BRASILIA: Brazil’s acting president Michel Temer vowed Friday to get Latin America’s largest economy back on track after a cascade of crises put an end to 13 years of leftist rule.
Temer presided over the first meeting of his new business-friendly cabinet, setting out its priorities: creating a leaner government, balancing finances to address a crippling recession, and rooting out the corruption that a huge judicial probe has uncovered at the highest levels of Brazilian politics and business.
“I want to get the country back on the rails,” Temer told weekly magazine Epoca in his first interview as president after taking over from suspended predecessor Dilma Rousseff, who faces an impeachment trial in the Senate.
Temer’s chief of staff, Eliseu Padilha, said the new government faced a challenging to-do list. “We’re living through the worst economic crisis in the history of Brazil,” he told a press conference.
The solution, he said, is “out with corruption and in with efficiency.”
Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles, the man tasked with restoring confidence in Brazil’s economy, said his priority would be cutting spending.
He pledged not to cut the popular social programs launched under the sidelined Workers’ Party (PT) — initiatives credited with helping lift tens of millions of people out of poverty — as long as beneficiaries really need them.
But he warned: “Maintaining a social program doesn’t mean maintaining the misuse of a social program.”
– Leadership limbo –
Temer asked for patience as his team works to turn around an economy stuck in its worst recession in decades.
“I’m not going to be able to work miracles in two years,” he said.
That timeframe belies the strange leadership limbo in which Brazil finds itself pending an impeachment trial that could last up to six months.
Political analysts say Rousseff will likely be removed from office for good by a two-thirds vote in the Senate — and Temer is clearly betting he will hold power until the next presidential election in 2018.
But for now he is stuck coexisting with his running mate-turned-enemy, who is holed up in the presidential residence planning her defense and attacking the new government.
Underlining the tension in the corridors of power, workers began removing portraits of Rousseff from the presidential palace Friday, only to be told to put them back because, as Temer himself said, Rousseff is still technically president.
– Cabinet controversy –
Temer faces many of the same stumbling blocks as his predecessor — plus a few of his own.
Political analysts warned his honeymoon may not even last until he opens the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, South America’s first.
Temer is just about as disliked as the deeply unpopular Rousseff. A recent poll found he would receive just two percent of the vote in a presidential election.
The acting president will also face a deeply hostile left, resentful over what it calls the “coup” against Brazil’s first woman president.
Temer stoked opponents’ outrage with his cabinet appointments: all 23 of his ministers are white men.
“We tried to search for women but because of the timetable… it was not possible,” Padilha said.
Another controversy erupted over the decision to axe the culture ministry and lump it together with education.
The minister who got the portfolio, Mendonca Filho, was raucously booed by culture ministry employees when he went to address them.
Some held signs reading “Yes to culture, no to coups” and “We don’t recognize the putschist government.”
The merger of the two ministries was also attacked in an open letter from an association of well-known artists including renowned singers Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil — who was himself culture minister from 2003 to 2008.
– Vulnerable to scandal –
Temer is also vulnerable to the swirling scandal at state oil company Petrobras, which has snared top members of both his party, the PMDB, and Rousseff’s PT.
Temer, 75, is not under investigation himself. But three of his ministers are, and witnesses have implicated several others.
Opponents have warned that Temer could try to choke off the probe.
Those suspicions were fueled late Thursday when the Supreme Court suspended its decision to open an investigation into Senator Aecio Neves, the leader of the center-right PSDB party and a key Temer ally.
Rousseff, a one-time Marxist guerrilla tortured under Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, has vowed not to go quietly.
“Today Brazil has an interim, illegitimate government and a president elected by 54 million people,” she told journalists.
“We will fight to come back.”
While most Latin American leaders watched the crisis unfold with little comment, the leftist governments of Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua criticized Rousseff’s ouster.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro late Friday decried the “coup d’etat” against Rousseff, and said that he called his ambassador in “to evaluate this painful page in the history of Brazil.”
Venezuela takes over the rotating presidency of Mercosur in one month, and Maduro warned that Rousseff’s ouster “will affect” the South American trade bloc, without giving specifics.