Man of center set to put Brazil on democratic path

All the major newspapers in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo have endorsed him. He enjoys the trust of the business community and the military. And close to 79 percent of the population supports him, according to a recent poll.

He is Tancredo Neves, and he is virtually certain to become Brazil's first civilian president in 20 years. The 686-member Electoral College is expected to elect Mr. Neves by about a 2-to-1 margin on Jan. 15.

In an exclusive interview with the Monitor, Mr. Neves sketches out the broad outlines of his program.

''Essentially, my four years as Brazil's president will be dedicated to the peaceful transition - socially, politically, and economically - to a free, responsible, and just society to which all and not only a few Brazilians may feel that they belong,'' he says.

His three most pressing tasks, as he sees it, will be:

* Strengthening the democratic institutions and the people's faith in them.

* Alleviating the enormous burden of Brazil's foreign debt - close to a $100 billion.

* Reducing gradually the ''scandalous gap that divides a small, wealthy minority from an abjectly poor majority.''

He says he always has been and will be a man of the center, a believer in compromise and in middle-of-the-road solutions, one ''who has no taste for radical experiments, be they of the left or the right.''

Most observers describe Neves as a conservative in economics, a liberal on social justice, a practicing Roman Catholic, and a traditionalist when it comes to moral values. Above all, they say, he is a man who believes deeply in democracy and has opposed authoritarian rule all his life.

His countrymen consider him the most experienced politician in Brazil. He served as minister of justice in the 1950s, prime minister in the '60s, and is a former governor of the key state of Minas Gerais.

As the head of the opposition Party of Democratic Movement - a wide-ranging coalition grouping right-of-center, left-of-center, and middle-of-the-road forces - Neves feels he has a mandate to renegotiate the repayment terms on Brazil's foreign debt.

''Brazil will honor its commitments,'' he says, ''but it will seek easier terms, both with regard to interest rates and to a time frame in this respect.''

Neves says a bilateral approach - not a multilateral one, such as the establishment of a consortium of debtor countries - is more appropriate for eliminating Brazil's foreign debt. But he warns that on this matter ''Brazil will be a tough cookie'' and ''will not bargain away its sovereign rights.''

Neves intends to implement an emergency plan aimed at bringing the 219 percent inflation under control and at encouraging economic growth (now at a standstill) to reduce unemployment. He hopes to achieve this by opening up the domestic market and by giving a hike, through fiscal incentives, to small and medium-sized enterprises.

His plan, the ''Social Pact,'' aims to improve the purchasing power of the working man (the minimum wage is now $50 a month) and thus at stimulating consumption and at encouraging sales. He may freeze prices and wages for six to months ''to deal a psychological blow to the inflationary trend.'' Brazil's minimum wage in real cruzeiros (discounting inflation) is 40 percent of what it was when the military took over in 1964.

Neves plans a political reform that will allow the creation of political parties that have genuine social roots and will be free to function as they had in pre-military days. (The present parties - Social Democratic, Democratic Movement, and Labor - were created somewhat artificially under the military regime and lack a coherent constituency.)

The cornerstone of Neves' foreign policy will be ''the strengthening of Brazil's ties with its Latin American neighbors.'' To this end, he may have a few dramatic projects up his sleeve. He intends to ''maintain Brazil's traditionally good relations with our American friends,'' as well as with Western Europe. He hopes Brazil will also be able to widen its presence in Africa, ''a natural partner for us.''

In Neves' view, Brazil has too many serious domestic problems to be overly concerned with foreign political issues at this time. ''We don't want to rock the boat,'' he says.

Economic issues will be of the highest priority on Brazil's diplomatic agenda. Brazil will ''speak out forcefully against the shortsighted policies of the industrial nations and will seek, along with other developing nations, better terms of trade (and) credit and lower interest rates.''

Neves says he ''refuses to believe that the United States will use force with regard to Nicaragua - it would be a monumental political error. Brazil supports strongly the Contadora process and a peaceful, negotiated solution to Central American problems. (Military strategist Carl von) Clausewitz was wrong: War is not the continuation of politics by other means. War is the failure of politics.

''I am an old, unrepentant liberal. I happen to believe that Brazil - by its geographical position a Western country, by inclination a democracy - can function as a capitalist society and at the same time provide for all its citizens.''

Twenty years of military rule ''have not been entirely negative,'' he admits. ''It modernized certain sectors of the economy,'' especially the road and communications networks. ''But it needlessly weakened the political consiousness , undermined the political institutions, brought about a horrid recession, a huge foreign debt.''

The crime rate has reached the proportions of a civil war, Neves says.

''To bring back peace and prosperity will demand a huge sacrifice to be shared for many years to come by all Brazilians, and will demand prudent policies aimed at a national reconciliation, not at sharpening divisions.''

A short, balding man with sharp eyes and a quick sense of humor, Neves is a grandfather, a family man, and an avid reader of books on history and sociology.

He has traveled to the United States, Western Europe, and the Middle East. He speaks French, reads in English, and enjoys good (Brazilian) food. He speaks in low tones.

In next month's Electoral College voting, Neves is assured the votes of 280 members of his own party and of more than 200 dissident votes from the majority Democratic Social Party. These members refused to vote for their party's official candidate, Paulo Maluf. A former governor of Sao Paulo, Mr. Maluf is widely believed to be corrupt.

Neves, as a representative of his home state in Parliament, opposed the military coup in 1964. As a man widely known to be morally ''above suspicion'' and not a leftist, he was not deprived of his political rights as were many of his colleagues at the time.

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