Brazil President Resigns in Wake of Impeachment

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Impeached President Fernando Collor de Mello resigned Tuesday, avoiding a full-blown Senate trial that seemed sure to end with his removal.

But the Senate voted to continue its proceedings and early today voted 76-3 to convict Collor on charges of official misconduct. The conviction bars him from holding office for eight years.

Vice President Itamar Franco, 62, took the oath of office to replace Collor, 43, for the final two years of the presidential term.

And Latin America's biggest nation heaved a huge sigh of relief after months of wrenching crisis, which began with a sensational corruption scandal touched off by Collor's own brother.

"The soap opera is over, thank God," said Luis Antonio Fleury Filho, governor of Sao Paulo state.

Collor's resignation came three months to the day after he was impeached by an overwhelming vote in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress. While Collor was suspended pending the Senate trial, Franco served as acting president.

Collor submitted his resignation in a brief letter read in the Senate by his lawyer shortly after the trial opened Tuesday morning. "On this date and by this instrument I resign the mandate of president of the republic for which I was elected," the letter said.

Minutes earlier, when the first defense witness failed to appear because of illness, Collor's lawyer made the last of several attempts to get the trial postponed. But the chief justice of the Supreme Court, presiding over the nationally televised trial, ruled that it should go on.

Collor then called his lawyer on a cellular telephone and instructed him to open and read a sealed envelope that had been delivered to the lawyer earlier; the letter had come with instructions that it was not to be opened without Collor's permission. The envelope contained Collor's handwritten letter of resignation.

He and his aide had steadfastly denied until Tuesday that he had any intent to resign. But they repeatedly contended that his right to a full defense had been trampled in the highly politicized process.

"He resigned because he didn't have a fair chance to defend himself," said Maria Teresa Teixeira, a Collor spokeswoman. "It was the only way to save his political future, and he has a political career ahead of him."

Collor apparently hoped to avoid not only the final disgrace of being kicked out of office but also the penalty of restricting his right to hold public office.

But the Senate overwhelmingly voted to finish the trial to determine Collor's future political rights. The final vote early today bars Collor from public office until the end of the year 2000.

Throughout Tuesday's proceedings, Collor remained in his private residence in Brasilia. According to press aides outside the walled compound, his decision to resign had left him emotionally shaken. "He made the decision to resign with much suffering," said press spokesman Etevaldo Dias.

Dias denied television news reports that Collor was planning to travel to France.

Brazil's independent attorney general has filed criminal corruption charges against Collor. Those charges, pending in the Supreme Court, are separate from the impeachment process. They carry a maximum penalty of eight years' imprisonment.

Collor fell from power three years after winning Brazil's first popular presidential elections since 1960. Janio Quadros, elected in 1960, also resigned, and his vice president and successor, Joao Goulart, was overthrown by a 1964 military coup.

During this year's crisis, the armed forces have shown no inclination to seize power again. Instead, Franco took office Tuesday in an orderly and festive climate.

Several hundred Congress members, political leaders and foreign diplomats gathered in the Chamber of Deputies to witness the midday ceremony. Franco gave no speech, but drew applause by presenting the Congress with a statement of his personal assets before he took his oath.

Members of anti-Collor student groups, their faces painted with the green and gold national colors, filled the galleries and stopped proceedings several times with happy chanting. Several hundred demonstrators assembled on the lawn outside the 1950s-modern capitol cheered wildly.

"The nightmare is finally over," said Sen. Amir Lando. "The nation can sleep peacefully tonight."

Lando wrote the final report of a congressional investigative committee, which provided the basis for the articles of impeachment. The report accused Collor of benefiting from a multimillion-dollar influence-peddling and graft racket. It said the racket was headed by Paulo Cesar Farias, Collor's 1989 campaign fund-raiser.

Farias and his associates solicited bribes to fix lucrative government contracts and obtain other official favors, according to the report. It said Collor and his family received $9 million from illegal bank accounts linked to Farias.

Collor's younger brother, Pedro, triggered the investigation, accusing the president and Farias of corruption last May. Collor repeatedly denied any wrongdoing but never presented convincing explanations for the money he received.

As a presidential candidate, Collor had campaigned against inefficient, overpaid and corrupt public servants. With his energetic confidence, and youthful style, he rose rapidly from the back of the pack to the front-runner position.

He won a runoff vote in December, 1989, beating Luis Inacio (Lula) da Silva, the candidate of the leftist Workers Party. Collor previously had won election to the national Chamber of Deputies and the governorship of his small home state, Alagoas.

As president, he attacked rampant inflation with a controversial "shock plan," freezing prices and immobilizing 80% of all bank accounts. But inflation rose again and now is racing at about 25% a month, while recession and unemployment add to the economic troubles that Franco must address.

When Franco took over as acting president, he promised to maintain Collor's policy of free-market reforms and reductions in government spending, but he also emphasized a need to ease suffering caused by such tough measures.

Times special correspondent Blount reported from Brasilia and Times staff writer Long from Santiago, Chile.

New Leadership for Brazil

The resignation of the president of Brazil completes a presidential change in South America's largest country.

WHO IS IN

Who: Itamar Franco, 62

Politics: A former senator from the nationalist wing, he has been acting president since Oct. 2. While he has not indicated his policy leanings, he is an advocate of state intervention in the economy, a stand that worries the markets.

Background: He is also a former mayor, and he has switched political parties at least twice since he was selected as a running mate for Fernando Collor de Mello.

Personal: He is known as a quick-tempered politician with a taste for writing erotica. Born at sea, he is an engineer by training. Franco has 19 published pieces, ranging from articles on nuclear power to short stories. He often spends entire weekends reading.

WHO IS OUT

Who: Fernando Collor de Mello, 43

Situation: He resigned the presidency under impeachment as his corruption trial was beginning in the Senate.

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