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Brazzil - Politics - May 2004

Brazil: Times Affair Fractures Lula Administration

Brazilian President Lula's decision to expel the New York Times
correspondent has cracked the government unity. Lula took the
decision against the advice of his closest aide, Chief of Staff, José
Dirceu. Finance Minister, Antonio Palocci, is in favor of a retreat
and Justice Minister, Márcio Thomas Bastos, threatened to resign.

Francesco Neves

Larry Rohter

Picture The Brazilian Congress seemed intent Wednesday night in finding a face saving way out for the affair New York Times versus President Lula that would revoke the government's decision of expelling correspondent Larry Rohter from Brazil and deflect the barrage of international criticism the country has been bombarded with.

Even some of those who were protesting the Times article when the piece appeared Sunday are having a change of mind and an opposition politician called the Brazilian President a "dictator of a third-rate republic."

After repeating throughout the day that he wouldn't go back on his decision, Lula, agreed to meet Thursday morning with a Congress commission headed by former President and president of the Senate, José Sarney. Sarney and allied and opposition Senate and House leaders plan to ask Lula to review his decision to expel Rohter and instead take the journalist to court.

Congressmen from the PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores—Workers' Party), the President's own party, as well as from several other parties want to convince

Lula that the government's action is costing dearly in terms of good will and credibility around the world.

Wednesday afternoon, Aloizio Mercadante, the government's leader in the Senate, telephoned President Lula telling him that the visa cancellation was not the best response for the administration although he understood the President's indignation and could relate to how incensed Lula felt for being accused of drinking too much. It took some insistence until the Brazilian president finally conceded and agreed on a meeting with the legislators. "OK, come here tomorrow then," was his reaction.

At night, however, it didn't seem Lula had any intention of changing his mind. After the President's announcement that he would meet the congressional group, André Singer, Lula's spokesman reaffirmed to reporters the President's decision:

"The Brazilian government is not going to retreat on this issue. The government has solid, founded and well-thought reasons. It's our responsibility to defend Brazil, the institutions and the figure of the President. There is no reason to retreat."

Singer also affirmed that the Brazilian government has a "cast-iron commitment" to freedom of press. "There is no instance of restricting freedom of press in Brazil. This episode doesn't concern freedom of press, but the necessary responsibility in divulging the facts. The New York Times article included offenses to the President without the use of reliable sources, it was made up with falsehood and bad faith."

Exemplary Measure

That was the same message Lula had transmitted earlier, during a breakfast with the PT leadership. At that time, he said that he would oppose any challenge to his order: "This journalist will not stay in the country. He will be legally forbidden to enter," he stated, adding: "This should serve as an example. If I didn't take this measure, any other journalist, from any other country, could do the same, without any worry of punishment"

"I never took even a guaraná (Brazilian soft drink) with this journalist," the President continued. according to those present at the meeting. "He did not write a piece about the preferences of the President, but a report telling that drinking is interfering with the government, in a callous attitude against the institution of the Presidency of the Republic."

The President also revealed that he wouldn't have any qualms in taking the same decision if faced again with the same problem. "I've always counted from one to ten before taking a decision. In any other country, the chief of State would have the same attitude against such prejudiced and callous offenses."

Broken Unity

The expulsion resolution seems to have fractured the government unity. According to sources close to the government, Lula decided to kick out the journalist against the advice of his closest aide, chief of staff, José Dirceu. It's also known also that Finance Minister, Antonio Palocci, is in favor of a retreat while Justice Minister, Márcio Thomas Bastos, who wasn't even consulted about the action, is thinking about leaving his post.

The suggestion of expelling Rohter came from the Communication Secretary, Luiz Gushiken, after Lula made it clear that he wanted some "tough action." Two journalists present at the meeting—presidential spokesman André Singer and Bernardo Kucinski—joined in. Opposing the measure were Dirceu and Álvaro Ribeiro da Costa, who is the Attorney General.

Press Secretary, Ricardo Kotscho, was also against the decision and seemed ill at ease during the Observatório da Imprensa show, a TV program where he went to make the case of the government: "As a member of the government I do not discuss a decision by the government. I can discuss it before a decision is taken, but after it is adopted I have to defend it."

Undoing Lula

Some senators and House Representative members are trying different approaches to prevent the expulsion of the Times reporter. Senator Sérgio Cabral from the allied PMBD, for example, filed an habeas corpus petition before the Brazilian Supreme Court in favor of Larry Rohter.

House Representative, Eduardo Paes, from the opposition party PSDB, on the other hand, intends to introduce a bill this Thursday voiding the government decision that suspended the American journalist's temporary visa. This procedure known as legislative decree is used to annul measures taken by the executive.

Said Paes, "We feel solidary with Lula due to the aggression he suffered, but the government has shown that it cannot resist a dose of democracy. Whoever took this decision, in my opinion, had to be drunk."

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