Under Jos'e Sarney's unobtrusive but steady leadership, Brazil is moving toward stability after the unexpected passing of the nation's President-elect last spring. In an exclusive interview with the Monitor in Bras'ilia, the new President laid out his objectives.
Mr. Sarney intends to:
Honor Brazil's financial commitments to foreign lending institutions but is in no hurry to come to an understanding with the International Monetary Fund this year regarding repayment terms of its $100 billion debt.
Attend to the needs of the poorest people as a matter of national priority, while fighting inflation and aiming for an annual growth rate of 5 percent.
Launch a major effort to reduce urban violence, which in some cities is reaching unbearable levels.
Give strong encouragement to the private sector and denationalize some state-owned enterprises.
Keep Brazil a free country by protecting political and economic liberties.
In the space of 110 days since Sarney officially became President, the mild-mannered, relatively obscure politician from the northeastern state of Maranhao has managed to earn the respect of many of his countrymen. He has provided Brazilians with firm if low-key leadership.
Since taking office Sarney has proposed a wide-ranging land-reform program, lifted a ban on leftist political parties, approved increased spending for social programs, acted to slow inflation, and restored the principle of direct presidential elections.
``Brazil has almost limitless resources,'' he says.
``It is like a millionaire who happens to be sitting in a restaurant with no available cash in his pocket.
``Still he is solvent.
``By adopting a series of basic reforms [land, tax, and credit reforms] we are going to stimulate the domestic market, encourage small and medium enterprises, raise the purchasing power of millions of workers and employees, and thus ensure a 5 percent economic growth through 1986.''
Sarney says he also plans to cut public expenditures dramatically -- ``particularly by cutting state-owned enterprises down to size'' -- and so bring the rate of inflation down substantially.
Sarney assumed office last March under dramatic circumstances.
President-elect Tancredo Neves, who was to take office on March 15, was immensely popular. He was seen as the man who had managed to put a peaceful end to 21 years of military dictatorship.
Dr. Neves's inauguration was to be a joyful national celebration. But he was taken ill immediately before the scheduled inauguration and passed on five weeks later.
Sarney -- whose charm, modesty, and conservative attire fit the image of an English gentleman-farmer rather than that of a Latin American leader -- says he was not prepared psychologically or politically to become the leader of one of the world's largest democracies.
``I had to rise to the occasion and try to be larger than I am,'' he explains, describing the shock he felt when he realized he was to assume Neves's role.
``I intend to remain above the partisan struggles and to form a `national pact' with the participation of union leaders, businessmen, and politicians aimed at implementing land reform and at curing our domestic ills, while consolidating our democratic institutions,'' Sarney explains.
He says he does not intend to ``politicize the problems of the foreign debt'' by ``ganging up against the US with other debtor countries.''
At the same time, the President says he thinks agreements reached by the former military regime with foreign banks are unacceptable and must be renegotiated.
He says that with $8.6 billion in foreign reserves and with exports going strong, Brazil can wait until next year to reach a new agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
``Brazil has agreed to cut its domestic spending by $1.8 billion, but the monetary fund wants more cuts. With this I cannot agree, because I am responsible for the welfare of human beings and not for abstract figures,'' says Sarney.
He says he intends to continue the process of restoring individual liberties. Since he took office, he says, ``there are no more restrictions to free speech or to the right to assemble.''
Regarding the constitution (which is to be drafted next year) and whether it should maintain the presidential system or replace it with a parliamentary government, Sarney refuses to take a stand. ``It's up to the people to decide how they want to be governed.''
On foreign policy Sarney places his highest priority on ``the peaceful resolution of conflict'' and ``the respect of each country's right to self-determination and sovereignty.''
Regarding Nicaragua, Brazil fully supports the Contadora process (peace talks sponsored by four Latin American nations) -- not military solutions.
Sarney says he also plans to speak out forcefully against what he sees as trade protectionism as practiced by the United States and the European Community.
``This is a difficult moment in Brazil's history, but I am optimistic. With God's help and with the help of our unlimited mineral and human resources, we shall overcome.''