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Disgraced Latin pols rise again

Three coming elections in South America may include tainted candidates.

By Andrew DownieSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 2002


From the moment his helicopter touched down at the edge of this distant sugar-cane field, former President Fernando Collor de Mello's million-dollar smile never left his face.

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Not during the mad scrum of supporters who met him at the chopper door; not during a two-hour walk through Anadia's dusty streets; and especially not while receiving big, wet kisses from toothless old women who mobbed him as if he were a film star.

Impeached on corruption charges in 1992, the disgraced former president is on the campaign trail again. This time, Mr. Collor is seeking to become the governor of Alagoas state, and his comeback indicates a broader trend in Latin America. Across the region, voters are giving politicians who were jailed, disgraced, or quite simply disastrous, a second chance.

In Argentina, Carlos Menem, who was accused of corruption and illegal arms sales, is positioning himself for a run at the presidency next year.

The favorite to win Paraguay's election next April, former presidential candidate and Army chief Lino Oviedo, currently in exile in Brazil, was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison for plotting a 1996 coup, and is being investigated for the murder of the country's vice president in 1999.

Two years after fleeing to Japan amid corruption charges and alleged ties to death squads, Peru's former two-term President Alberto Fujimori spoke last month of running for president in 2006.

And Venezuela's current President Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998, six years after being jailed for leading a failed coup in which 14 people died.

"In Latin America, the first decade of the century is a return to some crazy mix of populism, statism, personalityism," said Riordan Roett, the director of Western Hemisphere studies at Johns Hopkins University. "Memories are very short; political culture is very shallow. Poorly educated people who are at the margins of society respond to these big guys...."

Mr. Collor's rise is remarkable based on how far he sank. After provoking nationwide anger by freezing bank accounts the day after taking office in 1990, he was subsequently linked to a well-organized corruption scheme that sold government contracts and influence. Congress investigated, he was removed from office in September 1992, and formally impeached a few days after Christmas. To escape the scandal and widespread revulsion, Collor fled Brazil and lived out the 1990s in Miami.

Collor tried to run for mayor of São Paulo upon his return in 2000, but he had almost no public support and was disqualified from the race by an electoral court that ruled he had not served the eight-year political ban imposed on him after impeachment.

Sensing he might have better luck in Alagoas, the impoverished northeastern state where he made his name as mayor of the state capital Maceio from 1979 to 1981, and then as governor from 1987 to 1989, he returned here in 2001 and began planning a gubernatorial bid.

The strategy has proven successful, with opinion polls and political experts suggesting he should easily win the Oct. 6 ballot.