Brazil Lawmakers Impeach Scandal-Plagued President


The lower house of the Brazilian Congress voted Tuesday to impeach President Fernando Collor de Mello, clearing the way for his suspension from power and trial by the upper house on charges that he was involved in a multimillion-dollar corruption scandal.

Collor is preparing to leave office "as rapidly as possible," a Cabinet minister reported.

The overwhelming 441-38 vote against the president in the Chamber of Deputies was the first impeachment in the history of Brazil, Latin America's biggest country and one of the world's four largest democracies.

Collor will comply with the decision to suspend him, Celio Borja, his justice minister, said Tuesday night. Collor wants to "carry out with dignity the decision made by the competent authorities, and he will comply," Borja said.

Vice President Itamar Franco, 61, prepared to replace Collor in the presidential palace as soon as the Senate opens trial proceedings, which could be as early as today. Borja said Collor wants to make the transition "as rapidly as possible. There is no desire to procrastinate."

Collor--Brazil's first popularly elected president in almost three decades--made no public statement Tuesday. Borja said he took the Chamber of Deputies decision with "great dignity" and "absolute self-control."

Under Brazil's 1988 constitution, the president will be suspended for up to six months while the Supreme Court's chief justice presides over the Senate trial. If convicted by a two-thirds majority of the 81-member Senate, Collor will be permanently removed and prohibited from holding public office for eight years.

"It's absolutely implausible that Collor would be absolved in the Senate," said Deputy Jose Serra, a leader of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party. Some newspaper tallies have counted fewer than a dozen Senate votes in Collor's favor.

A Senate conviction would carry no jail term. But Brazil's independent attorney general is preparing a separate indictment against Collor--who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing--on criminal charges of corruption, punishable by imprisonment.

Impeachment by the Chamber of Deputies required 336 votes, two-thirds of the total membership of 503. When the 336th "yes" vote came, the house broke out in cheering, chanting and singing.

Tuesday's vote climaxed an all-day session of the chamber and four months of political crisis; the decision set off festive celebrations by tens of thousands of demonstrators outside the Congress building here and in other Brazilian cities.

In the tension-laden days before the chamber's historic decision, it was unclear whether pro-impeachment forces could muster a two-thirds majority. Analysts predicted violent street protests if the impeachment motion failed, and army units in major cities went on alert.

Deputy Humberto Souto of the Liberal Front Party, who has been the leader of Collor's voting bloc in the chamber, made an impassioned, last-minute plea for a decision against impeachment late Tuesday afternoon. "The president is being made a scapegoat in the name of false morality," he said. His speech, the last before the vote, was interrupted by booing.

An obscure governor in 1989, Collor began a presidential campaign that rapidly gathered momentum and yielded 35 million popular votes.

He was the first popularly elected president in this nation of 150 million people since the armed forces seized power in 1964. His early popularity seemed almost charismatic. President Bush once likened him to Indiana Jones, the Hollywood movie hero. But Collor's popularity dissolved during the past four months in a stormy corruption scandal, in which he was linked to a huge graft racket.

After Tuesday's vote, Collor's Cabinet ministers began submitting their resignations; rumors circulated about possible Cabinet appointments by new leader Franco, who stayed out of sight.

The Bandeirante television network reported that Sen. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a Social Democrat, will be foreign minister. Bandeirante said Franco will let Gov. Luiz Antonio Fleury Filho of Sao Paulo, Brazil's richest and most populous state, choose the minister of economy and finances. Fleury said he had received no such offer.

Brazilian constitutions throughout this century have included impeachment procedures, using the U.S. system as a model. But never had the process reached the final stage of a vote by the full Chamber of Deputies. Presidential crises traditionally have been resolved by military pressure and coups; this time, the armed forces remained in the background.

The 1964 military coup overthrew populist civilian President Joao Goulart and installed a military regime that lasted 21 years. In 1985, the generals turned power over to civilian President Jose Sarney, named by an electoral college.

In his 1989 election campaign, Collor railed against government corruption and inefficiency, and his speeches captivated the nation. He vowed to stop inflation and reorganize the economy by ending subsidies and trade barriers. He started government reforms aimed at balancing the budget, streamlining the bureaucracy and selling off inefficient government companies.

Some unions, protected industries and other interest groups resisted change; Collor's tiny National Renovation Party faced strong opposition in Congress. Many of his reforms have bogged down, tax receipts have dropped, deficit spending has continued, inflation has continued at a rate of more than 20% a month and a recession has set in.

Atop all this, Collor's disgruntled younger brother unleashed a corruption scandal in May. Pedro Collor said in magazine and newspaper interviews that Paulo Cesar Farias, Fernando Collor's campaign fund-raiser in 1989, was operating a huge contract-skimming and influence-peddling ring and giving the president a big share of the take.

A congressional committee probed the charges for more than two months. The committee's report charged that Collor's private household had received at least $6.5 million from Farias, who was accused of using presidential connections to extort money from firms doing business with the government. Those charges were the basis for the impeachment motion.

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