Picture a state governor, a provincial or regional leader wherever you may be in the world, picking constant fights with your country's president, prime minister or head of state. Said governor feels he is "owed" political favors by the president, so he latches on to every opportunity to make life difficult for the national leadereven if it means harming his country's image, and creating unnecessary obstacles to much needed economic growth and stability. In other words, openly using government resources to place personal goals of questionable legitimacy at the top of his political agenda. Could such a governor survive, even thrive where you live? Incredibly, he exists and seems to be making headway in today's Brazil.
Itamar Franco is governor of Minas Gerais, one of Brazil's top three states economically and politically. He is also a former president, a position most political analysts have no trouble stating he would never have reached, were it not for an accident or two that propelled him along the way. Most prominently, he accepted the vice-presidency on the ticket that carried Fernando Collor de Mello to Brasília in 1989. That put him in the right place at the right time to take over when Collor was slammed with corruption charges and driven out of power in 1992.
A generally lackluster senator before that, Franco's abbreviated presidency from 1992 to 1994 is best remembered for two rather bizarre events. In 1993, he asked Volkswagen to bring back the out of production Beetle. Volkswagen obliged him, but the outdated Beetle fell far short of its past success, and was retired for good three years later. And in 1994, while watching Carnaval parades in Rio, he was visited by a scantily-dressed model who had just performed with a samba school: news photographers and television cameras aimed their lenses up at the presidential box, only to catch a lensfull of Ms. Lilian Ramos dancing beside Franco, in an impossibly short outfit and wearing no panties.
The one major positive event that marked Franco's presidency was the 1994 introduction of the Real Plan, but credit for that one is generally attributed to then-Finance Minister Fernando Henrique Cardoso. And that's where Franco's problems with Cardoso begin. In Brazilian political tradition, a presidenteven an accidental one unknowingly photographed with near-naked models trying to make Carnaval headlines, is expected to "make" his successor, that is, name and back a candidate to replace him. And the resounding early success of the Real Plan left little choice but to go with the obvious candidate, Cardoso, who won the 1994 election handily.
Itamar Franco has been a bitter man ever since, for numerous reasonsnone of them openly accepted by Franco. Whenever questioned, he strongly denies personal feelings are ever involved, and always points to quite vague institutional arguments to support his attitudes. The impression most observers have formed of what troubles Franco to this day, goes something like this:
- He wishes he had been the candidate instead of Cardoso in 1994, figuring he too, as the sitting President, could have swept to victory on the coattails of the Real Plan. Never mind that Cardoso and his team, which included then Central Bank President and current Finance Minister Pedro Malan, actually devised and successfully launched the plan, without much input from Franco;
- Franco feels he didn't receive his due "reward" from Cardoso, although he was appointed Brazil's ambassador to Portugal, and then ambassador to the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C. His performance was negligible in both posts, only noticeable because of his constant whining and complaining, although both are important diplomatic positions which he reportedly asked for;
- He gave up the OAS post and returned to Brazil prior to the 1998 general elections, when Cardoso was re-elected, and Franco was elected governor of Minas Gerais. But some analysts have said recently that Franco actually expected Cardoso to step aside in 1998, and "make" Franco the presidential candidate. This would have been payback for Franco having "made" Cardoso the winning candidate in 1994. Hard as it is to believe that Franco actually expected this to happen, it does help to explain the heightened bitterness of the past two years;
Irresponsible and illogical as they may be, none of Franco's apparent wishes and desires, or his actions in defense of what he views as his "rights", are difficult to digest in Brazil. These are simply part of a deep-rooted tradition of give-and-take that functions at most levels in Brazilian politics. The giving and taking however, do depend to a great extent on political stature, and in that department, Franco is terribly lacking.
Unable as Itamar Franco appears to be to see himself for what he isn't, he has used his return to the political scene as governor of his home state almost strictly to take pot shots at President Cardoso. Indeed, his arrival was very costly to all Brazilians: as he took office in January of 1998, his first act was to declare a moratorium on Minas Gerais state debt payments, alleging dire financial straits. On the heels of the Asian crisis, this had a devastating effect. While it wasn't the only cause, maybe not even the biggest, it certainly was instrumental in pushing Brazil over the edge, and forcing the devaluation of the real, which came shortly after.
Since then, Franco has earned a variety of adjectives from politicians and the media, ranging from ridiculous to emotionally unstable, paranoid, mad and exotic. Some of the moves that drew attention include threatening to change the course of a major river to render useless a federal hydro project, and ordering army-style maneuvers by the Minas Gerais military police, to suggest he might resist violently to the privatization of Furnas, the federally-owned utility located in his state.
This year, he saw a major chance to cash in as the MST, the Landless Peasants Movement, took to sending protesters to a farm owned by President Cardoso's family in the town of Buritis, in Minas Gerais state. When it happened for the first time, state military police, which answer to the state government, were not exactly eager to move in and defend the president's property, so the federal government positioned an army detachment inside the farm. Franco complained loudly, described it as an invasion, and went so far as to imply there might be a clash between the army and his state troopersan absurdity at best.
In September, Franco got a second shot at it: the MST sent a few hundred protesters back to the Cardoso farm, as it intensified its protests with invasions of federal buildings throughout the country. As soon as word came that another MST protest march was headed for the farm, the federal government consulted with the state government in Minas Gerais, to ensure there would be police protection. Several attempts yielded no firm response, so once again an army detachment was sent in. That was the cue for Itamar Franco's latest tirade.
With the army inside the Cardoso farm, and MST protesters marching outside the property, Franco turned his government palace in Belo Horizonte, more than 700 kilometers away, into a bunker of sorts: special operations units of the state military police were brought in, with armored cars parked in front of main entrances and sharpshooters in fatigues positioned on the palace roof. The stunned media corps were called in for a press conference, and the governor explained he had fortified the palace because of "secret information" he received, which justified those measures. Franco then compared himself to former Chilean President Salvador Allende, who died during a 1973 military coup in Santiago
Then came the icing on the cake: Franco announced he had asked Minas Gerais state government attorneys to seek a legal way of making the Cardoso farm available for land reform. A pointless exercise obviously intended as another poke at President Cardoso, since state governments do not have the authority to expropriate land, and the Cardoso farm does not fit the "unproductive" criteria normally used to expropriate farms for land reform purposes. As the month progressed, Franco turned up the heat and sent a detachment of his state military police to Buritis, while the army remained positioned inside the farm. All along, the insinuation was that Minas Gerais police and the army might clashagain, a notion that is as completely over the top as can be.
At this writing, state police have been called back from Buritis without having ventured anywhere near the farm. The army remains inside the property, and the Landless Peasants have moved out of the area to an encampment 14 kilometers awaythey're not about to leave their most visible protest in a long time, and are now planning to keep members camped near the Cardoso farm permanently, to move in and out according to circumstances, or the need to be on national television. The federal government has said the army will leave the farm if the state government guarantees a police presence, but that seems highly unlikely: Franco will certainly prefer to leave Cardoso's property at the mercy of the landless protestors.
Has any of this hurt Itamar Franco's image? Nationally, yeshe has certainly become something of a political clown in the national media. This week's issue of the top-selling newsmagazine Veja for example, features a cartoon of Franco on the cover with the caption "Nuthouse Napoleon or Opportunist?" But incredibly, he's coming out smelling like roses in his home state, where he is seen as living up to his campaign promise to "raise the voice" of Minas on the national stage. Indeed, since being elected in 1998, the governor has been a prime example of a one-track mind at work, at the expense of everything else, including the nation's best interests. Political scientist Carlos Ranulfo de Mello of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, quoted in Veja, put it bluntly: "from the standpoint of public policies, the Itamar government does not exist".
According to Marcos Coimbra, head of the Vox Populi polling institute, as long as Franco continues to have positive numbers on the domestic front, he can be expected to continue his personal crusade against President Cardoso, because it does not appear to be harming his image at home. For now, Franco is supported by about two-thirds of voters in Minas Gerais. What happens elsewhere doesn't seem to bother Franco, but the effects are there. At a meeting with investors in Miami last week, a director of the Brazilian Central Bank heard the following question: "How many more Itamars are there in Brazil anyway?"
Adhemar Altieri is a veteran with major news outlets in Brazil, Canada and the United States. He holds a Master's Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and spent ten years with CBS News reporting from Canada and Brazil. Altieri is a member of the Virtual Intelligence Community, formed by The Greenfield Consulting Group to identify future trends for Latin America. He is also the editor of InfoBrazil (http://www.infobrazil.com), an English-language weekly e-zine with analysis and opinions on Brazilian politics and economy. You can reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org