With President-elect Tancredo de Almeida Neves sidelined for an indefinite period, Brazil's new civilian leadership moved swiftly this past weekend to tackle the major economic problems facing South America's largest nation. While much of the nation's attention obviously focused on Sao Paulo where Dr. Neves is hospitalized, Vice-President Jos'e Sarney, key advisers, and legislative leaders quietly met in Bras'ilia, the capital, to adopt a national-unity strategy for the coming talks aimed at renegotiating Brazil's whopping $100 billion foreign debt.
``There was a clear sense of purpose and rallying around the vice-president in the meetings,'' said one of those who participated. There were no hints as to whether an effective strategy has been worked out.
But the effort to rally around Mr. Sarney in this moment of national political crisis has been evident ever since Mr. Neves underwent his fourth and fifth operations this past week.
A vetern politician, Sarney is far less popular and less influential than Neves.
As former chairman of the military-backed Democratic Social Party, Mr. Sarney was chosen for the vice-presidential slot in an effort to broaden the appeal of Neves's coalition.
While there is evidence that Sarney did bring considerable support to the winning ticket, he has severe handicaps.
Sarney and Neves were longtime political rivals before the recent campaign and many of the President-elect's followers are not pleased that it is Sarney, not someone from Neves's Brazilian Democratic Movement, who is serving as acting president.
By supporting him, however, key Neves advisers are trying to dispel this displeasure -- and also get the wheels of government moving.
Ulysses Guimaraes, speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and a person close to Neves, is the prime mover in this effort.
Indeed, in this difficult transition period, Mr. Guimaraes is emerging as a strong adviser to the vice-president.
He seems certain to play a role of increasing importance in Brazilian politics in the days ahead.
He is quoted more widely than Sarney. His words are also having a calming effect on the nation. He spoke twice this past week about the importance of prayer in dealing with the President-elect's illness.
``That Dr. Tancredo [as Neves is widely known] is alive is a testimony to the effectiveness of our prayers,'' Guimaraes said Friday.
``Prayer is effective and this should make us realize the truth of that truism.''
Guimaraes added that Neves's recovery is ``our goal and our hope.''
But, he added, Brazil's return to democracy will go ahead with or without the President-elect.
``It is important to understand that leaders are very important,'' he said in Bras'ilia Saturday.
``But institutions and ideas, and even idealism, outlive them. Dr. Tancredo would say the same.
``He would want us to move on with the affairs of government until such time as he can join us.''
That is precisely what Sarney, Guimaraes, and other Brazilian leaders are doing.
But the problems ahead are large.
Government has largely ground to a halt since March 15, when the military leaders went back to the barracks and the civilians took over without Neves.
Dozens of key offices in Brazil's new government are empty because the appointment of top officials -- a presidential prerogative -- has not yet been made. Indeed, at least 800 such jobs are vacant.
It appears that Sarney will start making some appointments on an interim basis, with the counsel of Guimaraes and other legislative leaders, a situation that would allow Neves to make changes easily -- when, and if, he eventually assumes the presidency.
For now, Sarney is clearly adopting a more assertive role.
``I will now have to start using my pen,'' he said at midweek.
The big economic issues -- $100 billion foreign debt, a 200 percent inflation rate, and an empty treasury -- are crying for attention from Brazil's new administration.
With agreement on debt strategy being hammered out, a joint executive-legislative committee is expected to be formed shortly.
The group would look at ways to slow inflation and Sarney says he himself will tackle the treasury issue soon.