Disgraced Latin pols rise again
Three coming elections in South America may include tainted candidates.
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One of the chief factors in Collor's return has been the absence of a strong opponent. His most credible rival, Sen. Heloisa Helena of the Worker's Party, withdrew from the race after a dispute with the party leadership, and incumbent Gov. Ronaldo Lessa has been so unpopular that even members of his own party have defected to the Collor camp.Skip to next paragraph
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"[Collor's popularity] demonstrates the problem: There is a very thin layer of public servants who are available for responsible positions," says Mr. Roett.
The inability of viable alternative candidates to penetrate the existing political structure is a problem throughout Latin America, says Susan Eckstein, professor of sociology at Boston University and former president of the Latin American Studies Association. Ms. Eckstein says that allegiences formed during a candidate's initial rise to power remain even when he has left office.
"A very good example is Bolivia, where you have had the same cast of characters ... going in and out of power, democratically and through force, for decades since the Bolivian Revolution of 1952," says Eckstein. "These individuals have held the key positions, in the party or splintered parties, so that new people haven't gotten opportunities to build up their own political bases."
The bedrock of Collor's support lies in rural areas where many recall him, not as an impeached president, but as the leader who tripled the agricultural pension they rely on to survive.
"He did a lot of things for cane cutters and for the poor and for the elderly," says Benedito da Silva, a security guard who turned out to see Collor on a campaign stop. "He was there for us. He fought for the workers and that was why they got rid of him."
Eckstein says that, for many voters, local accomplishments often outweigh the candidate's corrupt behavior. "People may be judged by what they do for their constituencies, and not just the negative things that they do in the big picture," she says. "Some of these politicians have delivered to their constituencies, even if they have been discredited for misusing funds."
This dichotomy is not unique to Latin America, says Eckstein, citing Vincent Cianci, mayor of Providence, R.I., who was reelected despite accusations of wrongdoing, because he was seen as getting things done for his municipality. Observers also cite Washington's former mayor, Marion Barry, as a jailed offender who maintained support among constituents. In France, President Jacques Chirac was reelected overwhelmingly earlier this year despite being dubbed "super liar" for alleged links to financial scandals.
Collor's popularity is by no means unanimous, especially not in urban areas. "We are disgusted," says Marcus Calheiros, a student leader who is among the thousands in Maceio protesting Collor's return. "We have to show young people who can't remember Fernando Collor who he is and what he did."
Though Collor is currently running for governor, some say he has his eyes on a bigger prize. "He has to be a good governor for Alagoas to show Brazil he can do a good job," says his son, Arnon de Mello, an economics student who is running for Congress on the same ticket. "Who knows? In four, eight, 12 years, maybe he can run for president again. I have no doubt he has a chance."