Brazil shapes up under 'intellectual' president

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Rio de Janeiro

When the Brazilian President, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, met his US counterpart at the UN birthday celebrations in New York last week, he handed over an unusual gift; the memoirs of Cordell Hull, Secretary of State to one of Bill Clinton's White House predecessors, Franklin D Roosevelt.

Would Mr Clinton not have been more interested in a souvenir from Brazil? Perhaps. But Mr Cardoso was giving the American President a message. During the creation of the UN, Messrs Roosevelt and Hull had promised Brazil a permanent seat on the Security Council, a promise never kept but often cited by the 65-year-old former sociologist who now rules Brazil. Mr Cardoso was telling Mr Clinton that Brazil's time had come. UN officials now say Brazil is a serious contender to become the first Latin American permanent member of an expanded Security Council.

This is due in no small part to Mr Cardoso's success in stabilising his nation since he took office on 1 January. He has tamed rampant inflation, shaken up a notoriously corrupt Congress, ended state monopolies in oil and communications, fostered increased trade with the European Union and generally improved the image of a nation whose last elected president, Fernando Collor de Mello, resigned as he was being impeached for corruption.

Now, Mr Cardoso is pushing through constitutional reforms of the tax system, social security and public workers' contracts, all of which he hopes will be in place by next year. With his popularity still as high as when he was elected, few doubt that he will eventually try to push through another constitutional reform: to allow him to run again in 1998.

"He's a superb Brazilian president in relation to his immediate predecessors," said Richard Foster, a political analyst who runs the newsletter BrazilWatch in Brasilia. "He's not a macho president. He's an intellectual with specific goals. He's lived in the US and France. He speaks foreign languages and has a quick understanding of how First World leaders think." Dr Paulo Calmon, professor of political science at Brasilia University, said: "He's probably the most popular leader in Latin America. But

Mr Cardoso was a leading sociologist when he was appointed economy minister in late 1993. By July 1994, he had launched his "Real Plan", casting off the old cruzeiro and replacing it with a new currency, the real, pegged loosely to the dollar. Previously, retail prices were rising by 50 per cent a month. When I visited Brazil shortly before the plan's introduction, my hotel cashier could not fit the zeros on to a single credit-card bill. Now, inflation is around 2 per cent a month, the real is worth slightly more than a dollar and Brazil's poor, the vast majority, strongly support the Real Plan.

Not everyone does. Farmers are demanding easier credit terms, and Mr Cardoso faces regular protests from landless peasants, demanding that he speed up land reforms.

Most analysts agree that economic stability is a prerequisite for social improvement. Violence in the cities, particularly in Rio, remains a serious problem. There are 21 homicides in the city daily. US anti-narcotics agents say that Brazil is becoming a processing and transit point for cocaine, and in addition to the kidnapping of poor girls for prostitution, there has been a new spate of kidnappings of the sons or daughters of wealthy businessmen.

Still, Mr Cardoso is focusing his efforts on a reform which would slash the salaries of 7 million public employees. Until now, being employed by government in Brazil was one of the world's most secure jobs. At senior level, civil servants earned several times as much as the President. They could not be sacked, even if they turned up to work only to collect their pay.

In a key vote last week, a congressional committee approved most of the constitutional amendment which would allow public employees to be sacked. It still has a long way to go, but is seen as a symbol of the president's economic revolution.

"Cardoso knows it'll take 10, 15, 20 years to get Brazil into reasonable shape," said Mr Foster, "but he wants to be able to say, 'We started it in 1995.' "