Four years ago this month the Brazilian congress made a decision that
would send shock waves through the nation. The decision to impeach
President Fernando Collor de Mello was dangerous and hard to take, but it proved to be
the right one. Brazil with this action reassured itself and the world that
democracy came to stay in the land.
On September 29, 1992, by a vote of 441 to 38, the Chamber of Deputies of the Republic of Brazil elected to
start impeachment proceedings of President Fernando Collor de Mello. On this date, the president’s powers were to
be suspended for 180 days during which time congressional hearings were to take place as to whether there was
enough evidence to impeach the president. Fernando Collor was Brazil’s first directly elected president since 1960. In
1964, a military Coup took control of the government of Brazil. After 21 years of military rule and five years with
one presidency chosen by the Congress, the Brazilian people choose Fernando Collor de Mello to be their president.
Three years later they choose to remove him from office.
Of this matter, Chief Federal Prosecutor, Aristides Junqueira said “For the first time we have a chance to
resolve a political crisis in line with the constitution and without armed soldiers.” For the first time in the history of the
Brazilian Republic a sitting President was removed from office through constitutional means other than through
This event and the subsequent resignation of Fernando Collor on January 31 of that year, signify an important
social change within Brazil. The Brazilian people were able to remove a corrupt president without troops in the streets,
but only jubilant people proud that their country had taken a large step forward in joining the rest of the world’s
democratic nations. Not only is this important for the people of Brazil, but also for the rest of the world, in changing
their perceptions of Brazil, and for that matter the rest of Latin America.
Charles de Gaulle once said, “Brazil is not a serious
country.” In the eyes of much of the Western World,
Brazil carried this image. It was seen as a place of Carnaval and corruption, an insignificant country to be used by the
“First World.” But the peaceful removal of a President starts the process of changing the stereotype which Brazil and
other Latin American nations have, the stereotype that they are backward countries ruled by dictators, unable to solve
any internal political problems by any means other than through violence and revolution.
Although the impeachment process and the resignation of Collor did not help the living situation of the
millions of people living in the favelas (shanty
towns) of Brazilian cities, or of those living in an informal serfdom under
huge land owning families, or help curb the inflation which continues to strangle the nation and prevents the middle
class from accumulating savings, it did send an important message to the Brazilian citizens and to the rest of the
world. Brazilians were able to influence through democratic processes direct actions which could cause change in
The peaceful removal of a President may be only a symbol of change within a society, but sometimes a symbol
is very important in the process of leading to real social change. The symbol is often needed to guide social events.
Real social change takes time. To clean up the
favelas, curb inflation, end discrimination, and balance the imbalances in
a country like Brazil will take a long time and much hard work. But the removal of a president by peaceful means
tells Brazilians that they have power and sends an image to the rest of the world that Brazil is taking steps toward
inclusion with the rest of the World’s democratic powers.
We live in an ever shrinking and interconnected world. No nation is isolated from the rest of the world. For
real social change to take place in Brazil, for Brazilians to achieve a standard of living equivalent to that of the
countries of Western Europe and the United States, it must be seen, by its own citizens and by the rest of the world, as
being able to “act” as one of those countries, a country where democratic principles are the norm.
The removal of a President through the democratic process is just as important as electing one through these
means and some time, especially in the history of Latin America, not as easy. A Brazilian General, after the Coup in
1964, warned his colleagues that it was easier to start a revolution then to end one. Perhaps this could be applied to
the elections of a President, that it is easier to elect a President democratically then it is to remove him from office.
Brazil passed this test.
The election of a President in Brazil was not an easy one and his removal proved to be a very trying time for
all Brazilians. But as events unfolded and the military did not step in to reclaim their position of power, the people of
Brazil won an important victory. Most importantly they proved to themselves that they had achieved a level of maturity
to not only expose the crimes of a politician but to show to themselves that they had the power to remove him from office.
The road to the restoration of direct elections for the president took time and it seems that the fall of President
Collor was rapid in comparison. Once the Brazilian people had removed the military from the office of the Presidency
they felt they could do anything and that the removal of the President was a natural process along that path. The
momentum of the process which lead to the direct election of President Collor carried through to his impeachment.
The fact that the first President elected after military rule was forced to leave office shows more about the
energy of the populace and the politicians than about the crimes committed.
Presidents before Collor have committed
crimes and Presidents after Collor may commit or at least be accused of committing crimes. Few democracies if any
are immune from these accusations, but the freedom that the press felt and the strength which the people of
Brazil exhibited lead to the fall of Fernando Collor de Mello.
As the press continued to take more liberties in reporting and the public demanded more facts, a snowball
effect took over and by September 1992 Brazilians had demanded not only the ability to directly elect their president but
that he act in the best interest of the Republic and not be a president in office only for his own personal gains.
After the military coup in 1964, the government of Brazil, in an attempt to curb what they feared was an attack
from the left, imprisoned many dissidents, forced others into exile and censored much of the press. By clamping down
on any voices of opposition the military was able to centralize many of the industries
and control much of Brazilian society. This military control of the government was not unique to
Brazil, many other governments in South
America, including Brazil’s neighbors, Argentina and Uruguay, were taken over by their military. In the 1960s much of
Latin America found itself under military rule.
By 1973 a process of liberalization had
begun, allowing the release of political prisoners, relaxation of
censorship and the enactment of an amnesty restoring political and
civil rights. By 1977 the liberalization of the press allowed the daily
newspapers to report on student marches in São Paulo and other
demonstrations in Rio. The “awakening of Civil Society” was registered
in the press and editorial pages. In 1979 the magazine Veja reported on torture camps. This liberalization on the press started to break the stranglehold the military held.
By 1982, the World Press Encyclopedia reported that the Brazilian press “ranks among the world’s best.” As
the 1980s progressed and the fear of communism had been reduced, the formula of anti-communism had ceased to
justify repression. The centralization of power in the hands of a few generals was beginning to show strains as the
economic situation was not living up to the promises that the generals predicted. The press began to demand a return to
normalcy, a return to direct elections.
By 1982, direct elections were held for the Chamber of Deputies and for local and state officials. Opposition to
the military government was led by the Brazilian Democratic
Movement Party (PMDB). The PMDB had been built up
by Ulysses Guimarães during the military years to become the largest political party. In these elections the PMDB
won a majority in the Chamber of Deputies and governorships in São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro.
Although the PMDB did not hold a 2/3 majority in the Chamber of Deputies to call for direct elections when the president’s
term expired in 1986, there was enough opposition that the military could read the writing on the wall and felt it was
not a good time to pass the presidential sash to another general. The military generals choose a civilian, Tancredo
Neves, to become the next president. As a running mate, José Sarney, was chosen. The choice of Sarney was
important. Sarney had been a senator and deputy for over twenty-five years and was an ally to the military for most of his
career. He only joined the newly organized Liberal Front Party (PFL) to become Neves’s running mate so the
administration would look balanced. The Liberal Front Party was a coalition of the PMDB and other dissidents.
A year ahead of schedule, on March 15, 1985, the generals, who had ruled Brazil for 21 years, were to pass
the leadership of South America’s largest country to a civilian. The night before the inauguration, Neves became
sick, rushed to the hospital, he was diagnosed as having appendicitis. He lost consciousness and eventually died three
weeks later. As news of these events spread, the question was raised as to whether the military would actually
relinquish power. At 3 o’clock in the morning José Sarney was informed that later that day he would be sworn in as the
President of Brazil. The death of Neves and the ascent of Sarney was the first sign of a peaceful transition from the military
to civilian control. Sarney was picked as a pawn
and ended up as the President.
Once installed as President he abandoned any ideas with the Liberal Front and became a defender of his
executive powers. Sarney’s son, a federal deputy, commenting on politics in Brazil, put it this way, “Everyone knows
that political ideology doesn’t work in this country. Deals have to be carried out in accordance with interest of the
state.” Sarney had the backing of the military as well as conservative political and business interests. It was through
these interests that he had found backing throughout his political career. Sarney
came from the northeast state of
Maranhão, a very traditional state where a small number of families rule over large land holdings and hold lots of monetary
and political power.
Sarney gave the name “The New Republic” to his programs to restore democracy. The people of Brazil felt that
the country would be on the road to development, the end of foreign debt and the halting of inflation. None of these
things occurred during Sarney’s administration. Inflation rose from 200% a year to 1000%, four finance ministers in
four years were unable to curb this inflation and clear the foreign debt. Sarney implanted a new currency, the
Cruzado, which worked for a few months but eventually failed. Economically the Sarney government was a complete disaster.
In conflict with Sarney was Ulysses Guimarães, President of the Chamber of Deputies and the symbol of
the PMDB’s opposition to military rule. A power struggle developed. Because of the conflict between Sarney
and Guimarães the New Republic lacked a stable political base with well-defined policies during its first phase.
Fighting during the construction of the new constitution over the length of the presidential term between 4 and 6 years
disrupted the unity of the PMDB and wasted time needed to clean up the Brazilian economy.
By 1988 Sarney had three ministers of finance, four presidents of the Central Bank, and five different
economic projects. He came into office with the Cruzeiro, then introduced the Cruzado in February 1986. By the summer he
had revised this plan which was dubbed the “Cruzadinho” in July of 1986, and in November of that year revised this
with the Cruzado II. In 1987 he introduced the Novo Cruzado. All these plans attempted to slow inflation through
various means of adjusting wages and controlling prices in line with the inflation and by the cutting of public expenditures.
The Novo Cruzado cut three zeros of the Cruzado and devalued it by 16.3%. The Plan was introduced to
induce a credit-squeeze, to freeze prices on about 170 essential items for an initial period of 45 days and put an end
to indexation, especially for salaries. Another feature of this package was to sell or deactivate about 14 state
enterprises and to close six ministries. Also the reduction of about 90,000 state employees, many of them political
appointees under the New Republic.
In 1988 there were a series of strikes by federal civil servants, teachers, oil and electrical workers as well as
the municipal workers in Rio and other cities, all of which hurt Sarney’s image. In November, three striking steel
workers were killed by government troops trying to break the strike. Sarney’s lack of condemnation for these killings was
seen as his approval of the decision to use force to break the strike. His disapproval rating rose dramatically at this time.
By 1987 a new constitution was written in anticipation of the military leaving from power. At this time there
was too much pressure from all politicians and the public through the press for the military to continue to stay in
power. A campaign calling for direct presidential elections,
“diretas já,” was organizing protest and demonstrations in
all Brazilian cities. The military in many other Latin American nations were leaving or had left power and the
Brazilian military felt it was time for them to allow direct elections.
The mood of the country prior to the 1989 election was one of protest against the Cruzado Plan and its failure
to stop inflation and the rise of the foreign
debt. The election of 1989 was to be the first direct presidential election
since the election in 1960. There were many candidates ready to wear the Presidential
sash. From the Democratic Workers’ Party (PDT) was Leonel Brizola, who returned from exile to become the mayor of Rio. He was the
self-proclaimed political heir to the Vargas’s populism and had name recognition, but had little strength outside of Rio. The
PMDB’s candidate was Guimarães, the PFL candidate was Aurélio Chaves.
From the right there was Paulo Maluf for São
Paulo. The two candidates from the left with solid party backing
were Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva, of the Workers Party, (PT), and Mário Covas, former mayor of São Paulo, from the
Social Democratic Party (PDS). There was also Fernando Collor de Mello from the newly formed National Revolution
Party (PRN). In 1989 this party was less then one year old. Fernando Collor, at the age of 39, was little known outside of
his home state of Alagoas where he served as governor. Alagoas, like Sarney’s home state of Maranhão, is in the
northeast of Brazil, without much of an industrial base and a very traditional society, ruled by a few family who own
large amounts of land and control most of the money in the states.
Using this base, Collor’s candidacy was able to rise rapidly because he used a modern political marketing
campaign through the media, especially the television. He achieved national attention by showing how he reduced the fat
salaries of a select group of public officials in his state know as
Marajás were basically politicians
as well as public citizens who received government stipends for doing little if anything to earn a salary. Collor cast
himself as the opposite to Sarney and as one who would clean the government of corrupt politicians. His slick television
ads were very popular, especially for a vast majority of the Brazilian population with little if any formal education.
Collor was backed by senator João Lyra, the richest man in Alagoas who reportedly gave up to $16 million to
help elect Collor. Leading up to the election of 1989, the two candidates from the left, Covas and Lula seemed like the
most likely to succeed. Collor was far behind. In the July 1989 edition of the
Third World Quarterly an article about the Brazilian economy and
the up coming elections listed 9 major candidates for the presidency,
Collor was not on the this list.
But Collor promised, if elected, to create the conditions for the establishment of more capitalism in Brazil,
“capital with risk, not the bureaucratic system which currently rules Brazil. I don’t want to become president to
preserve privileges.” He promised to bring inflation down to 3% a month and to stop corruption in politics. He promised
not to use any shock treatment in dealing with the economy , only a “shock in confidence”. Collor planned, instead
of developing more ties with Latin America,
to strengthen ties with the first world, to compete on the same field
with Western Europe, the United States and Japan.
He wanted to join the group of seven leading industrial countries and make it the group of eight. All this
gave Brazilians much hope, they were coming out of years of military rule and it was a time of much optimism. Collor
was young and a new face in federal politics, he was an outsider and the people wanted to believe in him. For a
vice president, Collor chose Itamar Franco, a senator from the state of Minas Gerais. Franco, nicknamed the “Monk”,
was the opposite of Collor.
By election time Collor’s television campaign had pushed him up in the polls
and after the election he and Lula were the leading candidates
and faced off in a run off election in December. The conservatives within Brazil disliked
Lula and his Workers’ Party, and supported Collor. Lula was portrayed as a socialist and/or communist. Rumors
spread that his campaign was financed by the Russians. In spite of
this, all the polls indicated a close runoff. Collor won
by a margin of 35 million to 31 million. On the 15th of March, 1989, Fernando Collor de Mello was presented with
the Presidential sash and became the first directly elected president of Brazil since 1960.
Collor’s personality was important in setting the tone of his presidency. His personality also lead to his
decline. He was headstrong, arrogant, and materialistic, all these were exacerbated with his ascent to the presidency.
Collor’s practice came from the experience of family politics in his home state of Alagoas. His father and grandfather were
both senators and his and his wife’s family were full of current or former local, state and national politicians in
Alagoas. Collor thought he could bring this Alagoas’ style of politics to Brasília. He failed to anticipate the likelihood of
being caught performing illegal actions or of the public outrage.
Collor took office facing a monumental task, to curb inflation of up to 1000% a year and an intense pressure
to liberalize the Brazilian economy. From the start he had problems. His personal style clashed with members
of congress. A rife between Collor and PMDB’s president Ulysses Guimarães was exposed at the first session
of Congress. Collor wanted to attend the first session of Congress and present projects his administration had
planned for the country. He also wanted to speak at
this session but to be the only speaker, thus not allowing any
opposition from speaking or of accepting any questions.
Guimarães was to lead a walkout of Congress if Collor was allowed to speak. It was against the constitution for
a president to attend the first session of Congress and Guimarães wanted to have the right to question the president
on his projects in accordance with regulations governing the work of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies. The
President was allowed to attend regular sessions of Congress but not be the only
speaker. One day into office and Collor was already showing his true
side. But Collor continued to portray himself as a reformer.
In a speech early in his administration Collor describes his plan for his administration: “…My economic
programs rely on the principle that above anything else we need moral reform in the economic field. Government once
calmly coexisted with tax evasion and corruption. Parasitic businessmen and bureaucrats, although they were a minority,
set the tone for previous administrations. This will end here and now. I am determined to adapt the following
measures, which are meant to achieve this moralizing affect”. He goes on in the speech to list many economic abuses in
the government and businesses that he will clean up, from tax evasion to falsified salary payments. He said he would
bring the deficit to zero in one year.
Collor had promised no shock treatment to fix the economic problems but only a shock in “moral value”.
But although he had promised no radical economic reforms, Collor felt he had no choice but to rely on harsh
measures. At the outset of his administration, due to a honeymoon period, he was able, through provisional measures in
the constitution, to pass some reforms, most important was the freezing of Bank accounts,
the replacement of the Novo Cruzado with the Cruzeiro, the freezing of prices
and the adjustment of wages to help curb inflation.
The freezing of the bank accounts only allowed people to withdraw up to 50,000 Cruzeiros. The rest would be
held by the banks and converted 18 months later as Cruzeiros, adjusted for inflation and given 6% interest. The Central
bank thus had control for 18 months of a lot of money. By setting withdrawals at 50,000 Cruzeiros Collor claimed to
be affecting only the top 10% of the population. One problem was that many of these 10% were middle class people
who only had savings accounts as a means of acquiring extra money besides a salary.
In the first 100 days of the Collor administration there were a series of strikes, a mobilization of civil servants
and petty fights between the administration and legislators that stalled the streamlining of the government. By his
100th day in office the magazine Isto
É reported that Collor’s popularity had fallen
from 71% to 36%.
By freezing the bank accounts in an attempt to curb inflation, Collor raised the likelihood of corruption. The
Federal Government not only controlled the resources given to the states but they also controlled the access to most of
the countries private resources as well. The price of “commissions” rose as the supply of money was limited. During
the impeachment investigation, the CPI, the congressional committee reviewing evidence, reported that the price
of “commissions” for businessmen doing business with the government during Delfim Neto’s term as economic czar
was 10%, during the Sarney administration was 15-20% and under Collor was 30-40%. Businessmen and people
were forced to negotiate with government officials for use of their own money. Commissions, kickbacks
and the emergence of numerous collusions between business people and officials were the natural consequences of dependencies