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Brazilian President Cardoso Subject To Anger Despite Former Popularity

By Anthony Faiola
The Washington Post
SALVADOR, Brazil

Nursing a lukewarm, long-neck beer at a bar in this antiquated metropolis in northeastern Brazil, Celina Moura, 47, decided to stand up and tell half the room her views on President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

"That traitor!" she said.

Moura, an accountant's wife and mother of three, was furious about the currency crisis now gripping Brazil. More precisely, she was furious about the government's efforts to contain the crisis and keep investors from pulling their money out of Brazil by lifting interest rates to stratospheric levels. That policy, she said, has raised her credit card interest from 12 to 19 percent over the past six months.

"He's become like all politicians now, just a liar, just another liar," she said in this vibrant but poverty-stricken capital of Afro-Brazilian culture.

Moura's anger, like that of many Brazilians, erupted after Cardoso last month broke a long-standing vow by permitting devaluation of Brazil's currency, which has since tumbled by 37 percent. Cardoso acted out of concern that the government could no longer afford to prop up the currency with dwindling foreign-exchange reserves. But his decision came at a cost of worsening unemployment and recession and a sharp drop in the popularity for the Brazilian leader, until recently the toast of the country for his success in vanquishing hyperinflation.

After his landslide reelection last fall, Cardoso's honeymoon with the electorate appears to be at an end. A nationwide poll by DataFolha, a major Brazilian polling firm, indicated that, for the first time since he took over as Brazil's leader in 1995, more people were critical of him than approved of him. In the survey, 36 percent of Brazilians polled rated Cardoso's performance as bad, compared with just 21 percent who thought he was doing a good job, and 39 percent who said his performance was average.

Although such ratings would be the envy of presidents in nearby nations like Argentina and Peru, for Cardoso, 68, who had been considered something akin to a national hero during his first term in office, unpopularity is uncharted territory.

A onetime academic and leading opponent of the former military dictatorship, Cardoso once led a study group on Karl Marx but in the 1990s turned into a champion of capitalism. He won widespread accolades for his "real plan" named for the Brazilian currency, the real which was drafted and implemented in 1994 while he was still finance minister. The plan ended years of hyperinflation by pegging the local currency loosely to the U.S. dollar while opening up the world's eighth-largest economy to foreign investment and trade.

The stabilized currency made credit available to the poor, creating a new consumer class in Brazil.