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Brazzil - Politics - February 2004

Brazil Cabinet: The Fall of a Dreamer and a Doer

Following his resignation, Brazil's former Education Minister
Cristovam Buarque, claimed he had been isolated in the Lula
administration and that education was neglected. "You speak
only about the economy, foreign policy and hunger. No-one
speaks about social policy," he told President Lula.

Guy Burton

On 24 January, during an interview with a Portuguese journalist in Lisbon, Brazil's Education Minister took a call on his mobile phone from his president and boss, Lula da Silva. "We're going to have to stop," Cristovam Buarque said, "because I am no longer the minister."

With that brief phone call Cristovam's brief ministerial career in the left-wing Workers' Party government came to an end. From here in London the decision does seem surprising, not least because of Cristovam's success in introducing the bolsa escola (school grant) during his time as governor of the Federal District in Brasília in the mid-1990s. But according to recent press reports, Cristovam's problem was a failure to make education one of the government's key concerns.

In 1994, Cristovam and Vitor Buaiz in Espírito Santo were the first two Workers' Party governors to be elected. But whereas Vitor's administration collapsed amongst bitter acrimony and virtually destroyed the party, Cristovam's experience is seen in an altogether more favourable light.

Initially though Cristovam had to work hard to dispel suspicions amongst his party colleagues. A middle class engineer by training, he had only joined the party four years before his election. To some of his party members he was an unknown quality, not least because he was a moderate who avoided getting into fights with the national government, also based in the Federal District of Brasília.

Party workers who expected him to use Brasília as a launch-pad to challenge then-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso's neo-liberal governing coalition were to be disappointed. By contrast to most other states, the Federal District receives 60 percent of its funds from the national government. So rather than irritate Cardoso, Cristovam sought to co-operate with the government, thereby ensuring state money wasn't withheld from him.

But Cristovam's compromising stance didn't weaken his position with the party. Admirers noted his willingness to spend time with party activists and state legislators, which enabled him to push ahead with his policy proposals, including a participatory budget and traffic law changes to reduce road deaths.

His most notable achievement though was the bolsa escola. The scheme was designed to reduce child labour and encourage better education among the poor. For families who had lived in Brasília for five years or more, Cristovam's administration would grant them the equivalent of a minimum salary if they sent their children aged between seven and fourteen to school.

By 1998, the final year of Cristovam's term, 50,000 children from 25,000 families were receiving support through the scheme, at a cost of US$ 26.5 million—less than 2 percent of the Federal District's budget. Between 1994 and 1997 the truancy level fell from 10 percent to 0.5 percent.

So successful was the bolsa escola that it was quickly taken up by other Workers' Party administrations around the country. Along with the participatory budget—whereby people are able to have a say in how money should be spent in their neighbourhood—the idea soon became synonymous with the Workers' Party and was included in various best practice guides for activists and would-be mayors and governors.

Meanwhile Cristovam saw an opportunity to develop the project further and set up a non-governmental organisation to market the idea abroad, including in Mexico, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Despite his achievement it was therefore with some surprise that Cristovam lost the 1998 gubernatorial election. But a closer look shows that his failure was to try and reduce excessive public spending while satisfying the demands of public sector workers—usually among the strongest of Workers Party supporters and voters.

In 1994, the Federal District had around 150,000 state workers who had between them 250,000 dependents; 67 percent of liquid assets were being spent on these workers' wages—two years later it had risen to 80 percent. Cristovam had to reduce this pressure on the district's budget.

The problem for Cristovam was that by doing so he raised the ire of these people—many whom believed he had done a good job in general, but it had "done nothing for me." His opponent saw his opportunity and exploited it, promising to raise their salaries by 20 percent.

His administration at an end, Cristovam became a senator for the Federal District and was also rector of University of Brasília for a time. Close to Lula's faction within the party, when the perennial presidential candidate was finally inaugurated in January 2003, Cristovam returned to power as the new government's Education Minister.

Despite belonging to the same party faction as Lula, Cristovam was still an outsider to many of his colleagues. Following his resignation he claimed he had been isolated and in particular from key decision-makers, including the finance minister, Antonio Palocci, and Lula's chief-of-staff, José Dirceu. The President's official explanation for the dismissal was the government's intention to introduce university reforms later this year; his previous position as a university rector might compromise him during that process.

Following his departure Cristovam claimed the government wasn't making education a key priority. In an interview with the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper he said to the President, "You speak only about the economy, foreign policy and hunger. No-one speaks about social policy."

Replacing him as education minister will be Tarso Genro, whose rise to prominence in the Workers' Party can be credited to his time as mayor of the southern city of Porto Alegre. Cristovam, who saw his position as a Minister as playing in the "second team" hopes Tarso's appointment will prove a turnaround in the way education is perceived.

Tarso, he believes, is much better connected with the Lula's immediate advisors and primary ministers. As Cristovam, he will retake his seat in the Senate where he promises to act as the "senator for education".

As a postgraduate student, Guy Burton researched the experience of the Workers Party in state government. His work was used in a co-authored chapter about the administrations of Cristovam Buarque and Vitor Buaiz in Gianpaolo Baiocchi's Radicals in Power (Zed Books, 2003). He can be contacted at gjsburton@hotmail.com

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