Brazil's leader all at sea as economy sinks: Itamar Franco's course is still uncertain, writes Phil Davison in Rio de Janeiro

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.

When Mr Franco, 62, became acting president last October, pending President Fernando Collor de Mello's impeachment, polls showed that more than half of Brazilians did not know who the former senator was. Now, they know who he is but not what he is. After 100 days in the top job he is said to be feeling depressed, lovesick and isolated, often shutting himself off behind a tall iron fence around his at home to watch video movies and mope.

His few vocal supporters at senior level say there is a disinformation campaign to discredit him and destabilise the country. His populist ideas may be upsetting the ruling elite but are striking chords at grassroots level, they say. There is some truth in that. But even his friends are concerned about the President's psychological state.

They say the man who took over from the disgraced Mr Collor in December never wanted the job in the first place, was shocked as Mr Collor fell from grace and has considered resigning in recent weeks as his honeymoon with Brazilians, who at first revelled in the fall of Mr Collor, has ended. 'I can't take it,' he was recently quoted as telling a friend as criticism of his economic policies grew.

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. His bogeyman has turned out to be the economy - he is already on his third economics minister.

'Corruption remains Brazil's main problem,' said one congressional source in Brasilia who asked not to be named, without being specific. 'A lot of people think it would be a good idea if he resigned . . . He is simply not a leader.'

A right-wing congressman and former ambassador in London, Roberto Campos, is less harsh. 'He's rather depressed and feeling a little bit isolated. He tried to please the left but they squeezed him dry . . . His record is mediocre. He doesn't have any clear economic views but is anxious for very quick results . . . It would be a disaster if he were to resign. But it may be a disaster if he stays.'

Mr Franco's problems began even before he took over from Mr Collor. First, his security men discovered his phones had been tapped both at his Brasilia home and at a Rio hotel he visited. Suspicion fell on Mr Collor, who may have been seeking 'goods' on Mr Franco's personal life, but the source of the tap was never revealed.

Then, days before he took over from Mr Collor, his mother died at the age of 91. He had been very close to her. On top of that loss, the strains of his new job led to the break-up of his relationship with a beautiful woman almost half his age, Lisle Heusi Lucena, 34, a senator's daughter. But friends said this week they were seeing each other again discreetly.

Mr Franco's biggest mistake was widely seen as his bust-up last month with his second economics minister, Paulo Haddad. Mr Haddad, widely respected in financial circles, abruptly resigned after the President gave him a deadline to slash Brazil's crippling 1,500 per cent annual inflation rate.

The price rises are eating into workers' wages and causing increasing social unrest. Rio was hit this week by a spate of supermarket break-ins that - after looters had followed the initial burglars - left shelves empty.

Mr Franco has pledged to create 4 million jobs, feed the hungry - estimated at between 30 and 60 million of the country's 150 million population - lower the cost of housing, raise the minimum wage (around pounds 40 a month) and clamp down on chronic tax evasion.

He is credited with two political successes in his 100 days. First, he took much of the wind out of the sails of the far left by coaxing into his centre-left cabinet a founder of the Workers' Party, Luiza Erundina, a popular former mayor of Sao Paulo. The move shattered the unity of the Workers' Party.

And last week Congress approved Mr Franco's controversial tax package, including a state levy on financial transactions. It was seen as a political victory but the package itself brought heavy criticism from the stock market.

A columnist in the Rio daily Jornal do Brasil compared Mr Franco to an American visiting the Rio carnival. 'He doesn't understand the lyrics, he ain't got rhythm, he can't dance and he came without a costume.'

It is without costumes that many characters appear in the erotic stories the President writes, or used to write. One quoted by the Brazilian edition of Playboy and penned before Mr Franco's latest troubles, contained the following passage: '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.'

(Photograph omitted)

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