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Dark Days in Brazil

BRAZIL played gracious host to the Earth Summit in June, and many delegates and a worldwide television audience gained an impression of a beautiful land with a spirited people. The "new" Latin America was on vibrant display.

Beneath the glittering surfaces of Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia, however, is a troubled nation. The contradiction between appearances and reality is personified in Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello.

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Mr. Collor - young, handsome, dynamic - burst out of political obscurity in 1989 to become Brazil's first directly elected president in 29 years. He ran as a champion of free-market economics, fiscal discipline, and probity in public life. Today, however, with his economic-reform program incomplete, Collor's administration is viewed as a failure.

Now Collor is under the shadow of an imminent impeachment drive. A congressional investigating panel charges that the president and members of his family received millions of dollars in secret payments from a businessman who is said to trade on his government connections for influence peddling. The family coffers were being filled at a time when Collor had imposed a banking freeze and other harsh anti-inflation measures on the nation.

Collor may still defeat an expected motion in the Chamber of Deputies to start impeachment proceedings. Though his political support appears to be evaporating, Collor is wooing deputies with promises of increased public spending. But an increase in spending to save Collor's career could sink the government's struggling anti-inflation program and undermine the recent debt-reduction agreement Brazil reached with its foreign bankers.

Several members of Collor's Cabinet have resigned in protest against the corruption scandal. Fortunately, Economy Minister Marcilio Marques Moreira has remained in place. Mr. Moreira is seen by many economists and international bankers as the sole bulwark against runaway spending and the return of hyperinflation.

While the scandal swirling around Collor is significant in its own right, it also is symptomatic of a larger political chaos in Brazil. The country has dozens of small parties, most of which serve narrow interests with little regard for the nation's well-being.

The immaturity of Brazil's democracy is partly the legacy of the military's control for more than two decades until 1985. Happily, despite the nation's many problems, the Army has shown no inclination to insert itself into politics again. As throughout most of Latin America (despite recent flare-ups in Venezuela and Peru), Brazil's generals seem to have learned that they don't have the answers to problems requiring long-term political, economic, and social reform.

Brazil's politicians have at least some of the answers, but so far they have lacked the will and the vision to stay the course. It's disappointing to see Latin America's largest nation still mired in discredited ways of the past.

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