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ACM – Brazil Will Never See His Like Again

Brazilian senator Antonio Carlos Magalhães

Few people outside Brazil have heard of Antonio Carlos Magalhães who died on
July 20 at the age of 79. However, he had national recognition in Brazil and was
universally referred to simply as ACM. He was probably the most influential
politician of his generation and for over 40 years virtually ran his home state
of Bahia.

He started his political career as a follower of President Juscelino Kubitschek but served under the military and then switched to democracy in the early 80s. He was also very close to Roberto Marinho, the founder of the TV Globo network, who wielded enormous influence during and after the military regime.


Magalhães was offensive, vindictive, arrogant, unprincipled, tyrannical and intolerant. He was also accused of being corrupt and even violent. Despite these failings, he was idolized by his supporters – the Carlistas – and grudgingly admired by his enemies.


Magalhães was a throwback to the kind of politician from the Northeast, known as a “colonel”, who commanded with an iron fist and was as much a master of all he surveyed as the big landowners had been during the time of slavery.


In 2000, he boasted that he “owned the governor, the three senators, 95% of the mayors, 30 of the Congressmen” in Bahia. That may have been the case then but his power was greatly diminished in his final years and it would be good to think that he was the last of his breed.


Antonio Carlos Magalhães’ power was rooted in Bahia but he also operated at national level and made sure that Bahia was always looked after. The petrochemical hub at Camaçari, which was established in 1978, was one of his major accomplishments. Magalhães also helped develop the state by attracting industrial investment, preserving its architectural and cultural heritage and promoting tourism.


According to Veja magazine, Bahia’s GDP rose from US$ 10 billion in 1971 when Magalhães became governor to US$ 52 billion in 2006, an increase of 420%, higher than that of the country and the Northeast. At the same time, he managed to turn himself into a multimillionaire by using his position as communications minister from 1985 to 1990 to establish a broadcasting and newspaper network and construction company which not only brought in money but allowed him to use the media to attack his enemies and laud himself.     


Magalhães was close to every president except Itamar Franco whom he disliked but he could never be regarded as reliable ally and generally ended up falling out with anyone he could not control. Tributes were led by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso who singled out Magalhães’ leading role as Senate chairman during his mandates.


ACM was ferocious with those he regarded as his enemies and in 2001 hounded the then chairman of the Senate, Jader Barbalho, out of office over allegations of corruption.


However, Magalhães himself was forced to resign his Senate seat later that year when it was revealed that he had broken rules governing voting secrecy. By resigning, he avoided expulsion and losing his political rights and was re-elected to the Senate by his followers in 2002. Despite breaking the rules he was supposed to uphold as chairman of the Senate, he became a member of the justice and ethics committee.


Although Magalhães expressed no desire to be president himself, he had hoped to found a political dynasty. His son Luis Eduardo, a former chairman of the House of Representatives, was groomed to become a presidential candidate but died of a heart attack in 1998 aged only 43.


The younger Magalhães was a very different character, more conciliatory and smooth, and was a close ally of President Cardoso. Magalhães’s grandson, Antonio Carlos Magalhães Neto, came to prominence as a Congressman two years ago when the bribes-for vote scandal, known as the mensalão, broke.


He was a fierce critic of the government and used the televised hearings to gain national recognition. ACM’s aim was to have his grandson stand as governor of Bahia in 2010 but ACM Neto will find this a much more difficult task without his grandfather’s presence. Bahia is not a hereditary captaincy of the Magalhães clan and ACM suffered a major setback when his group lost the governorship of Bahia to the PT’s Jaques Wagner.


This does not mean that the family will not still play a leading role in the state and the country. As happened when Antonio Carlos Magalhães stepped down from the Senate in 2001, in death he has been succeeded by Antonio Carlos Magalhães Junior, his son.


Following Brazilian politics can be frustrating at times but it is never boring, not with characters like ACM, Lula, Leonel Brizola, Kubitschek, Getúlio Vargas, Fernando Collor and even José Sarney around.


I have written much about ACM over the last 12 years and must confess I will miss having him around. For more, read my article “Bahia – Land of Light or Heart of Darkness?” at the following link on Brazil Political Comment www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br/content/view/81/29/lang,en/


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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