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Brazil: Laid Back Lula Finally Gets His Team (Almost) Together

Brazil Finance Minister Guido Mantega remains in the cabinet

Brazil Finance Minister Guido Mantega remains in the cabinet Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva must be the world’s most relaxed president. Almost six months after winning the election and three and a half months into his second mandate he has only now announced (most) members of his new government. During this period he has behaved as though he was running a stall in a street market rather than a country the size of Brazil.

Does it matter? Probably not. Brazil is not run by a coherent government, coordinated by a president or prime minister, but by a grubby grouping of vested interests out to enrich itself. The creation of the government has little to do with improving the lives of Brazilian citizens or helping the country move forward and achieve its potential.

Instead it is a giant trading session in which the parties compete to see how much patronage they can grab and share amongst themselves. The prizes are rich –  the right to plunder the public coffers.

The main difference between this latest ministerial team and its predecessor is that Lula has had to make space for his new main ally, the PMDB, which has the largest representation in Congress and holds nine of Brazil’s 27 state governorships. Lula was generous and has given the PMDB five heavyweight ministries –  health, mines and energy, communications, agriculture and national integration.

In fact, he may have been overgenerous since the PMDB leader, Michel Temer, said he had not expected to gain so much. Lula’s own Workers Party (PT) has more or less kept its share of the cake and retains powerful ministries such as finance, planning, justice, environment and the chief of staff office. Other ministries and subsidiary posts have gone to other parties within Lula’s alliance. 

We should not expect much from this new administration or from the PMDB. The mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Cesar Maia (PFL), mimicking one of Lula’s favorite phrases "never before in this country" said: "Never before in this country has there been a government as mediocre as this. Mediocre politically. Mediocre technically. This government will collapse from within. This government will not take any issue anywhere."

Maia makes a good point since no sensible president would rely on a divided outfit like the PMDB to provide reliable support. The fact that its initial candidate for the agricultural ministry withdrew after it was learned that his personal wealth had expanded by 20 times over the last five years shows the kind of people Lula will have to deal with. 

Many faces will remain such as the finance minister, Guido Mantega, the foreign minister, Celso Amorim, the chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff and Gilberto Gil, the culture minister and the only member of the cabinet who is actually known within the country.

Departing ministers include Thomaz Bastos whose term as justice minister included the "bribes for vote" scandal which showed that the PT had been paying kickbacks to Congressmen in return for their votes.

The scandal unraveled during most of 2005 yet Bastos did little to tackle it and it is not surprising that Lula, who was about the only person to escape unmarked from this sleazy affair, wanted him to remain.

Bastos was also unimpressive in May last year when the criminal PCC group paralyzed São Paulo and started a virtual rebellion which led to the deaths of over 100 policemen, criminals and innocent bystanders.

Still Lula has little to complain about since the new justice minister, Tarso Genro, will not rock the boat. Genro was institutional relations minister and is a veteran PT leader. Do not be surprised if Genro presides over the rehabilitation of two former Congressmen at the center of the scandal – Lula’s ex-chief of staff, José Dirceu, and Roberto Jefferson who blew the whistle on the affair. Both lost their mandates and political rights for eight years but Dirceu is campaigning to win them back and stands a good chance of succeeding.

Lula has also brought the former mayor of São Paulo, Marta Suplicy, into his government as tourism minister. Apart from being able to speak English and French, it is not known what qualities she will bring to this job.

She may need to use her French soon to explain why French people should come to Rio de Janeiro since several French citizens have been brutally murdered there in recent weeks. Suplicy is believed to be preparing to win the PT nomination for the presidency in 2010 as the PT candidate and will presumably use her ministerial position to gain recognition. 

Of the departing ministers, Luis Furlan did a good job as development, industry and foreign trade minister and is returning to private business. Furlan’s problem was that he was not a member of a political party and frequently fell out of grace with the inner core of the government and the BNDES social development bank.

Lula is looking around for someone of Furlan’s stature and has tried to entice Jorge Gerdau, head of the Gerdau steel group, on board but with no luck. The head of Embraer, Maurício Botelho, is also reported to have turned the position down.

Brazil’s export boom, which has led to record trade surpluses and a huge foreign reserves approaching US$ 100 billion, have helped the economy enormously in recent years and it would be a great pity if this position ended up in the hands of a party hack.

Finally, we should also be glad that the most powerful "minister" –  the Central Bank chairman, Henrique Meirelles – is not losing his job. Meirelles is only technically a minister, but while he is in charge of monetary policy we can expect no lurches in the dark.

Meirelles enjoys Lula’s personal protection which allows him to ignore the complaints of the man who is technically his boss, finance minister Mantega. Meirelles has come under attack from a number of quarters for his cautious approach to interest rates.

Some of this criticism may be justified but, for the moment, Brazil’s economy is in safer hands with him than with anyone else.

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. This article originally appeared on his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at jf@celt.com.br.

© John Fitzpatrick 2007

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