The Money Of Collor

A little more than two years ago, Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello came to power on a vow to clean up corruption in Brazil. Today, the dashing 43-year-old free marketer has not only failed to live up to that promise-he also faces well-documented accusations that he ripped off the government on a grand scale himself A Brazilian congressional commission has found that Collor personally benefited from an influence-peddling ring operated within the government by his former campaign treasurer. Of "hundreds of millions of dollars" raked off through kickbacks on government contracts, bank fraud and tax evasion, more than $20 million allegedly made it into the pockets of Collor, his family and cronies. The loot reportedly included hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal expenses for the president, a $1.8 million overhaul of the presidential-residence gardens and swimming pool, a $10,000 Fiat and a $5,000 monthly salary for Collor's butler. First Lady Rosane Collor reportedly helped herself to jewels, lingerie and half-a-million dollars in cash. "It is clear that the president, in a permanent way and during more than two years of his mandate, received undue economic advantages," the report concluded diplomatically. Collor protests his innocence. But in the Brazilian Congress, impeachment proceedings have begun.

The scandal known as Collorgate comes as a big disappointment for Brazil, which had only begun tentative moves toward democracy in 1984 after decades of dictatorship. But the very fact that the Brazilian people are trying to remove Collor by constitutional means, instead of the usual way-by a coup d'etat-has to be seen as a sign of progress. Last week half-a-million people peaceably massed in Sao Paulo to demand Collor's impeachment, a remarkable gathering in a nation where political protest has not often been tolerated. Brazilians once grudgingly accepted that the ruling classes would line their own pockets. Now they are demanding accountability.

Collor is caught in a crosscurrent that is sweeping over most of Latin America. The region is experiencing a wave of economic and political liberalization. The rise of democracy and free markets has opened new channels for public expression, even as it has brought short-term economic austerity. Latin publics, it seems, will put up with austerity to get free markets, but only if they think their leaders are sacrificing along with them.

Thus, a well-publicized crackdown on tax evaders and corruption is one reason Mexico's president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, has remained popular, even though real incomes have yet to improve in his otherwise-booming country. In Venezuela, by contrast, President Carlos Andres Perez has presided over rapid growth, but he barely survived a military coup last February that enjoyed support from a public furious at daily reports of official wrongdoing. The lesson, Susan Kaufmann Purcell of New York's Americas Society wrote recently, "is not that democracy and austerity are incompatible, but that democracy and corruption are."

It also helps that people can find out about corruption in the first place. The once quiescent Latin American media, invigorated by political freedom and access to new technology from the fax machine to the handheld video camera, have discovered that hard-hitting investigative reporting can be profitable. In Brazil, for example, the Collor scandal began last May when the president's brother Pedro went to reporters with a tale of financial corruption in the administration. Though Pedro backpedaled under heavy pressure from the rest of his family, the press, led by the weekly magazine Veja, stayed on the story, finding that much of Pedro's information checked out after all. That helped prod Congress to open an investigation of its own.

A scrappy politician with a strong will, Collor has assembled a truth squad to punch holes in the congressional report and is handing out government favors in a lastditch attempt to shore up congressional support. Still, his ouster seemed more inevitable by the hour. One by one, prominent members of Brazil's economic and professional elite have abandoned him, along with many erstwhile supporters in Congress. Even if Collor survives, many believe he could no longer govern effectively at a time when the inflation-racked economy badly needs a steady hand. "If he stays, we will see a worsening of political disputes, with spasms of authoritarianism," political analyst Walder de Goes predicted.

But no one is expecting a return to dictatorship. Six times this century Brazil's military has bumped presidents from power. This time, however, there seems little chance that the generals, still spent from their two decades of rule from 1964 to 1985, would risk seizing power again. "For the first time, we have a political crisis that is unfolding within the rule of law," said Brazilian historian Jose Murilo de Carvalho. "To remove a president by legal means would be a tremendous victory for this country's democracy." For once, democracy may be about to bring down a weak president-not the other way around.