President by Chance, Sarney of Brazil Is ‘Agitator Who Makes Things Happen’

Times Staff Writer

Like another former vice president, Harry S. Truman, Brazil’s Jose Sarney arrived at his presidency unsung and unexpected but with a long record of practical political experience.

Sarney, 55, stood deep in the shadow of President-elect Tancredo Neves, the popular leader of Brazil’s democratic restoration. However, when the 75-year-old Neves was hospitalized for abdominal surgery on his inauguration eve and died 39 days later, Sarney was thrust into prominence.

He was politically tactful in refusing to make policy decisions or major appointments while there seemed a chance that Neves would recover. Then, after Neves died April 21, he confirmed the Cabinet chosen by the president-elect and held together the party coalition that had elected the Neves-Sarney ticket, ending 21 years of military rule in Brazil.

‘Power Not a Fiesta’


“Power is not a fiesta, it is an obligation,” Sarney said, promising to carry out in full the Neves program of political and social reform.

On Tuesday, he reconfirmed that pledge by announcing that he wants to reduce his own six-year term to four years and to amend the constitution to bring back direct election of Brazilian presidents. That goal was achieved Thursday when Brazil’s Congress gave final approval to a constitutional amendment giving Brazilian voters the right to elect the next president.

Getting down to business after Neves’ death, the firm and vigorous Sarney worked an intensive schedule at the Planalto Palace, receiving as many as 80 visitors a day and conducting working sessions with congressional leaders and Cabinet ministers.

“He delegates authority but he follows up on orders and insists on getting results,” said Edson Vidigal, who worked for the new president when Sarney was governor of the state of Maranhao from 1965 to 1970. To set an example, Sarney begins his day at 5 a.m. Often he is still working at midnight.


‘Administrative Agitator’

“He is an administrative agitator who makes things happen,” said Cid Carvalho, a federal deputy from Maranhao.

Sarney has been in politics for three decades, starting as a student leader while in law school. A string of electoral victories in Maranhao, in Brazil’s poor northeast region, propelled Sarney from federal deputy, at the age of 28, to governor and then to the national Senate for two terms.

In Maranhao, Sarney was considered to be a modernizing politician, who successfully confronted the conservative political bosses backed by the large landholders. However, the more radical elements of the coalition formed by Neves criticized Sarney for not taking a strong stand against military rule until last year, when he broke with then President Joao Baptista Figueiredo and joined the opposition front.

Literary Figure

Along with his political career, Sarney has cultivated his literary talents. He has published a collection of short stories that deal with life and customs in Maranhao and a collection of poetry entitled “Wasps of Fire.” In 1980, he became a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters.

“That was the moment of purest happiness I have enjoyed,” said Sarney, who counts many of Brazil’s writers among his friends, and who cultivates artists, musicians, film makers and historians.

Sarney is an affable conversationalist and enjoys mingling with people, be they voters or political cronies. But he also reserves time for writing and extensive reading. He also cultivates plants, which he collects at a farm near here, along with his herd of dairy cows.


Brazil’s new president has traveled extensively, visiting museums, literary centers and theaters in the United States, Europe and the Far East.

Traditional Roots

An admirer of French culture, Sarney has read French novelists extensively, but his roots are in the rural traditions of his home state. He prefers tropical fruit juices to wine, and rarely drinks whiskey.

He has collected more than 1,000 wooden figures of saints carved by Maranhao artisans. His favorite dish is a fish stew that his mother sends him from her home in Maranhao. He telephones her almost every evening.

Sarney says he is superstitious about some things. He will not wear a brown suit and he thinks that stuffed animals, particularly crocodiles, bring bad luck to a home.

Sarney’s wife, Marly Maceira, a sweetheart of his student days, is the daughter of an influential physician in Maranhao who helped Sarney’s early political career. She is active in his campaigns, as are the couple’s three children.

Jose Sarney Jr. is a federal deputy; another son, Fernando, is a director of the Maranhao Electric Power Co. Roseanne, Sarney’s daughter, is married to Jorge Murad, a political consultant.