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Brazilians Slowly Adjust to President’s Style

February 28, 1995

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) _ When he was finance minister last year, Fenrnando Henrique Cardoso wowed Brazilians by taming a raging inflation. They rewarded him by electing him president, but weeks into his tenure, the honeymoon is over.

Relying on his powers of persuasion, Cardoso promised to curb an inflation rate that had exploded to a monthly 50 percent without gimmicks.

``For months, I held inflation in check just with my throat,″ Cardoso said of the many times he delivered his message.

Sure enough, prices didn’t explode, and he had time to prepare an economic plan that cut inflation to 1 percent to 2 percent a month.

Brazilians applauded the feat and elected the 63-year-old Cardoso president on the first ballot in October. But since his Jan. 1 inauguration, critics say, the president has been too much throat and not enough action.

A recent opinion poll reflected that disenchantment: Only 36 percent of people polled by Dataholfa in late January considered his government good or excellent, compared with 70 percent a month earlier.

After the inauguration, people waited for Cardoso to do something big. But weeks passed and he just plodded along, quietly negotiating with the 584-member Congress for support for privatization plans _ which were still being worked out.

Brazilians got impatient.

``What we want are concrete measures to improve the situation of the country,″ said Vicente Paulo da Silva, president of the Central Workers Union, Brazil’s largest labor association.

When Cardoso finally did take steps, they all seemed to be wrong.

First, he vetoed a congressional bill that would have raised the monthly minimum wage from $84 to $120. At the same time, legislators doubled their own salaries and gave pay raises to Cabinet ministers, federal judges _ and Cardoso, who now makes about $10,000 a month.

Cardoso called the veto justified. The raise would cause a $6 billion deficit in the social security system, he said, and inflation would return.

He promised that he and his Cabinet would give up 25 percent of their salaries until the minimum wage went up. Still, critics had a field day.

Cardoso then approved amnesty for Sen. Humberto Lucena, who was expelled from the Senate for using the government printing press to print 130,000 calendars with his photo and mailing them to constituents at taxpayer expense.

Cardoso explained that he wanted to avoid needless friction with Congress, since he needed their support for reforms. The explanation didn’t sit well.

Opponents also cite his support by big business and political holdovers from the 1964-85 military regime. Cardoso, though personally above reproach, seemed willing to ally himself with the devil, they said.

Cardoso, a former sociology professor and senator, shrugs off the criticism:

``I never was afraid of momentary unpopularity, because I’m not a demagogue,″ he said. ``Brazil is tired of posturing. We will tell things as they are, and (the people) choose.″

On Thursday, Cardoso finally sent a first batch of constitutional reforms to Congress that would open mining, petroleum, energy and other sectors of the economy to private and foreign investors.

More proposals are on the way, including changes in social security and tax reform. All must be approved by three-fifths of both houses of Congress.

It won’t be easy. Cardoso’s success in steering them through passage will be his government’s true test.

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