Itmar Franco, the Elmer J. Fudd of Latin American politics, died last month, aged 81.
To many, the former Brazilian President Itmar Franco was remembered only for one thing: an unfortunate photograph of him kissing and dancing with a Playboy cover girl during the 1994 Rio Carnival. Taken from below the presidential podium, it showed that the model, 27-year old Lilian Ramos was wearing only a T-shirt, and nothing else, not even a fio dental (literally, dental floss — a Brazilian euphemism for a thong).
While many dismissed that lack of underwear was a carnival tradition, the photos scandalized the Brazilian establishment, and nearly brought down the fledging Brazilian democracy. The Catholic Church condemned his behavior, while the military considered an impeachment. But Franco survived, later joking: “What was I supposed to do, lend her a pair of panties? How am I supposed to know if people are wearing underwear?”
Chosen as vice-president only to win the support in his crucial home state of Minas Gerais, Franco found himself in the hot seat when his predecessor resigned over corruption charges. He was nobody’s idea of a president; an insomniac and sufferer of many nervous ailments, he once told reporters, “I believe in ghosts and Saci-Pierre”, referring to Brazil’s mythical one-legged, pipe-smoking bogeyman.
Born premature at sea, he was often mocked as being “immature and lost at sea” throughout his presidency. While many found him as naive and neurotic as Elmer J. Fudd or Forrest Gump, he was by no means colorless. One of his hobbies was writing erotic short stories, and after he became president, the Brazilian edition of Playboy quoted a passage from one of his works.
Yet, on the continental stage filled with cigar-chomping demagogues, drug-dealing kleptocrats and sabre-rattling caudillos, Franco remained a minor character; domestically he nonetheless presided over a pivotal time in his country’s history. A honest upright man in a country that had recently escaped military dictatorship, Franco restored the public’s belief in political system. He inherited a poor, underinvested country where the accumulated inflation was 1,800 billion percent from 1968 to 1993, and laid the groundwork for its recovery. Aided by a bright team of economists, his finance minister Fernando Henrique Cardoso created the Real Plan — a bold economic overhaul that created a new stable currency, reined inflation, slashed government spending, and raised interest rates to attract foreign capital. In a sense, Brazil’s slow revival began in Franco’s steady hands.
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