RIO DE JANEIRO, MAY 31 -- Some political veterans call President Fernando Collor de Mello arrogant. Many economists say his policies are rash. His top advisers are widely considered inexperienced. He can be a grandstander, an evangelist, a showman.
All agree that whatever Brazil's 40-year-old newcomer to politics lacks in tact he makes up for with audacity. Having stunned inflation into dormancy with far-reaching measures that affect nearly every Brazilian, making life a little easier for the poor and much harder for the middle and upper classes, he now vows an all-out attack on what may prove to be a wilier, more entrenched foe -- a suffocating bureaucracy.
Collor has ordered his ministers to fire or lay off 360,000 employees, one-fourth of the federal work force. He has set a deadline for coming up with the names of those to be let go, and this week he hectored his cabinet for not moving quickly enough.
The planned firings are not Collor's first attack on bureaucrats since his inauguration less than three months ago. He put up for auction thousands of their government cars, which he said were unneeded and undeserved. He is selling a score of lavish houses in and around the capital of Brasilia that had been kept for officials' use. All the while he has railed against "parasites" who collect salaries for little or no work.
But it is the notion of firing so many people that stuns Brazilians.
"Can you imagine what would happen in Washington if they fired a quarter of the government?" asked economist Edmar Bacha. "And remember this is Brazil, where nobody gets fired. Ever."
The bureaucracy, predictably, is resisting the job cuts. Cabinet ministers are said to be having trouble getting their departments to prepare the lists of those to be fired or laid off. Collor has had to clarify that he wants to fire only the "idlers," not workers who actually do a job. In addition, Brazil's constitution guarantees job security to workers with more than five years' service.
It now appears likely that only about 220,000 workers will be dismissed outright. The rest will be sent home and continue receiving reduced salaries.
A year ago, then president Jose Sarney pledged to fire up to 90,000 government workers but apparently did not bring about a single dismissal. Sarney's former top economic aide, Mailson da Nobrega, said recently that firing just 50,000 employees would be "a great success" for Collor.
A key Collor supporter in Congress, Sen. Jose Ignacio Ferreira, said Monday that the president's "emphasis on the numbers is almost a kind of anti-marketing," and that the administration should be emphasizing instead its intent to make the bureaucracy more responsive and efficient.
Collor, however, says he will not budge. "My will is firm," he said recently, "and the goals will be met."
Such vigor and inflexibility are typical of the young president, who seems to be trying to remake Brazil in one all-out assault before the country realizes what has hit it. "His team brings him a menu of options," said one person familiar with the way the administration works, "and he always chooses the toughest one."
Son of a wealthy politician from the sleepy Northeast state of Alagoas, Collor has brought dash to the presidency of the world's third-largest democracy, and he remains overwhelmingly popular. A recent poll showed him with a 74-percent approval rating.
Coming after the indecisive, unglamorous Sarney administration, the Collor show is as riveting as one of the flashy soap operas that keep Brazilians glued to their television sets each night.
On weekends, he stages high-profile photo opportunities -- astride a speeding motorcycle, hurtling through the sound barrier in a fighter jet, dribbling a soccer ball, spiking a volleyball, practicing karate. His mother wrote an article in the news magazine Veja imploring him to cool it.
Collor replied with an official statement: "The president of the republic, as a good son, will attend to his mother's request and will no longer ride a motorcycle." He told reporters: "I'm a man of my times. I like motorcycles and jet-skis."
All the high-profile derring-do appears to win him popular support -- and deflect attention from the many criticisms of his economic program.
Before Collor took over, inflation was running at 80 percent per month. Inflation for April was just 3.29 percent -- not the zero that Collor had promised, but still a precipitous drop.
Collor achieved this by seizing about $100 billion in funds that savers had in "overnight" and monthly interest-bearing accounts, promising to begin returning the funds in 18 months.
The measure meant nothing to the vast majority of Brazilians, who are too poor to have bank accounts. But it was a blow to corporations, the rich and especially the middle class. The truly rich could make do "by eating caviar only once a week," said economist Bacha, "but the middle class is really ticked off."
Political scientist Helio Jaguaribe, who has conducted a massive study of Brazil's crushing social problems, said that the dramatic slowing of inflation has made a real difference in the lives of the poor.
"They have significantly more buying power," he said. "The poor are able to eat milk and meat for the first time in a long time. This is enormously significant."
Jaguaribe added, "Collor is always identified as being of the right, but he says he is center-left, and this is a profoundly center-left program. He has taken from the upper classes to give to the poor."
The big industrialists of Sao Paulo complained bitterly that the confiscation of funds would cause a deep recession and wreck the economy, and to emphasize the point they laid off tens of thousands of workers. But now it has begun to appear that the recession is only a minor one.
Economists agree, however, that Collor's economic plan is not an assured success. Inflation for May is estimated at about 6 percent. Corporations have taken advantage of loopholes to free up most of their frozen funds. Several courts have ruled that Collor must approve a whopping wage increase, although he has been able to block implementation of the decisions.
These inflationary pressures, economists say, are prompting Collor's urgency to get as many people off the federal payroll as soon as possible as a counterbalance.
In what is seen as an alarming new trend, Brazil may be starting to experience the "dollarization" that has plagued many other Latin economies. Brazil has suffered chronic inflation for many years, but wages and prices were so thoroughly indexed that Brazilians did not find it necessary to buy dollars as a hedge. Now Collor has shattered the indexation scheme, and by seizing savings accounts has demonstrated that the financial system is not inviolate.
As a result, the price of the dollar is shooting up rapidly, and increased numbers of money-changers are competing to snare tourists along the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema.
Public confidence has not been increased by the performance of Collor's economic team, which is widely criticized as lacking in experience and technical expertise. One economist described Collor's economy minister, Zelia Cardoso de Mello, as "a nobody." Another called her "a smart woman, capable to a point, but not up to the job. More an assistant professor than a full professor."
Another question is whether Collor knows where his headlong rush is leading. For example, some 50,000 of the planned firings are in education, where there are seven administrators for every three actually teaching. Yet education is a critical issue if Brazil hopes to live up to its long-touted potential and join the first world. Study after study has recommended overhaul rather than shrinking of the educational system.
Said Bacha: "They seem to lack a flight plan. They had an excellent takeoff, but they don't seem to know where they're going."