It's 1990. Brazil's new president says he has just one bullet to slay the tiger of inflationBy John Ryle • February 1990 • Sunday Times, London ("There's an Awful Lot of Collor in Brazil") • Revised and expanded with afterword • Posted 2016 • 6,172 words
The ranch-style house stands on the shore of a lake in the heart of the city, half-hidden behind white-painted walls and mahogany gates. Inside the high-walled compound a gleaming helicopter squats expectantly on a newly-levelled landing pad. On one side of the three-acre enclosure a mountainous rockery rises to roof level, covered in spiky bromeliads and tropical shrubs. In the forecourt of the house a fountain is playing, adorned with newly-installed stone carvings of heraldic beasts. Beyond the fountain is the front door of the house, deep-set and studded with ornate metal rivets.
It’s a Sunday morning in early September and the air shimmers in the heat. Towards midday the front door opens and a figure in a white track suit strides out of the house, his dark hair slicked back. He is flanked by similarly track-suited bodyguards, one male, one female. Beyond the wooden gates a crowd has gathered; two children are dancing the lambada in the dust; TV cameras are ready to roll. The gates are flung open; the man in the track suit glad-hands the crowd, poses briefly for photographs, signs a dozen autographs and raises both hands in a victory salute. Then he jumps into the driving seat of a white estate car and heads off into the eucalyptus trees.
It could be Beverly Hills, with fans waiting for a glimpse of a film star or musician, but this is Brasília, the buttoned-down capital of Brazil, and the man in the white track suit and slicked-back hair is not a showbiz celebrity, but a politician, Fernando Affonso Collor de Mello, the recently-elected forty-one year-old President of the world’s fifth largest country, on his Sunday morning run.
The price of beans
Last year Collor was the victor–by a whisker–in Brazil’s first democratic election in three decades. As presidential candidate he was backed by some of the most powerful men in the country. But it was the poor of Brazil who voted him into office, putting their faith in Collor’s youth and style, and in his promise to make a break with the desperate stagnation and corruption of the previous government, whose legacy was a hundred billion dollar foreign debt, a huge public sector deficit and inflation approaching a hard-to-believe 2,000 per cent a year.
“The country,” wrote a columnist shortly before the election, “has run out of gas.”
Now, with no warning, Collor has given the huge engine of the Brazilian economy a violent shove. A populist while on the campaign trail, now that he is in power he talks the language of social democracy and practises a draconian kind of Thatcherism.
“I have just one bullet,” he announced after his election, “to kill the tiger of inflation.”
The day after his inauguration last March, Collor pulled the trigger. His 36-year old Finance Minister, Zélia Cardoso de Mello, a hitherto unknown professor of economics from the University of São Paulo, declared that all bank accounts in the country—current and savings accounts alike—would be frozen for eighteen months. The currency was revalued at a stroke; but Brazilians woke up with a lot less of it.
“He’s a thief,” the taxi-driver tells you as you drive back from the President’s house.
“Puxa,” agrees the barman at the hotel. “Son of a whore…”
“But we have to support him now,” concludes the waiter. “He’s our only hope of getting our money back.”
Collor’s ambitions as President go a lot further than stabilizing the economy. When I spoke to him the following week in Brasília he stressed his determination to halt the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, improve Brazil’s dismal record in human rights, and make his enormous country—half the land mass of South America—a part of the First World. You can see why he might be in a hurry, even first thing on Sunday morning.
Meanwhile, many of those who voted for him are wondering how they are going to feed their families in the months ahead. These are people to whom the price of beans is of more pressing concern than, say, economic competition with Korea. Collor’s economic measures have indeed lowered inflation dramatically–to 10 or 11 per cent a month, a mere 250 per cent a year. But they have also brought the country to the threshold of recession. The urban working-class and lower middle class, with their savings frozen and their salaries no longer linked to the inflation rate, are beginning to lose patience. Layoffs in the country’s main industries and a loss of real buying power on the part of workers who still have jobs have led trade union leaders to call for a general strike.
A combination of these stringent economic measures and the Gulf Crisis has, however, produced something Brazilians have seldom seen before: their new currency rising in value against the dollar. This is President Collor’s dream: a hard currency, and Brazil as a first-world country.
For “Brazilians” here one should read “middle to upper-middle class Brazilians”—most Brazilians have never seen a dollar bill. But theirs is a country where the black market value of foreign currencies and the interest rate on the overnight investment market is broadcast every night on the nine o’clock news. Thanks to the bitter experience of hyperinflation, even poor Brazilians have a far more intense interest and a more sophisticated understanding of economics than most citizens of first world countries. It was to learn more about the prospects of improvement in the state of the country, and about President Collor’s dream of Brazil as a first-world super-power that I had come to interview him.
The house of my little godmother
The Collor family house lies on the outskirts of Brasília, in an exclusive conclave on the edge of the crescent-shaped artificial lake round which the city was built in the 1950s and 1960s. This was the era of the last economic miracle, when Brazil was hailed, in an oft-repeated phrase of the time, as the country of the future. Years of political repression under military rule in the 1960s and 1970s and economic stagnation in the 1980s have corroded this dream of modernity, but the sweeping freeways and immaculately ordered buildings of the capital still have an air of confidence and power.
After the chaos of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo—their mad traffic, their gang wars, their daily murders and kidnappings, their poverty and pollution—after this megalopolitan nightmare, Brasília offers a welcome vision of order, with just a hint of totalitarianism, a touch of brave new world in the tropics. Brazil is a country that has the words “Ordem e progresso” (order and progress), inscribed on the national flag. And Brasília is a city where it is possible to believe, at least for a moment, in economic plans, in programmes for a new Brazil.
Brasília was where Collor grew up. Born in Rio, he moved here when his father became a senator. Collor père was an unreconstructed machão from the poor northeastern state of Alagoas: on one occasion he shot and killed a man on the floor of the Senate, yet contrived, by invoking senatorial privilege, to retain both his seat and his liberty. Young Collor, the future free-market visionary, failed his economics courses at the University of Brasília and scraped a degree only by transferring to the University of Alagoas.
This did not prevent him becoming, in rapid succession, mayor of Maceió, the state capital (a post for which he was nominated by his father), and then State Governor. Pictures of him from this era show a floppy-haired, bell-bottomed figure, a Carnaby Street leftover. Stylewise, Collor is a child of the sixties, the kind of person, according to his Press Secretary, who not only knows the title of every song on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but can tell you the track number of each of them as well.
There are no street names in Brasília, only letters and numbers: SM LN T10 cj10 t1 is the President’s address, from where he sets out on his Sunday morning jog. Decoded, this signifies Lot 10, Division 10 in the North Lake Mansion Sector. But Collor has given his house a cosier name, wrought kitschily in rustic iron over the mahogany gates and now known all over Brazil. “Casa Da Dinda”, it is called, “House of My Little Godmother”.
The house looks south, across the Lake, towards a very different kind of building, the Palace of the High Plains, a soaring, marble-halled masterpiece of tropical modernism designed by the communist architect of Brasília, Oscar Niemayer. This is where the President spends his working days. A little way away is the official Presidential residence, the Palace of the Dawn, another of Niemayer’s modernist edifices. But the Palace of the Dawn has problems with kitchen ventilation; and the President’s 25-year old wife, Rosane, refuses to live there. She says she already knows what it’s like to live in a palace—from the time her husband was a Governor back in Maceió. So the Collors, spurning Niemayer’s visionary architecture, have retained their Hollywood-style gingerbread house across the water; and the President commutes to work by helicopter.
Perhaps in an attempt to distract his countrymen from the rigours of his economic reforms the President has maintained a constant parade of Sunday events at the Casa Da Dinda, featuring himself as a kind of Brazilian Captain Marvel. It’s not just jogging in the eucalyptus grove. Waterskiing and piloting fighter planes are part of his repertoire too. As the country’s first democratically-elected President in thirty years, he has not wasted the opportunity to consolidate the youthful, sportif image that helped him elbow aside the veterans of Brazilian politics in his rapid ascent to power. Many of the leading officials in the new government are still in their 30s, some are even younger; and few of them have held high office before. The President of the Central Bank, a key figure in the economic reforms, is Turkish-born, American-trained and arrived in Brazil only in the 1970s.
It’s a cabinet from Central Casting: Zélia, the Finance Minister, an Ingrid Bergman lookalike, chic in tailored linen suits, her love-life the subject of intense journalistic speculation; the handsome Zico, Brazil’s second most famous footballer after Pelé, the Secretary of Sport; and Collor himself, brown-eyed and aquiline, a trifle weak-chinned, but obsessively well-dressed, the owner of a hundred suits and a huge collection of gold cuff-links—a far cry now from the mop-top mayor of Maceió.
Collor’s Camelot represents a striking departure from the style of the last Brazilian President, José Sarney, a vacillating, walrus-moustached poetaster who gained little notice outside Brazil during his five-year term. A legatee of the generals who controlled the country from 1964 until the 1980s, Sarney created an economic and political muddle, chopping and changing his political alliances, fiddling while the Amazon burned.
In a skilful electoral campaign last year Collor presented himself as a new breed of politician, breaking with the past, rejecting everything Sarney stood for, though in fact he springs from much the same background as Sarney does—a landowning northeastern family allied by marriage with a wealthy lineage from Rio de Janeiro.
Alagoas, the Collors’ power-base, is one of Brazil’s smallest and poorest states; Collor’s family, however, is not poor at all. The family owns, for example, the local TV station. They are franchise-holders of Globo, Brazil’s biggest TV network, which reaches three-quarters of the population of the country. Roberto Marinho, the powerful owner of Globo, was one of Collor’s earliest backers. In a country where nearly a quarter of the population is illiterate, Collor’s facility on television was one of the keys to his electoral success. (As President, he has promised to eradicate illiteracy.) It is said—though Collor denies the story—that he got the idea of running for President from reading The Selling of the President 1968, Joe McGinnis’s classic account of Nixon’s manipulative use of television coverage in his second election campaign.
Open secrets, dirty tricks
Collor’s rival in the election came from another part of the social spectrum altogether. Luis Inácio da Silva, known as Lula, is the long-time leader of the PT, the Partido dos Trabalhadores, the Worker’s Party. A thick-set, bearded union leader and former metal-worker, idolised by left-wing intellectuals and supported by the progressista wing of the Catholic church, Lula was the candidate of a broad left coalition of socialist and communist parties. And he very nearly won. It says something about the deep malaise of Brazil, the social injustice, the chasm between rich and poor, that in 1989, the year of the collapse of socialist regimes in Europe, a leftist candidate should have got so close to winning. The dirt poor of Brazil, however, the descamisados—shirtless ones—as the President calls them, voted, in the main, for Collor, for the candidate of the right. Given a choice between a populist and a man of the people, they chose the populist, the saviour, the man on horseback.
Collor was helped by at least one dirty trick. Shortly before the vote, his brother, who masterminded his campaign, paid Lula’s former mistress to appear on television and announce that Lula had tried to make her to abort the child she had by him fifteen years before. Lula denied it, but the incident was an embarrassment for his supporters in the Church. Collor’s lead was also boosted by extracts from his televised debates with Lula, heavily edited in his favour, which were broadcast on Globo’s main news programme two days before the vote.
If either candidate had something to hide, it was probably Collor rather than Lula. Known in his student days, it is said, as Fernandinho do Pó—Little Ferdinand of the Powder—he ran with a fast crowd in Brasília. There are whispers of financial corruption; gossip about the role of his friend from youth, Paulo Otávio de Oliveira, a property developer and politician in Brasília. Collor, however, seems to be on good terms with his former wife, the mother of his two children. And in the election he was a Teflon candidate: none of the dirt stuck.
It was only late in the game that the majority of the Brazilian rich and super-rich, fearing a left-wing victory, abandoned the other candidates of the right and rallied round Collor. The long struggle of the Left against the military dictatorship thus culminated in a victory for the radical right. In the eyes of the hard left in Brazil Collor is now simply carrying out the hidden agenda of the landowners and industrialists.
But Collor’s message to the rich is that a change is necessary to make the country safe for capitalism. An end to the things that made many of them rich in the first place: cartels, price-fixing, protectionism, tariff barriers, a maze of subsidies and state patronage, corrupt parastatals and a vast captive market. Profit margins on manufactured goods in Brazil are the highest in the world. Collor has said that they must come down, that entrepreneurs must accept financial risk, and acknowledge that wealth entails social responsibility. So far, though, it does not seem to be the wealthy who have suffered from his reforms. Prices have continued to rise. Brazilian private banks have just announced record profits.
“The rich,” says the bartender at my hotel, “have got away with it again. The way they always do.”
An interview with the President
On Saturday night the week I arrive in Brazil the President and his wife are guests of honour at the Brasília Tenis Clube. There is a concert featuring the singer Simone, one of the few prominent Brazilian performing artists to support Collor in the election. From his table near the stage he calls out “Amazonia! Amazonia!”. In response to his request Simone begins, nervously, to sing her recent hit “Louvor A Chico Mendes”, a samba elegy for the Brazilian rubber-tapper who was murdered last year in Xapurí, in the remote state of Acre in Amazonia, at the behest of land-owners opposed to his proposal for sustainable forest reserves.
“A brave Brazilian…” she sings
Who brought to the attention of the world
The wickedness and tyranny
Of the felling and burning,
Showing us Amazonia in agony.
Now Amazonia cries out in sorrow
The cry is heard from New York to Xapurí…
Will there be change at last
Simone’s performance is greeted with rapturous applause by the President’s entourage and the largely upper-middle class audience at the Tenis Clube. It seems that ecological awareness has finally become fashionable in Brazil. The president can take some of the credit for this.
Will there be change in Amazonia?
When I meet President Collor the following Monday in his office in the Presidential palace, this is the first question I put to him.
“Will there really be change in Amazonia?” I ask. “Can we be sure that Chico Mendes’ death was not in vain?”
Through the window in the Presidential office we can see the high plains of Central Brazil, long ago deforested in the march of settlers towards the Amazon. On the president’s desk are plaster statuettes of St Francis and the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of the Conception, Brazil’s patron saint, which he is said to kiss every morning. On a table nearby, scale models of an Osório tank, a rocket launcher, and the planes he has flown in as President: an F-5, a CB 123, and a Tucano, a Brazilian-built trainer aircraft that is also used by the British Royal Air Force. President Collor is wearing a blue suit and a yellow tie, echoing the blue and gold in the national flag that hangs by his desk—the flag that bears the Positivist slogan of the Brazilian Republic, Ordem e Progresso—Order and Progress.
He is ready for my question about the environment. He is on record as saying he is proud of having broken with the nationalist xenophobia of previous Brazilian regimes, which tended to regard global concern about environmental destruction as an attempt on the part of the US and Europe to inhibit the economic development of a potential rival. One of his first acts was to appoint Brazil’s best-known ecologist, José Lutzenberger, to the post of Environment Secretary. Together they made a well-publicised trip to the far north of the country, where gold-miners have been invading the territory of the Yanomami Indians. There they watched the army dynamiting illicit landing strips. (It made good television; but there are still an estimated 2,000 miners in Yanomami territory.)
The President considers my question about the death of Chico Mendes. “There’s no guarantee that such a thing as the killing of Chico Mendes could not happen again,” he says in his clear, unaccented Portuguese..
“The government’s position is clear. I and you are both victims. Our generation is the victim. Our forebears have a lot to answer for—and not just in Brazil. What right did they have to leave us a planet destroyed like this?
“Nevertheless,” he says, “we must not stand by. On the contrary. We must cry out, we must alert ourselves, we must be in the vanguard of the struggle to conserve our planet. And that is exactly what we are doing. The commitment I have made to the environment is a commitment to life. To life itself.”
He pauses, rhetorically.
“I want Brazil to be recognised internationally,” says Collor, “as the country that has made the big turnaround in the area of environmental preservation.
He would welcome foreign capital for conservation projects, he says. There is already large-scale reforestation underway, and the possibility of swapping part of Brazil’s external debt for conservation projects should not be excluded.
“This is what I think we should do,” the President says. “We should not reproach one another, one country blaming Brazil, Brazil blaming another country. This leads to nothing. This is not interesting, it’s sterile, it’s not rational.”
“We must all sit down together, recognizing the fact that our planet is being devastated and say: ‘Right, how can we help each other?’”
The roots of violence in Brazil
It all sounds good. I mention to President Collor that I had previously spoken to his newly-appointed Secretary for Science and Technology, José Goldemberg, a veteran nuclear physicist widely respected for his resistance to the nuclear power programme initiated by the military regime in the 1970s. The President nods. Dr Goldemberg had told me that the German government had recently pledged $150 million for conservation projects in Brazil. They were hoping, he said, that other European countries would follow suit.
President Collor reiterated what Dr Goldemberg said. What was required in Amazonia, he said, was a serious development plan. And the government was currently preparing this. The idea of previous regimes had simply been to occupy the region, without regard to the long-term effect of human settlement. In itself occupation was not such a bad idea, but much of the settlement had been senseless, leaving land exhausted and useless after a few years. Under the new scheme, he explained, before any further settlement was permitted, before any new roads were built, the region would be classified into ecological zones. Forest would no longer be cleared where the soil could not support sustainable agriculture, and the rights of indigenous peoples would be respected.
But are President Collor and his government really in a position to put policies like these into effect? My original question to the President had been not so much about the environment as about violence. Chico Mendes was one of many hundreds of victims—generally poor, landless peasants—killed over the last decade by gunmen acting on the orders of ranchers and loggers in Amazonia and elsewhere in Brazil. In spite of the notorious and persistent nature of these killings, which have been chronicled in reports by Amnesty International and Brazilian Human Rights organisations, the gunmen and those who contracted them have almost invariably got off scot-free.
And in the cities of Brazil another kind of violence is rampant: hundreds of vagrant teenagers are killed each year by death squads composed mainly of off-duty policemen. And there is historical human rights abuse from the era of military rule that is yet to be confronted. The week I interviewed the President 1,500 skeletons were exhumed from clandestine graves in a São Paulo cemetery, the remains of disparecidos from the 1970s—political dissidents and others killed by agents of the military regime. A few days later it was reported that the director of the cemetery was in hiding, in fear of his life.
As with the environment, Collor has changed the official discourse on human rights. Now he talks the language of Amnesty International. I reminded him that in a TV broadcast, he had had this to say:
In the past, revelations about the poor state of human rights in Brazil have been seen as threats to our sovereignty. Today human rights are the first priority of the government…. Social injustice should not be an insoluble problem. The statistics on infant mortality, on school attendance and illiteracy; on family breakdown, lack of food and medical care, and on violence…show the unacceptable face of Brazil. These facts should prick every citizen’s conscience. The history of Brazil is a long series of errors and omissions on the part of government, of selfish attitudes on the part of the well-off and neglect by society at large. It is a story of equivocations. We have turned away from the most bitter aspects of our national life.
Yes, said the president, he had said that and he meant it.
An enigmatic populist
Towards the end of the interview I press President Collor again on the high levels of violence in the country. Why is there so much killing?
His reply is a rhetorical question that echoes mine. “What is the cause of violence in Brazil?” he asks.
“Violence in Brazil,” he says, “is a symptom of the unacceptably low level at which millions and millions of Brazilians live. The state, which has the responsibility of providing health care, education and food in this phase of life, has failed in its obligations.”
“And why has it failed in its obligations?” he says. (I have the sense that a soundbite is on its way). “The state has failed in its obligations because instead of investing in areas which concerned it, in these areas of social development, it put money into areas which did not concern it, into state-owned corporations, parastatal companies, failed businesses that the government bought up.”
“Every bit of money, every centavo, every tosto—every last farthing—that went into these enterprises outside the proper concern of the state was one cruzado, one tosto, lost to the area of social development.”
It seems, from this series of rhetorical questions, that Collor thinks the free market is the answer to everything. Doubtless, in the current situation, it is a prerequisite for the amelioration of Brazil’s social problems. There is something disconcerting, though, about his self-contained rhetoric, the uninterruptible demagogic flow. It is as though, instead of answering questions, the President simply switched channels, or accessed a new file in his inner database.
Others have noted that there is something enigmatic about President Collor, something martinettish, cold and distant. Brazilian rituals of greeting tend to involve a high degree of body contact, even among casual acquaintances, but Collor, the populist, greets visitors from behind his desk, with a hand held out rigidly in front of him, seemingly to preempt embraces and back-patting. His taste for fancy clothes and military uniforms in his public appearances has also not gone unremarked: army fatigues while on exercise with the paratroops in Yanomami territory, dress uniform on the parade-ground, running gear for running, wetsuits for waterskiing, and tracksuits in many colours for visits to the gym. He loves to look the part, donning shirtsleeves for the factory floor, silk suits for the salon. One commentator wondered jokingly whether, for a projected visit to the monastery of São Bento in Rio de Janeiro, the President might don a cowl.
Is Collor only playing the part of President? Is he really the visionary free-market liberal he presents himself as? Is he a shallow opportunist or a conviction politician? Assuming he does have the political will, does he have the power, even as President, to launch the Brazilian economy on the road of reform, to overcome the entrenched interests of state governments? I put the question to him, but he avoids this one too.
“I love what I do,” he tells me “Power suits me.”
No one knows the exact limits of this power. Although he won the election, Collor has no real political base. He has no party and no stable coalition of supporters. He is the first President of Brazil to be directly elected in thirty years, and the first under the present constitution. Many who support his economic measures still distrust him; and some have noted a disturbingly authoritarian strain in his style of government.
Mussolini… Perón… Collor?
Before and after our interview I talked to numerous Brazilian journalists and commentators about the Collor phenomenon. They were mostly sceptical. For them, the gloss is already off the president’s reputation. In March, shortly after he took office, the Folha de São Paulo, the country’s leading newspaper, ran an item drawing attention to the fact that an advertising contract awarded by the previous government, but withdrawn by Collor on grounds of corruption, had been re-awarded to a PR company that worked on Collor’s electoral campaign. The next thing the proprietors of the Folha know, they were facing a criminal charge of calumny against the government and an investigation for tax evasion.
The editor’s response to this harrassment was swift. Under the strapline “Fascism” and the headline “Any Resemblance Is No Mere Coincidence”, the Folha, which is by no means a leftist paper, ran a page of photographs of Collor in military uniform alongside pictures of Benito Mussolini, who took power in Italy at the same age. An accompanying editorial article drew attention to Mussolini’s penchant for sports and fancy cars and uniforms and his effectiveness as a demagogue.
The Italian dictator, the article pointed out, had, like Collor, been a journalist by training. It was true, said the Folha, that Mussolini had successfully lowered inflation in Italy, as Collor was doing in Brazil, but it had been at an unacceptable price in terms of political development. Fascism in Europe, the paper noted warningly, had likewise been a popular movement that came to power democratically; and Mussolini had initially attracted the admiration of foreigners, such as Winston Churchill. The editorial stopped short of calling Collor himself a fascist, but only just. Others have compared Collor with Perón, the populist dictator of Argentina: the term “descamisados”—shirtless ones—that Collor uses for his supporters from the underclass, is borrowed from Perón.
The last question I ask the President before the end of our interview is about these comparisons between him and the two leaders, Mussolini and Perón. He doesn’t seem annoyed. And his reply is startlingly disingenuous:
“Look,” he says, “such things are distant from my generation. I’ve never had much interest in reading about either of them, so I don’t know much about what they did. I only know that their style of politics had a terrible effect on the generations that came after. The resulting state of affairs is very far from the way I plan to leave my country when my mandate is over.”
The Folha episode may illustrate an overbearing side to Collor’s so far sedulously democratic persona. (He could have treated the Mussolini article as a joke, but he seems not to have much sense of humour.) Or it may only show his zeal to defend a government that has so far been free of open scandal and corruption. He knows that in Brazil, where the man in the street regards politicians as thieves more or less by definition, credibility is the hardest thing for him to win. Yet without it his reforms are doomed. Even with it they will be hard to achieve. Collor’s mandate as president runs for five years. That’s five years—by his own reckoning—to make Brazil a first world country, five years to reform industry, to open the economy to competition, five years to bridge the gap between rich and poor, five years to turn the country round on human rights and the environment. It takes a man unburdened by a sense of history to be as confident as this.
The Dragoons of Independence
On Fridays in Brasília, at six o’clock, in a time-honoured ritual, the President descends the long ramp that sweeps down from the Palace of the High Plains, flanked by his ministers and invited guests, through a cordon of guards known as the Dragoons of Independence, towards the crowd of onlookers and admirers. The previous president, José Sarney, had to abandon the promenade for fear of tomatoes and rotten eggs. Collor, so far, has used it successfully to maintain the high level of political theatre that characterises his presidency: stately pomp and circumstance to balance the folksiness of the Casa da Dinda.
His Independence Day parade here featured a live panther, the mascot of the Brazilian Army Jungle Combat Unit, riding in an armoured car. Today, as he stands in the spotlight at the top of the ramp, hand in hand with some schoolchildren, a military band plays the national anthem and a column of athletes runs by bearing torches. The Dragoons of Independence bring their bayonets up to their chins, their nineteenth-century uniforms a resplendent archaism in this otherwise entirely twentieth-century city. In the square below, the onlookers applaud the spectacle. Some of them carry placards greeting the President, requesting his intercession in a local dispute. Some of them, their savings frozen as a result of the Collor Plan, are asking for their money back. A peanut seller is counting his day’s takings—one dollar and fifty cents
These are o povo Brasileiro, the people of Brazil, the newly enfranchised electorate, looking with longing towards the man who has promised them so much. Collor plunges briefly into the crowd, then a car takes him round the back of the palace. He is waving all the way. A few moments later his helicopter appears. It circles once as the sun sets between the twin towers of the Congress Building. The President is still waving as it carries him home across the lake, his jewelled cufflinks flashing gold in the evening light. ★
The original version of this profile of Fernando Collor de Mello was published in February 1990 in The Sunday Times of London. It was the first account of the new Brazilian president in the international press to strike a critical note. The mention of the President’s possible involvement in financial corruption and other incipient scandals led to a furore in Brazil. In Britain the Sunday Times was served with a libel writ. The paper settled out of court, making a substantial donation to a charitable foundation run by the President’s wife and staffed mainly by her relatives.
In 1991, eighteen months later, President Collor’s misdeeds—involving a degree of corruption greater than I or any other observer had initially imagined—were confirmed by the dramatic testimony of his brother, Pedro Collor, in an interview in Veja, Brazil’s leading news magazine. In 1992 Fernando Collor resigned the presidency under imminent threat of impeachment. (The case against him included, among many other elements, an accusation of bribery involving the landscaping of the Casa da Dinda, his house in Brasília.) He was barred for eight years from participation in national politics.
Some time later an item appeared in A Tarde, the leading newspaper of Bahia. It ran as follows:
Who still remembers John Ryle? Let us refresh your memory: he was the first journalist to make concrete accusations against ex-President Collor de Mello. The British newspaper that published the article had to pay a heavy fine. Would it not now be just for the Brazilian government to return the money?
A Tarde may have overstated the importance of the Sunday Times article; it would have had greater impact had I been able to properly follow up the many allegations that were already circulating against President Collor (most of which turned out to be true). But the mention of some of these in a newspaper outside Brazil did enable Brazilian newspapers to report the allegations indirectly. Later, in the wake of Pedro Collor’s revelations, it was Brazilian journalists who exposed the full extent of Collor’s wrong-doing. In Britain, The Sunday Times did not even report his resignation. And despite the hefty settlement it had made with the then-president when the article was published, the paper never asked for its money back. I have not written for it since.
Fernando Collor de Mello returned to politics in 2002 and ran for the Governorship of Alagoas. He lost; but in 2006 he was elected to the Brazilian Senate representing the state of Alagoas. In 2010 he was again defeated in the gubernatorial election in Alagoas.
In 2015 he became involved in yet another corruption scandal, involving Petrobras, the state-owned oil company in Brazil, a scandal that has engulfed the government of Dilma Roussef’s Workers’ Party, who (as of mid-2016) is herself the subject of impeachment proceedings
In July 2015, federal police raided the Casa da Dinda, Collor’s home in Brasília, where in 1989 I first glimpsed the then-president going for his morning run. They impounded a number of luxury cars. According to an indictment issued by federal prosecutors the cars were paid for out of R$26 m (about US$7m) received in bribes from the Petrobras corruption scheme. Mr Collor denied the accusations.
In recent years Brazilian governments of left and right have fallen into a swamp of financial scandal and political chaos, culminating in the election in 2019 of Jair Bolsonaro, an authoritarian populist whose excesses eclipse those of President Collor. Collor’s crimes are not forgotten, though. In the Brazilian popular imagination he has become an enduring emblem of corruption, the subject, for instance, of a 2017 track by the rapper Gabriel O Pensador unequivocally entitled “Tô Feliz – Matei o Presidente” (I’m Happy – I Killed the President).