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Brazil’s first impeached president: “I see the same situation happening now”

. May 05, 2020
collor impeachment bolsonaro Former President and current Senator Fernando Collor de Mello. Photo: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/ABr

A retelling of the history of Brazilian politics would be incomplete without the name Fernando Collor de Mello. In 1990, at age 40, he was sworn in as the country’s first democratically elected president after 21 years of military dictatorship. Two years later, he also became the first Brazilian head of state to be impeached, following mounting corruption allegations. 

But the story of the Collor de Mello clan does not start with Fernando. His grandfather Lindolfo Collor was a key member of the 1930 coup d’état that consolidated Getulio Vargas’ grip on power, and he was made Brazil’s first-ever Labor Minister. Meanwhile, ex-President Collor’s father Arnon de Melo was also a congressman, governor, and senator — who went down in infamy for killing a fellow senator in the Congress building in 1963, yet avoiding any punishment.

Fernando Collor de Mello’s years in the presidency were turbulent, to say the least. One day after taking office, he announced a radical plan to tame Brazil’s wild inflation rate of 84 percent a month (yes, a month): he changed the currency, taxed financial transactions, froze prices and wages, and — most famously — blocked all withdrawals from savings accounts. With 80 percent of Brazilians’ money kept in these accounts, around USD 100 billion was frozen, or 30 percent of the country’s GDP at the time. Losses from the Collor Plan led to a slew of lawsuits, some of which are still running in Brazilian courts.

As president, Mr. Collor’s agenda included opening up the public sector to privatization, encouraging free trade, and modernizing industry. His reforms were unpopular among the public and eventually proved to be inefficient. As popular support dwindled, corruption accusations against his administration began to surface. Congress took the opportunity to oust him from office in 1992, when he was formally charged by the Supreme Court with corruption and leading a criminal organization. He was later found not guilty on all counts.

“I made the mistake of not paying due attention to building my coalition in Congress — and developing a more fluid dialogue with politicians and parties. The result was my downfall. I see the same situation happening now,” he said, in an exclusive interview with The Brazilian Report

The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

</p> <p><strong>You were recently quoted as saying: &#8220;It is up to the president to reunite the country. But we see division between people, families, and friends. The problem is serious and has unpredictable consequences. I&#8217;ve already seen this movie, and it was not a good one.&#8221; What did you mean by that?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>I went through a similar situation. Though there are more differences than similarities [between my administration and Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s], the situation is worrisome, especially with regard to Congress. I made the mistake of not giving the proper attention to building a coalition or developing a more fluid dialogue with politicians and parties.</p><p>The result was my downfall from the presidency. I see the same situation happening now: a distance between the president and Congress. [President Bolsonaro] is trying rapprochement now, but it might be too little, too late. I do not know if this movement will bring in good results for his administration, mainly because his approach has been to go over the heads of lawmakers.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>Ex-Justice Minister Sergio Moro recently left the cabinet accusing Mr. Bolsonaro of trying to tamper with federal probes. Could this latest crisis result in an impeachment process against the president?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>The Prosecutor General&#8217;s Office is investigating the case, and could soon present an indictment request against President Bolsonaro. If the House accepts the indictment, which needs a two-thirds majority, he would be suspended from office for 180 days.&nbsp;</p></blockquote> <p><strong>Mr. Bolsonaro has tried to negotiate with caucuses based on particular issues — such as public security, agribusiness — instead of dealing with political parties. Can that strategy work in Brazil?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>No, because the leaders of these caucuses are not the same people who lead parties and whip votes. Only party leadership has the power to guide benches in favor of a bill. Politics has to be done with political parties, not issue-based caucuses.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>How do you evaluate President Bolsonaro&#8217;s handling of the coronavirus pandemic?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>He has not followed the basic textbook on how to handle a critical situation. The disagreement between him and his former Health Minister [Luiz Henrique Mandetta] stands out and shows that there is no coordination to tackle any crisis, not to mention a pandemic.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>What about new Health Minister Nelson Teich?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>I hope that the new minister will provide unified guidance to policymakers. The population will get the short end of the stick from this lack of coordination. They do not know who to follow — the president, who is against social isolation, or the World Health Organization and all public health authorities in the world, who advise in favor of stay-home practices.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>The Workers&#8217; Party suggested holding a meeting between former presidents to seek solutions to the crisis. What do you make of that idea?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>No one has asked me, but the Constitution foresees a so-called &#8220;Council of the Republic,&#8221; to be formed by the heads of both congressional chambers, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, party leaders, and even former presidents. The latter group is important because it brings experience to the table. But there is a culture in Brazil of not listening to former leaders. In my government, I listened my predecessors, [Army General] João Baptista Figueiredo and José Sarney, who advised me on decisions.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>So what advice would you give President Bolsonaro?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>The president needs to be concerned with governability and stability. It is up to him to reunite the country around a national project, and showing people that they have a place in that project. Nor should he forget that, as the nation&#8217;s political leader, he must do politics through institutional channels, by which I mean parties and politicians. He must do this to avoid the sudden end of his government.

 
Brenno Grillo

The Brazilian Report's correspondent in Brasília, Brenno has worked as a journalist since 2012, specializing in coverage related to law and the justice system. He has worked for O Estado de S. Paulo, Portal Brasil, ConJur, and has experience in political campaigns.

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