Constitution gets overhauling again

Would a century be enough for Brazilian congressmen to conclude the
debate phase on reforming the constitution and start the voting? Not really, say
some analysts, just half jokingly.

Ricardo Paoletti

Lawmakers have their hands full, in Brazil, these days. The National Congress and the Senate are set to review
the country’s constitution, not even seven years old and yet subject to substantial, massive technical amendments. At
last count, there were close to 500 suggested changes to the “Magna Carta,” as is respectably called the federal body
of laws that guide Brazilian institutions.

It looks like that anything goes: on the table are suggestions ranging from an odd proposal to include freedom of
sexual orientation as a fundamental goal of the Republic, to a change in the way the Republic itself is run, from
today’s presidentialism to a congress-centric parliamentarism — an idea already defeated in a general plebiscite five years
ago. And all that in an especially turbulent year when municipal elections are set for coming November.

When the current Constitution was approved in October of 1988, it marked the end of a twenty-year period
inaugurated by the military coup of 1964, when federal law was something usually associated with the will of the sitting
general-president. The collapse of the military regime, caused in large part by human rights abuses and a faltering
economy, brought a cry for a complete re-write of the existing laws. So large was the list of social grievances accumulated by
the elected constituintes, as were called the congressmen designated to create the new constitution, that from the
outset it was clear that this set of bills would be anything but short and generic. And, once finally approved, it included a
built-in provision for the complete revision that is now set to take place.

When this process will be completed is a matter open to heated debate. Political analysts calculate that, at its
current pace, Congress would need not more and not less than 120 years to debate and vote all the suggested
amendments. Not an acceptable prognostic by Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s measure. He wants the
constitution revision done by September, so one of his most cherished amendments, the one permitting his own re-election,
could be debated before the heat of the local elections’ season.

Politicians loyal to the administration, with their optimism set to the highest possible levels, calculated that they
could get the job done in about six months. To help smooth the course of the debate and guarantee a comfortable
majority of votes for the administration’s proposals, president Cardoso decided to promote a wholesale change of
ministries this past April, offering seats in the powerful secretaries of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce, and Political
Issues to new allies.

 

But such a move still has to prove to be enough to counterweight blunders like the one that stopped in its tracks
the reform of the Social Securities program, a major set of rules up for discussion. It just so happened that the
minister of the Supremo Tribunal Federal, Brazil’s high court, wasn’t happy with the course of the debates and decided
to decree its suspension. “As a citizen, I wish that the 1988 laws could be practiced and experienced a little more”,
justified the minister Marco Aurélio de Mello. Mello’s decree was finally reverted, but the delay was enough to make
even administration loyalists, the ones in a hurry, admit that the bulk of the reforms wouldn’t be set to vote until next year.

Such admission has raised red flags in the real world of economics and labor relations. Labor unions want
social reforms quick, and business associations think that the country’s new currency, the Real, widely credited with
the flattening of the inflation rate from a monthly 40% to close to 0%, isn’t strong enough to go undamaged through
such a long period of uncertainty. To make the congressmen feel their urgency, workers and employers are considering
the unheard of idea of promoting a general work stoppage by mutual agreement. “Congress can’t turn their backs
on society. We don’t have time to spare. If we’re left with no choice, we will stop to promote advancement”, says
São Paulo’s Industries Federation (FIESP) president, Carlos Eduardo Moreira Ferreira, a conservative businessman
turned social agitator by circumstance.

He certainly has a point, since history stubbornly won’t stop waiting for the new set of reformed laws. Late last
April, a massacre of more than 30 rallying peasants in Central Brazil by troops from the State of Pará’s Military

Police brought to the surface the issue of land distribution in the country — and, once again, resuscitated and
offered new blood to the debate on agrarian reform, an issue more than 30 years old that the insurgent military put to rest
in 64, along with the existing Constitution.

Now, the Agrarian Reform will compete for a spot in the limelight with suggestions like mandatory public service
by all graduates from state universities; or the extinction of a most disrespected law, the 12% limit on annual interest
rate charged for bank loans; or the creation of a special seat in the Senate for retired Presidents. Or, yet, the
introduction of death penalty — the very first of all the amendment suggestions, filed when the 1988 Constitution was only one
day old.

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