Itamar Franco: Politician who led Brazil through financial chaos and paved the way for the country's new-found prosperity

Itamar Franco led Brazil through a time of financial chaos in the early 1990s, helping tame rampant inflation of 1,500 per cent and paving the way for a period of economic boom into this century. To many, however, he was probably best known for a famous photograph of him, at the time a 63-year-old divorcé, kissing and gyrating with a 27-year old Playboy cover girl, Lilian Ramos, during the 1994 Rio de Janeiro carnival. Taken from below the presidential platform, the photo left no doubt that Miss Ramos was wearing only a shortish, jungle-print T-shirt, gold high-heeled sandals and a broad smile. Not even what Brazilians call "dental floss" – a thong.

After a chorus of condemnation, notably from the Catholic church, and no small amount of envy among Brazilian males, Franco survived the scandal. Less conservative Brazilians insisted that liberation from underwear was a Rio Carnival tradition for both males and females. "What was I supposed to do, lend her a pair of panties?" the president asked reporters afterwards. "How am I supposed to know if people are wearing underwear?"

Although he was president for a little over two years, from December 1992 until January 1995, he won widespread respect, not least because his dashing playboy predecessor, Fernando Collor de Mello, had resigned to avoid impeachment on corruption charges. Other former Brazilian presidents, including Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Collor himself, stood in vigil at Franco's wake in his home city of Juiz da Fora, while the current president, Dilma Rousseff, declared seven days of official mourning.

Franco's greatest legacy was probably the implementation of the Plano Real, or the Real Plan, to restore some worth to the national currency, the real, which had become little more than monopoly money. The bold plan, designed by his Finance Minister Fernando Henrique Cardoso – later to take over as president – fell just short of a dollarisation of the system. It launched what was effectively a new currency, slashed government spending and raised interest rates to attract foreign capital. At its heart was the conversion of salaries and numerous other prices into what were called Real Value Units (URVs), which were then linked to the dollar.

Although Cardoso got most of the credit – inflation came down to less than 20 per cent within two years – Franco was praised for hauling Brazil out of a quagmire, thereby also shoring up its democracy when the military were looking restless. Franco, in fact, had been elected vice-president on the same ticket as Collor in 1989, only four years after the end of more than two decades of military rule. The mind-boggling inflation Franco inherited was causing increasing social unrest when he took over, with Rio hit by a spate of supermarket break-ins and looters stripping shelves bare.

Itamar Augusto Cautiero Franco was born on the Atlantic Ocean in June 1930. His mother Itália – the daughter of Italian immigrants – gave birth prematurely on a cruise ship between Salvador de Bahía and Rio: hence his unique Christian name – the ship was called the Ita and mar is Portuguese for "sea". His father César, whose mother was a German immigrant called Stiebler, had died shortly before his birth. Itamar's mother moved to Juiz de Fora, in the state of Minas Gerais, where she worked as a seamstress and he helped her put together and sell lunchboxes for local factory workers.

After graduating in civil and electronic engineering in the 1950s, he launched a construction company and served as the city's director of water and sewers. For whatever reason, responsibility for the sewers led him into politics and he was elected mayor of Juiz de Fora, serving two terms (1967-71 and 1973-74) and gaining a reputation as an unusually ethical politician. He belonged to the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), the only legal opposition party for much of the 1964-85 military rule, and was elected to the Senate twice during the general's reign – in 1974 and 1982 – representing the state of Minas Gerais. Switching to the Liberal Party (PL), he helped push for democratic elections for president.

While serving in the National Constituent Assembly from 1987, he voted for severance of relations with any country practising racial discrimination (aimed at South Africa at that time), for the legalisation of abortion, against the reintroduction of the death penalty and for cutting the working week to 40 hours.

In his spare time he wrote both non-fiction and fiction, including several erotic short stories, a fact that only added to his reputation as a Lothario. Soon after he became president, the Brazilian edition of Playboy quoted a passage from one of his works: "As she slipped into the bathtub, spilling water on all sides, he felt the ultimate ecstasy and tried to enter deeper and deeper, with a rising cadence, into her perfect body. Their bodies vibrated and, their lips glued together, they felt as one. Those were marvellous days."

As Latin American correspondent for The Independent, I visited Rio after his first 100 days in office to assess his popularity. On 10 April 1993, I wrote in this paper: "Itamar Franco, Brazil's president, was born premature at sea, surprising his mother during a cruise. 'Now he's immature and all at sea,' goes the quip at diplomatic parties.

"Mr Franco has taken to wearing sunglasses, is insomniac, anxious, suffers from regular nerve-related ailments and prefers to stay in his modest home to watch videos or write erotic short stories, friends say. 'I believe in ghosts and Saci-Pierre,' he told reporters recently, referring to Brazil's traditional one-legged, pipe-smoking bogeyman."

After the presidency, Franco served as governor of Minas Gerais (1999-2003). He then supported Lula da Silva's presidential campaign and served spells as Brazilian ambassador to Portugal and as its representative to the Organisation of American States (OAS) in Washington DC.Just last year, he was re-elected asa senator for Minas Gerais for theopposition Popular Socialist Party (PPS), where he served until his recent illness.

PHIL DAVISON

Itamar Franco, civil engineer and politician: born at sea 28 June 1930; married 1968 Ana Elisa Surerus (separated 1971, divorced 1978; two daughters); died Sao Paolo 2 July 2011.

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