Fulfilling Brazil's Promise: A Conversation with President Cardoso

Courtesy Reuters

Brazil's penchant in this century for bursts of reformist zeal followed by relapses into political chaos and authoritarianism has kept alive the wry observation that "it is the country of tomorrow--and always will be." Through the years, the spasms of reform could claim specific accomplishments but never a full turnaround. Thus the potential of South America's largest country, occupying half the continent, remains to be realized. Its resources for greatness are plentiful: 155 million people, a $500 billion gross domestic product, the continent's biggest industrial infrastructure, and a productive agricultural sector. Brazil also has gigantic problems--20 percent of its population living in poverty, income inequality comparable to that of Nigeria and Egypt, deteriorating health care and education systems, a culture inured to an inflationary economy, and skyrocketing crime rates (so high in Rio de Janeiro that the army has been called out to combat crime and disorder).

Foremost, Brazil needs a sustained period of low inflation and steady growth, accompanied by social and infrastructure development. These goals are at the heart of the reformist government headed by Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The new president is a 63-year-old sociologist who served as a senator and finance minister before his effective anti-inflation plan propelled him to a landslide victory in elections last October. In office since January, Cardoso is being called the most honest and best prepared president of Brazil in more than a generation. His cabinet also gets high marks for experience and competence.

Cardoso is a former Marxist intellectual whose thinking has evolved from socialism to his current approach, which couples liberal, market-based economics with strong antipoverty measures. He has a natural cordiality and quiet inner confidence that complement his belief that coalition-forging and negotiated solutions can surmount Brazil's fragmented politics. Given the dominance in Brazil's National Congress of regional bosses and advocates of a state-centered economy, Cardoso's pace of reform is a deliberate one.

In recent months, delays and compromises have weakened the president's strong public support, some of which was based on

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