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By Reform projects have been tabled several times, calling for district
voting, optional voting (currently voting is mandatory), and strengthened party loyalty.
Without these basic changes, negotiating anything in Brazil resembles hand-to-hand combat,
where vested interests come first.

Brazilian politicians have the enduring ability to act like ostriches, avoiding the
most pressing, national matters, while pursuing minor issues—usually, those that tend
to their regional or individual interests. Too often, they ignore the obvious priorities
of the day, while preferential treatment is given to items either not relevant to, or at
odds with the common good.

As the year draws to a close, the ostriches are definitely on the loose, and virtually
unopposed. Their natural enemy would be the federal government—the President is seen
by most Brazilians as having that role. But his lingering, record-low popularity means he
can’t lead the charge, and his excessively considerate style indicates he wouldn’t do it,
even if he had the backing. In fact, when President Cardoso did have the support to push
hard for reforms, he didn’t.

Trouble is, the dangers posed by such irresponsible ways are growing quickly. An
indicting example of what this attitude can cause surfaced in recent weeks with amendments
to next year’s federal budget submitted by members of Congress resulting, if approved, in
R$22 billion (about US$13 billion) in new government expenses in 2000—a 36 percent
increase over total amendments to last year’s budget requesting additional spending.

This represents a growing lack of recognition by lawmakers of Brazil’s need to reign
in, not expand cash outlays. And it’s not difficult to explain why this is happening. This
thirst for federal funds is a direct consequence of next year’s nationwide municipal
elections. In an election year, federal politicians want money spent on projects that will
help "their" candidates succeed at the municipal level. So they pressure
Brasília to come up with the goods—regardless of where the money will come from
(usually additional debt), or what getting it will do to the overall financial picture.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with politicians going to Congress to bat
for important causes for the areas they represent. That’s the way it’s done most anywhere
else. The problem is that Brazil has major, national obstacles to overcome, which require
the attention—and votes—of politicians at the federal level. These are matters
that affect everyone, which can only be resolved through constitutional amendments, which
in turn require three-fifths of votes in the Chamber of Deputies (the Lower House) and the
Senate to go through.

Constitutional amendments should not be part of any government’s routine, but they are
in Brazil, because the last attempt to revise the Constitution replaced one patchwork
quilt that had been tampered with by the military regime, with another, filled with
built-in time bombs. This happened in 1986, when a new Congress was elected with the
specific duty of writing the new Constitution.

The end result of that Constitutional Assembly’s work came into force in October of
1988. Rather than a concise series of fundamental rights and responsibilities to be
perfected over time, the final document is an extensive hodge-podge, heavy on rights and
light on responsibilities, that includes everything from rules for adoption to
anti-illiteracy measures, labor laws, rules governing citizenship, consumer rights,
irrigation resources, guidelines for professional sports competitions, airport
infrastructures, fishing and oil exploration, property rights, telecommunications… in
other words, just about everything that should be dealt with in a country’s law books was
jammed into that new Constitution.

Not surprisingly, this relatively young Magna Carta has already suffered 23 amendments,
and will surely be amended many more times before it can be considered workable. Among its
most damaging consequences is today’s social insurance deficit, closing in on R$45 billion
a year (about US$25 billion) largely because of numerous guarantees built into the
Constitution, without concern for where the money would come from to cover the costs.

Social Insurance reform is just one of those true priorities that get
consistently—and intentionally—ignored by legislators, while things like a name
change for an airport in Maceió, capital of Alagoas state in northeastern Brazil, get
approved without much difficulty. Two weeks ago, the federal legislature held a so-called
"concentrated effort", when 22 items considered priorities were to be brought to
a vote. Of those, only four were even considered—one of them was that airport name
change…

If legislators chose to concentrate on regional issues because of merit, that would
hardly be a target for criticism. But it simply isn’t the case. There are no electoral
districts in Brazil, so regional concerns are totally informal—nothing officially
binds a politician to a specific area, except for interests the legislator identifies,
through his or her own criteria.

Some actually do good work, and make a reasonable effort to win government investments
and improvements for specific areas where presumably most of their votes came from. But in
most cases, so-called priorities pursued by legislators ahead of vital matters at hand,
are nothing but pure political convenience, with little or no concern for what is in fact
needed in the affected region. They want the money channeled to their area, but true need
or administrative efficiency aren’t the predominant reason for their choice of location or
type of projects—rather, the figures involved and who will manage the funds tend to
be more important details.

The way to change all this, of course, is through political reform—another of
those priorities that sits ignored by legislators. Reform projects have been tabled
several times, calling for district voting, optional voting (currently voting is
mandatory), and strengthened party loyalty. Without these basic changes, negotiating
anything in Brazil means long, drawn-out processes resembling hand-to-hand combat, where
vested interests will continue to come first.

Brazil’s top weekly news magazine, Veja, recently created a reform scoreboard of
sorts, in an attempt to expose this behavior. Each week, the scoreboard indicates whether
the six most important reforms—tax, social insurance, political, judiciary,
administrative, and fiscal responsibility—have moved forward, hung steady, or lost
ground. Sad to say, it is a rare week when any of those vital adjustments Brazil needs to
make, actually gain some ground.

It is the way so many politicians persist with these methods that has Brazilians so
disappointed in their politicians these days—exceptions are very rare indeed. The
media has spared no effort to expose wrongdoers, as well as the way poor work by
politicians in the past catches up with everyone at some point, usually with a steep price
tag. The current social insurance crisis, a direct result of a demagoguery-filled
constitutional effort by politicians wanting to "make their mark" on the
document, is perhaps the best example.

Without a major outcry and sustained pressure from society, there’s little reason to
believe Brazil’s politicians will ever tackle political or other reforms with the speed
and expediency required. And rallying public opinion behind theses causes is proving to be
a very difficult task.

One possible solution is hoping the government is right about its projections—that
economic growth will reach 4 percent in 2000. That might restore enough of president
Cardoso’s popularity, to allow him to finally pressure legislators into action. That is,
if Cardoso has learned anything from not moving on all major reforms five years ago, when
he had the type of approval rating presidents usually dream of. It may also be his last
chance of improving what history books will say about his two terms in office.

Adhemar Altieri is a veteran with major news outlets in Brazil, Canada
and the United States. He holds a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Northwestern
University in Evanston, Illinois, and spent ten years with CBS News reporting from Canada
and Brazil. Altieri is a member of the Virtual Intelligence Community, formed by The
Greenfield Consulting Group to identify future trends for Latin America. He is also the
editor of InfoBrazil (http://www.infobrazil.com),
an English-language weekly e-zine with analysis and opinions on Brazilian politics and
economy. You can reach the author at editors@infobrazil.com

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