Disgraced Latin pols rise again

Three coming elections in South America may include tainted candidates.

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.

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.

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.

"[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."

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