Strengthening Democracy in Brazil Move by Congress to Limit Executive Powers Is Latest Evidence of Criticism of Collor Presidency

By Julia Michaels, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 12, 1991 | Go to article overview

Strengthening Democracy in Brazil Move by Congress to Limit Executive Powers Is Latest Evidence of Criticism of Collor Presidency


Julia Michaels, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


WAGNER SUGAMELE created a stir the day of Brazil's most-recent election last October. On the way to the polls, he met up with a woman who could not climb stairs, because she had just had a baby.

"She wanted to vote, but the electoral official wouldn't send the ballot box downstairs to her," he recalls. An experienced community organizer, Mr. Sugamele made a little street speech about disabled peoples' rights and threatened to call the press. Soon the ballot box was on its way to the new mother - another small victory for the people.

Sugamele says the incident illustrates just one challenge Brazil's developing democracy faces - bureaucratic indifference. He and others were asked about the progress of Brazil's young democracy, even as the country's Congress acted last week to restrict the executive power of President Fernando Collor de Mello.

Having exercised free speech and voting rights, does Sugamele feel he lives in a democracy?

"No, I don't think so," he answers, sitting behind a desk at his storefront despachante firm, a Brazilian institution that cuts bureaucratic red tape - for a fee.

"As long as illiterates have to be able to read to vote, this is not a democracy," Sugamele says. "Most of the population is semi-illiterate, and the ballots have no photos of the candidates.... As long as you don't have education, health, or justice, you can't have a democracy."

And political observers say other signs indicate Brazil may be functioning less as a democracy than it should. Cited frequently are Mr. Collor's economic policies. The president, critics say, has curbed rights ensured by the Constitution with stern economic policies - including freezing individual bank accounts and setting price controls - to fight stubborn inflation.

"He has an authoritarian bias," says Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, head of the Violence Studies Nucleus at the University of Sao Paulo. "He thinks he is king."

Mr. Pinheiro and others point out that Collor frequently uses "temporary measures" not ratified by elected representatives. Under the Constitution, any such temporary measure must be ratified by Congress within 30 days.

The government, these critics say, circumvents democracy by stringing together several such orders, each lasting 30 days. Even if Congress votes down a measure, another pops up to take its place for 30 more days.

The chamber of deputies (the lower house of Brazil's Congress, roughly equivalent to the United States House of Representatives), approved a bill last Wednesday restricting the president's use of temporary measures.

"We need to end this curse: Wages, the economy, everything is temporary," said Ulysses Guimaraes, president of the opposition Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, in a speech.

"Our lives cannot be temporary. This is not the reason so many were arrested or killed," he added, referring to the long struggle for a return to democracy. The Brazilian Senate must now vote on the bill to restrict Collor's use of temporary measures.

To be sure, Brazil is closer to democracy today. Ruled by a military dictatorship for more than two decades until 1985, the country has held all levels of elections since then.

"There are no soldiers in the streets," says Inocencio Martires Coelho, the Justice Ministry's legal consultant. "The courts function. Congress functions. The press isn't censored.... And torture has disappeared as a practice, despite some localized violence."

But if democracy is to be lasting, as many Latin countries have found, it must be a process with rules of law that are systematically followed, say Brazilian political scientists.

"There are elections, political parties, a Congress," says Vilmar Faria, president of Cebrap, the Brazilian Center for Planning and Analysis, an independent think tank. "There's no threat on the horizon (to the system). …

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