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Disgraced Latin pols rise again

Three coming elections in South America may include tainted candidates.

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From the moment his helicopter touched down at the edge of this distant sugar-cane field, former President Fernando Collor de Mello's million-dollar smile never left his face.

Not during the mad scrum of supporters who met him at the chopper door; not during a two-hour walk through Anadia's dusty streets; and especially not while receiving big, wet kisses from toothless old women who mobbed him as if he were a film star.

Impeached on corruption charges in 1992, the disgraced former president is on the campaign trail again. This time, Mr. Collor is seeking to become the governor of Alagoas state, and his comeback indicates a broader trend in Latin America. Across the region, voters are giving politicians who were jailed, disgraced, or quite simply disastrous, a second chance.

In Argentina, Carlos Menem, who was accused of corruption and illegal arms sales, is positioning himself for a run at the presidency next year.

The favorite to win Paraguay's election next April, former presidential candidate and Army chief Lino Oviedo, currently in exile in Brazil, was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison for plotting a 1996 coup, and is being investigated for the murder of the country's vice president in 1999.

Two years after fleeing to Japan amid corruption charges and alleged ties to death squads, Peru's former two-term President Alberto Fujimori spoke last month of running for president in 2006.

And Venezuela's current President Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998, six years after being jailed for leading a failed coup in which 14 people died.

"In Latin America, the first decade of the century is a return to some crazy mix of populism, statism, personalityism," said Riordan Roett, the director of Western Hemisphere studies at Johns Hopkins University. "Memories are very short; political culture is very shallow. Poorly educated people who are at the margins of society respond to these big guys...."

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