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President Sarney Might Have Been Brazil’s Mandela. But He Opted for Politics

José Sarney, Brazil's senate president Every politician has one instinct for power and another for history. Desiring political strength to guarantee a place in history, and, for this reason, seeking votes from current voters with an eye towards the future readers of his country’s history. He keeps an eye on both his mandate and his biography.

The problem is that the same mandate that constructs the biography can destroy it, even because, in general, more current actions and words leave a greater mark than past acts.

Brazil owes a debt to President José Sarney, who can be proud to have been the driving force of the Brazilian democratization process. During his mandate as the first President of the Republic after military rule, he was able to carry out all the commitments of the democratic forces. But this is history. When he decided to continue in politics, he chose to postpone his biography until the end of his current activities.

If, after his mandate as President of the Republic, former President Sarney had withdrawn to history, outside of politics, today he would certainly be treated as an “elder statesman,” not for reasons of age but because of his biography. This is happening with Mandela, Carter and so many other former presidents – noteworthy persons who are respected but are active only at decisive moments.

The nation’s counselors without elected office. Sarney would be seen as an example of the politician who, when young, stood up to the conservative forces of his own party; and, as a adult, co-existed with the military regime; but, in his maturity, had the courage to distance himself from authoritarianism and, defying Tancredo Neves’ adversaries, competently led the country at the moment of its maximum transition in the second half of the 20th century.

He preferred politics to history, however. He chose the mandate of senator and the return to the Senate presidency. The Senate, therefore, came to have a president greater than the office, causing it to lose its relish to confront his day-to-day activities.

The Senate’s problem is everyone’s, but the first person to blame for the crisis is its president himself because it falls to him to safeguard the necessary credibility of the institution. His speech does not analyze the causes of the crisis, does not offer proposals to overcome it in either its moral or its structural aspects. It does not propose initiatives to surmount the Senate’s lack of credibility.

One of the causes of that alienation from the crisis is that fact that President Sarney is not demonstrating any consciousness of the dimension of the crisis that the Senate is undergoing. His speech conveyed the impression that this is merely a momentary discontent in public opinion, inflated by the media, in frank disrespect of his biography. That view results from the fact that he has a biography greater than politics and his office. The office changes his destiny.

The person who faced five years as the President of the Republic in such a grave moment, one of difficult changes, is not managing to dedicate himself to a seemingly lesser challenge. The result is a Senate president who, while tied to a network of forces mixing public and personal interests, lacks the necessary drive to confront the difficulties because he has a biography greater than the office he occupies. From this comes his failure to perceive the dimensions of the crisis.

As for the rest of the senators, we are also to blame. We are incapable of finding the way to merge the Sarney who is the former president of the democratic transition with the Sarney who is president of a Senate in crisis. But the person most to blame is President Sarney himself.

He must don the shirt of his present office, relegating his biography to the historians. His two-month leave from the office of Senate President, therefore, would permit a speedier verification of the facts in a manner beyond any suspicion.

Cristovam Buarque is a professor at the University of Brasília and a PDT senator for the Federal District. You can visit his website – www.cristovam.org.br – and write to him at cristovam@senado.gov.br.

Translated from the Portuguese by Linda Jerome LinJerome@cs.com.

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