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Futile Shuffle

Futile
      Shuffle

Why insist on playing with fire, which is precisely what this
government and its so-called allies are doing when so much time and effort are wasted on a
nearly pointless cabinet shuffle, while vital matters at hand go unresolved?
By Adhemar Altieri

Over the past few weeks, Brazilians witnessed a series of displays of the ostrich-style
politics that has this country in a firm grip. Politicians at all levels, in and out of
government and of all shades and stripes, consistently focused on their own navels without
so much as a glance at the overall picture, or consideration of the very real consequences
that so much disregard for reality can bring.

One of the better examples of this began to take shape in June, when talk of a cabinet
shakeup intensified. As it became clear that changes were on the way, some in government
described it as an opportunity to clear the decks and start fresh. The more blunt
political observers, however, said ironically that a revised cabinet might just mark the
actual start of Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s second term in office. Keep in mind he was
re-elected in November of 1998, so talk of a fresh start at this point is hardly a
compliment.

As the government played musical chairs with its cabinet members behind closed doors,
the rumor mill picked up steam, and speculation about who would stay and who would be
replaced dominated the news for a few days. Gradually, expectations grew as well. Over the
years, and particularly these days, cabinets in Brazil have been the end result of
backroom political commitments and power swaps. A Minister of Agriculture, Trade,
Education or Culture in Brazil is not necessarily qualified for the position. But he or
she will certainly rank high enough on the power structure of a particular group or party
that "owns" a share of the government.

For a while, there was a feeling some of this might change. Even with his popularity
way down—about 13 percent approval in the latest polls—Fernando Henrique Cardoso
is recognized by most Brazilians as a man of substance and quality. Was he about to
introduce the cabinet of his dreams, qualified for today’s demands and reasonably free of
purely political considerations? Well… let’s not blame Brazilians for having dreams…

When the dust settled, it was difficult to see the point of it all. The so-called
shakeup turned out to be almost entirely devoid of any practical purpose. Six ministries
received new incumbents, and five of the so-called newcomers had been in government
previously, under different administrations. And once again, qualifications had little to
do with the appointments. A couple of examples: the head of the Brazilian Exporters
Association, Pratini de Moraes, is the new Agriculture Minister, and the president of the
National Confederation of Industries, Senator Fernando Bezerra, now heads the
newly-created and vaguely defined Regional Integration Ministry. The only real relevance
here is political. Not one "new" minister can be held up as potentially
instrumental in some sort of government re-launch. As shakeups go, this one was all smoke
and mirrors.

There is one exception in this scenario, and it’s been the exception at least since
Fernando Henrique himself was Finance Minister in 1994, prior to becoming president: all
key positions and ministries that have to do with the economy were unaffected by cabinet
changes. Occupants remain where they were, or have been moved to more powerful positions.
Finance Minister Pedro Malan and Central Bank President Armínio Fraga continue in place,
both generally recognized for successfully steering the country through the economic
turbulence in the first quarter. The results show that when it comes to the economy, the
lesson seems to have been learned. Competence and relevance do count.

Which begs the question, especially from an outside observer of things Brazilian: why
is this not the case elsewhere in government? Why insist on playing with fire, which is
precisely what this government and its so-called allies are doing when so much time and
effort are wasted on a nearly pointless cabinet shuffle, while vital matters at hand go
unresolved?

One simple, but not necessarily acceptable explanation, is just the way things have
been done in Brazil for eons, something President Cardoso has been far more hesitant to
challenge than society had hoped, given his center-left political past. Instead, and this
explains much of the disappointment that results in the President’s current low approval
rating, Cardoso has chosen to play the game, negotiating and accommodating a variety of
interests in order to win support for his own initiatives. Too often though, what the
President wants—or says he wants—ends up on the back seat so others can be
appeased. It’s a deadly combination for the President’s image and credibility: more and
more, he is being perceived as just another politician, not unlike those he criticized and
opposed in the not too distant past.

Another reason for the seriousness with which the economic side of government is
handled, is the President’s own, personal experience in getting to where he is now.
Although a nationally-recognized political personality for years, his candidacy only
became viable when he led the successful introduction of the Real stabilization plan while
Finance Minister in 1994. The Real Plan’s performance was also the basis of his successful
re-election bid last year. So the President is keenly aware of the political importance of
maintaining economic stability, and keeping competent aides in charge of that part of
government.

Finally, there’s a compelling outside reason for the economic side of Brazil’s
government to remain serious: the country’s debt and deficit numbers, a constant cause for
concern. They require frequent negotiations with international bodies like the IMF and the
World Bank. If things don’t appear serious enough to them, investors and corporations
around the world will not look to Brazil when deciding where to go with their capital.
Brazil would not get the flow of investments it needs not only to stay afloat, but also to
return to economic growth. No crystal ball is needed to understand that allowing internal
politicking to enter the economic arena could spell disaster for Brazil, with
repercussions around the globe.

To recognize that it takes that level and amount of pressure to keep a portion of the
government serious and competent, is a sad indictment of the Brazilian political elite.
The fact that much of the pressure must come from institutions outside Brazil, makes the
indictment an outright condemnation. This illustrates the lack of progress in Brazil’s
political ranks, where old habits truly die hard, and short-term, mostly personal or
sector-specific interests continue to take precedence over broader objectives. A difficult
task for any political observer in Brazil is identifying a handful of politicians that
stand out in the crowd for positive, performance-related reasons. The majority are
emulating the ostrich, heads firmly stuck in the ground, committed to the status quo.

What’s more disturbing is the fact that pressure from within Brazil for positive change
does exist. Society has progressed, in great measure because of the changes introduced by
the Real Plan, and is far more vocal and organized than it was as little as five years
ago. Brazilians learned with the Real that more and better is indeed possible, and now
expect more from their elected representatives. Most major news outlets have read the mood
accurately, and now reflect the changes in society’s expectations, with more and more
space dedicated to identifying wrongdoers, and pointing out solutions.

Brazilian politicians, on the other hand, by and large are out of step with the new
reality, still believing they can carry on as they always have, disregarding the common
good and using their elected or appointed positions for personal or indescribable gains.
At times, it’s almost as if politicians in Brazil speak an entirely different
language—one that only they can understand.

Useless cabinet shuffles become useful examples in this context, if only to illustrate
what must stop happening. Real government action is a must, instead of façades designed
to make it look as if there’s some thought going into how things should be done, or who
might be best for the job. Brazilians aren’t buying it any more, and without solid
displays of leadership, the presidency remains as lame as ever. What’s worse, the inaction
means Brazil may blow the incredible opportunity presented by its unexpected success in
dealing with the economic crisis that opened the year. The window of opportunity remains
open, and must be taken advantage of. The cost of ignoring it will be a serious setback
for Brazil, with unpredictable—but certainly negative—consequences.

Adhemar Altieri is a 21-year 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 editors@infobrazil.com

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