Strewing flowers from the hedgerows as his coffin passed, Tancredo Neves' countrymen today brought him home for burial in this town of 80,000, replete with religious and political traditions. Mourners chanted, "He continues president of Brazil."
Though the three days of emotionally charged religious ceremonies have ended with Neves' burial ceremony, conducted according to the rites of the religious lay order of which he was a senior member, his shadow looms large over his successor and the uncertain political transition.
The flag-draped coffin was brought to the Neves family home here, its military escort weeping openly as the crowd linked hands in prayer. His widow, Risoleta, told the crowd they could enter the church for a last chance to "caress him for the last time and guard the unforgettable image in your hearts." The burial was delayed for hours as thousands filed past Neves' open casket. President Jose Sarney was among the pallbearers at the burial ceremony later.
Last night at least five people were trampled to death and more than 250 injured as huge crowds strained to see Neves' glass-covered coffin in the state capital, Belo Horizonte. Earlier, Brasilia had bidden a formal farewell in a ceremony filled with military pomp attended by five heads of state and 40 foreign delegations.
"Tancredo realized the miracle of national unity. He conceived the 'new republic,' but it is up to us to make it real," said Sao Paulo's state governor, Franco Montro.
This task will fall to President Sarney, who, despite messages of support from both wings of the ruling coalition, lacks popular support in a nation that has elevated Neves to a status equal to Brazil's first nationalist martyr, Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier, known as Tiradentes and also from this town. Tiradentes was executed by the Portuguese in 1792 and his body was quartered in a public square after he led an uprising for independence.
"We feel Sarney is not trustworthy, but he has a great opportunity to prove the contrary if he calls early elections and a constituent assembly. Then he could redeem himself," said Sao Paulo lawyer Marly Amaro. "This is a moment of uncertainty and it doesn't inspire confidence -- it's difficult to judge whether the transition has succeeded."
"Sarney's a very capable man, but he's without popular support, and perhaps this will handicap him," agreed teacher Maria Tereza Muhlig from the same city.
Economic expectations are a key element in the new president's chances. "I'm convinced that inflation will come down in the next six months -- if it doesn't, Sarney won't last two years," said Sao Paulo salesman Waldemar Ziaugra.
"For me, Sarney never really resigned from the PDS the military-backed, ruling Democratic Social Party . He was in the military government for 20 years," said taxi driver Tomaz Gilberto.
Sarney has affirmed that "the commitment of Tancredo Neves is our commitment. What he promised to fulfill during the election campaign, will be faithfully accomplished. Nothing will be forgotten."
But some observers said Sarney's need to keep faith may involve him in contradictory promises to both wings of the ruling coalition stitched by Neves.
According to Agriculture Minister Pedro Simon, "Each has his own style. Tancredo moved more slowly, but he was sure of his ground; he didn't need to prove anything. One of the results of Sarney's government is going to be much more rapid action on social policies."
Politicians of every stripe made their way through the presidential palace while Neves was hospitalized, as Sarney sought a base of political support. Though members of Neves' Democratic Alliance feared Sarney could invite closer links with some of his former PDS colleagues, the most significant alliance seems to be with the Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement -- including its left-leaning flank, which has been pleased by Sarney's agreement on social programs and plans for land reform.
Aware that Sao Paulo Gov. Montro is a future presidential candidate, Sarney reportedly is seeking his agreement not to press for early elections.
A twice-postponed ministerial meeting is to be held next week, when Sarney must decide on minor changes in the Cabinet, which is expected to resign collectively and then be reappointed, pledging loyalty to the new president. However, several ministers will have to resign in the summer of 1986 to run again for Congress.