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Culture : Political Sniping Turns Violent--to Applause : A governor who shot his rival is treated like a hero in Brazil, where ‘defense of honor’ goes a long way.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a quiet Friday afternoon last month, the governor of Paraiba state, Ronaldo Cunha Lima, burst into a fashionable restaurant in this regional capital, pulled a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson from his belt and shot his chief political rival, Tarcisio Burity, in the face.

Burity, it seemed, had accused the governor’s son of dishonesty. Cunha Lima took exception, and then took aim.

Doctors say Burity, who lost three teeth and suffered a perforated tongue, will recover in a month or two. Brazilian politics may take longer to heal.

The crime sent ripples of shock through this pleasant and normally placid coastal town of 400,000 residents. Never had such a high-standing official committed such a lowly act in broad daylight. Besides, Cunha Lima was widely known as a poet and a peaceable man. His campaign slogan just a few years ago had been “troca a pistola pela viola"-- swap the gun for the guitar.

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Yet the noontime showdown was not wholly out of character. For decades the powerful landed clans of the northeast have settled their scores in this way, leaving a trail of tombstones from the littoral to the dusty backlands. In Paraiba and Pernambuco alone, blood feuds have claimed 62 victims in the last five years.

Generations have traditionally justified such carnage in the “defense of honor,” although not all of today’s combatants recall whose honor they are avenging anymore, or what injury started all the shooting in the first place.

More startling than the deed was its aftermath. A dozen witnesses saw Cunha Lima pull the trigger, and the governor himself made no pretense of denial. Even so, he is not behind bars, nor is he likely to be anytime soon.

The governor was arrested and jailed, but only briefly. After a few hours of indignity, Cunha Lima was on his balcony in his hometown of Campina Grande, waving at the madding throng, which applauded wildly back.

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Later, in a television interview, he wept copious tears, apologizing for his bravura. The public was forgiving. The legislature of Campina Grande awarded him a medal of merit a few days after the shooting, and for weeks the local papers were flush with kudos by everyone from mothers’ associations to recreational clubs.

Cunha Lima is not only popular, he is an elected official. That means he may only be prosecuted if he is suspended or thrown out of office, and that would take two-thirds of the state legislative assembly. As his party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement, controls the legislature, such a vote is unlikely.

On Nov. 26, after a brief leave of absence attributed to “stress,” Cunha Lima resumed his post as governor. A criminal case against him, if it does not die of attrition, will have to wait until he serves out his mandate, which ends in January, 1995.

In southern Brazil, which thinks of itself as the civilized part of this country, the media went on a feeding frenzy over the crime. One cartoonist showed Cunha Lima weeping bullets for tears. Editorials branded his assault a throwback to the signorial ways of the slave master society that endure in the provinces. But this was not simply some regional idiosyncrasy.

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For the rich and powerful, impunity is a sort of political default mode in Brazil, south and north alike. One of the first politicians to stand up for Cunha Lima was Humberto Lucena--a political ally, to be sure, but also the president of the Brazilian Senate.

“The governor showed dignity,” Lucena said, “because he shot (Burity) himself.” By contrast, Lucena suggested, a coward would have hired a gunman.

In fact, the rules that allowed Cunha Lima to holster his .38 and return to the governor’s saddle are writ large in the National Congress as well. No member may be put on trial while in office.

In theory, parliamentary immunity does not shield those who commit “common crimes,” such as theft, assault or murder. But, as in Paraiba, the legislature must vote to serve up one of its own to the courts, and in practice a vibrant esprit de corps guarantees against such a disgraceful exit.

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Immunity for the elected, jurists explain, was never meant to be twisted in this way. Ives Gandra Martins, a specialist in constitutional law, says Parliament meant it as a check against the virtually imperial sway of the Brazilian executive.

“In 104 years since the fall of the monarchy, the legislature never had any real power,” Martins said. So the Constituent Assembly packed the new charter full of compensations. “Without some guarantee of immunity, no legislator would be able to speak out against abuses of the executive,” he said.

Now, Martins says, there is a welling sense that immunity, which applies to virtually all elected officials, has “gone too far.” This is most startlingly so in northeast Brazil, the most mistreated part of the country, punished by droughts and soaring infant mortality and ruled by a tiny elite of landed families known as “colonels.”

In Alagoas state, the law has been kind to the top colonel, Gov. Geraldo Bulhoes, and his clan, despite myriad abuses. One son, Guilherme, shot his girlfriend in the hand at a motel. Another, Gustavo, urinated in front of a beachside restaurant and then dared police to arrest him. They did and were dismissed from the force.

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Three months later, Gustavo ran over a 17-year-old girl at a bus stop, stopping only long enough to remove the victim from his hood. The girl is only now coming out of a coma. Both of the Bulhoes boys are still at large.

Nor is impunity confined to elected officials. Last year, police in Sao Paulo raided the Carandiru prison to break up a riot and gunned down 111 inmates. The human rights group, America’s Watch, branded the barbarous episode the worst prison massacre in history. Again, the arm of the law has been gentle--six of the police officers were relieved of their command duties, while 10 others were soon promoted.

The 120 police involved still face formal misconduct charges, but they will be tried in military court, where police judge police and punishment rarely goes beyond suspension. Said Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, a human rights advocate at the Sao Paulo University Center for Studies on Violence, “It will be very difficult to prove anything against them.”

Just a year ago, Brazilians took to the streets to end what Pinheiro calls this “culture of impunity.” Their rage helped bring down a president, Fernando Collor de Mello, caught in a giant corruption and influence-peddling ring.

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Yet a full-blown campaign to clean house faces some tall roadblocks. Legislators are not exactly tripping over one another to renounce their immunity; about 30 members of Congress face criminal charges ranging from tax evasion to murder, but are blessed by immunity. Collor hid behind his until the bitter end, resigning just before Congress was preparing to toss him out.

Now living in a comfortable house in upscale Sao Paulo, Citizen Collor has yet to stand trial.

In fact, he has founded a political action committee on a bet that the Supreme Court will wipe his slate clean and restore his right to run for office. He stands a fair chance. Last week, the high court deadlocked over Collor’s appeal to overturn the congressional restriction, and a panel of three judges has been called to break the tie.

Some Brazilian citizens, jurists and even legislators are now bent on changing the constitution to eliminate all aid and comfort to Brazil’s most privileged criminals.

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But none of this righteousness seems to have changed the hearts and minds of Cunha Lima’s supporters, who have poured by the busload into the grounds of his rambling mansion to shake his hand, pose at his side for the photographers and hear his poetry.

In fact, the saying around Joao Pessoa is that the lamentable incindent that badly wounded Burity was the governor’s “only unfinished work.”


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