Obituary: Ulysses Guimaraes

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The Independent Online
Ulysses da Silveira Guimaraes, politician, born Rio Claro Sao Paulo 6 October 1916, died Angra dos Reis 13 October 1992.

ULYSSES GUIMARAES was one of that rare breed, a highly respected Brazilian politician. He had few detractors, and was variously acclaimed as 'the grand old man of Brazilian politics', 'Mr Democracy' and 'Brazil's elder statesman'.

Guimaraes trained as a lawyer and was a professor of constitutional law for many years. He entered Congress in 1947 as a federal deputy from Sao Paulo for the centrist Social Democratic Party (PSD), one of the political groupings that emerged from the authoritarian regime of Getulio Vargas. But it was as a leading opponent of the military governments that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 that he really made his name.

At the very end of his life he took a prominent role in the movement to impeach the democratically elected successor to those de facto regimes, Fernando Collor de Mello. The congressional session that voted for the impeachment last month was a sort of political apotheosis for Guimaraes, who received a standing ovation. He was still an active federal deputy at the age of 76 when he was killed in a helicopter crash.

He spent 44 years in Congress, serving 11 terms, and stood unsuccessfully for President against Mr Collor in 1989, at the age of 72. He was the candidate of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), created by the military in 1965 as a loyal civilian opposition, but which never gave the soldiers an easy time of it. In 1984, as president of the PMDB, he led an unsuccessful campaign to oblige the military to hold direct elections, and kept up the pressure until full democratic elections were finally held in 1989. As chairman of the Constituent Assembly, he was largely responsible for drafting the new democratic constitution under which these elections were held.

After the 1984 elections, Guimaraes decided to throw the weight of the PMDB behind Jose Sarney, a right-winger favoured by the military who became President after the death of the successful candidate, Tancredo Neves.

This proved to be a bad move as far as Guimaraes's personal ambitions were concerned. Sarney was unpopular, inflicting a series of economic 'shock' programmes on the long-suffering Brazilian public, without making much impact on the runaway inflation and stagnating production that had long beset the economy. The PMBD, the largest party backing Sarney, took much of the blame, and this was reflected in Guimaraes's woeful showing in the 1989 elections, which were fought out by two relative political newcomers: the right-wing playboy, Fernando Collor, and Luis Inacio 'Lula' da Silva, trade unionist leader of the left-wing Workers' Party (PT).

Guimaraes had a reputation as a vigorous campaigner against corruption in political and economic life, and at first he backed Collor's reforms, which were designed to open up Brazil's notoriously protected and inefficient industries to competition, and rid government of the bribery, influence-peddling and embezzlement that were commonplace in public life.

But when he became convinced of Collor's own involvement in such practices, Guimaraes became a deadly and implacable campaigner for his removal. For a number of years he had been an influential critic of Brazil's presidential system, arguing that it gave too much power to a single individual, and should be replaced by a parliamentary form of government. After the disillusioning experience of the Collor presidency, such a reform could yet prove to be Guimaraes's most important legacy.

(Photograph omitted)

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