or a career politician keen to advance the interests of career politicians. He's a paragon of conservative moral virtue, shaped by his devout Catholicism, or a buffoonish symbol of the retrograde forces holding Brazil back.

Everyone, however, agrees on one thing: Just a few months into his new office, Cavalcanti has become a major headache for the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Soon after his election, the 74-year-old legislator from Brazil's depressed northeast forced the government to back down on a tax increase affecting mostly professionals and farmers.

He demanded greater congressional control over the federal budget. He has threatened to challenge Lula's constitutionally allowed executive decrees.

"Severino is a national leader now," said Luciano Dias, a political consultant in Brasilia who has worked with Cavalcanti's Progressive Party. "He was an obscure deputy from a backwater state. Now he's the man who's the anti-Lula."

As president of Congress, Cavalcanti wields power similar to that of the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, able to decide whether or when legislation comes to a vote. Government-urged reforms of the central bank, interest rates and trade unions are now at risk of being diluted, delayed or killed, analysts say - setbacks that could complicate Lula's chances for re-election next year.

Many here say that Lula has only himself to blame. Normally, the leader of Congress comes from the same party as the president, but Lula chose as his candidate a left-wing deputy from his Workers' Party, or PT, who lacked strong relationships with fellow legislators.

Already feeling slighted by the government's allegedly high-handed ways in doling out appointments and money, backbenchers revolted, electing Cavalcanti by a landslide in a humiliating defeat for a ruling party in Brazil. As his colleagues' standard-bearer, Cavalcanti has made increasing Congress' authority and its power of patronage his battle cry.

Observers say Cavalcanti misjudged when he demanded that Lula name a Progressive Party member to a ministerial post or face the party's withdrawal from the government's coalition in Congress. Lula called his bluff. In the end, Cavalcanti backpedaled, and the Progressive Party remained in the coalition.

Cavalcanti came to Congress in 1995 after spending 28 years in the assembly of his home state, Pernambuco. He gained a reputation for championing small-business owners and for his opposition to abortion.

Social activists are appalled at many of Cavalcanti's stands on social issues. He has made derogatory comments about gays and lesbians; he reportedly once asked a gay activist in public about his sexual practices. Feminist groups were flabbergasted when Cavalcanti made his rape comment and advised impregnated victims to have their babies and raise them "with affection and love."

"For us, rape is a crime and not an accident," said Simone Diniz, founder of a women's health organization in Sao Paolo.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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