It is a political axiom: Good economic news feeds presidential popularity. And in recent weeks in Brazil, interest rates have eased, inflation fears have calmed, and the currency has become relatively stable -- all developments that should have wrenched President Fernando Henrique Cardoso out of the political doldrums.
Yet Cardoso's popularity has withered as a range of national ills -- from urban crime to crushing unemployment rates to a string of government scandals -- has crippled the president and a once-small cluster of anti-Cardoso voices has grown into a roaring majority.
The loss of faith means that Cardoso likely will have to struggle this year to push critical fiscal reforms through Brazil's fractious Congress, whose members may be reluctant to aggravate voters. Moreover, analysts say that a slowdown in the pace of reform heightens the possibility that Brazil will slide into another fiscal crisis, like the one that sent markets here tumbling beginning in December.
"The political variable is really key," said Carlos Kawall, chief Citibank economist in Sao Paulo. Perceived resistance to crucial reforms, he said, would mean that Brazil's "credibility is not restored, and if it isn't restored, you're subject to another crisis."
Slow progress on reform rattled many investors early this year and fueled the last crisis, analysts say. In January, however, Congress approved some critical cuts in social security, which helped restore investor confidence. But if investors do not see a further retrenchment of social security benefits and reforms in the tax system, among other measures, "people will get nervous" again, Kawall said.
Cardoso, in his second term as president, acknowledged investor concerns during his visit to Washington last month. In a speech before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he said: "We need to keep up with the pace of reforms. . . . No complacency exists in Brazil. I know, I understand, and I will keep the pace of the budget cuts."
The fate of Cardoso's promises may rest on the shoulders of lower-income Brazilians like Antonio Fernandes, a shopkeeper in Rio de Janeiro. Fernandes, 63, saw significant gains in his income during Cardoso's first term, when the president's fiscal strategy smothered inflation and helped lift an estimated 19 million people out of poverty in this nation of 167 million.
Dozens of customers used to snake through his shop -- the Brazilian equivalent of a convenience store -- in a steady flow from its 7 a.m. opening until late at night. Today, Fernandes sits reading a newspaper, listening to the pleasant cacophony of life in Vidigal -- one of Rio's favelas, hillside communities where most of the city's poor and blue-collar workers live -- waiting for customers who never come.
Fernandes, who describes himself as lower-middle class, said that during Cardoso's first term, he was able to save about $100 a month. Today, he barely breaks even. He said people have no money to spend in his store because they do not have jobs -- a problem the shopkeeper lays at Cardoso's feet. In some metropolitan areas, such as Sao Paulo, the nation's industrial center, the jobless rate has skyrocketed by some estimates to 20 percent.
Unemployment, which has dogged Brazil since the early 1990s, remains the most potent reminder of the economy's malaise. Industrial jobs in particular have dried up, and the government's efforts to shrink its swollen bureaucracy also have taken a toll.
"People don't have money," said Fernandes, his pinched face framed by a shining white-blond beard. "We had inflation before, but people had jobs. Now, there's no inflation, but people don't have money. . . . I don't have money, but I still have to pay the taxes, pay the rent."
Cardoso's popularity began to fade in January, after his government devalued the real, Brazil's currency, causing it to fall in value against the dollar by as much as 40 percent. The currency has recovered somewhat since then, but poor and working class Brazilians say they still feel the pinch.
After the devaluation, interest rates exploded past 40 percent, and Brazilians feared a return to the hyperinflation that had strangled the economy in years past. But interest rates have since come to rest at just over 20 percent, and the inflation rate remains in single digits.
Meanwhile, a host of scandals over the past two years already had fostered public cynicism toward politicians generally and Cardoso specifically. Allegations of corruption have touched virtually every arm of the government, from former high-ranking officials in the Finance Ministry, to prosecutors and judges, to members of Congress.
"People have become very cynical and very callous," said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia. "A lot of it doesn't have to with the president necessarily," Fleischer added, but the scandals have stained him nonetheless. "There's been a lot of fraud and corruption and scandal."
In January, 77 percent of Brazilians surveyed approved of Cardoso's performance, according to one major poll. By May, only 49 percent said they were pleased with the president. In January, only 14 percent thought he was doing a "terrible" job; now, 33 percent do.
Such numbers frighten members of Congress, and analysts predict that the lawmakers probably will enact some key economic reform legislation by the end of the year -- which may not be soon enough to satisfy investors.
In Vidigal, a community of small businesses, simple homes and plainspoken residents, the antipathy toward Cardoso is palpable. For Eliana Mathias, 43, the clearest evidence of Cardoso's failure is the inability of her 24-year-old son to find a job since leaving the army in February.
"The president doesn't care about poor people," the seamstress said in her small concrete home. "There are too many criminals in the streets. There's no equipment in the hospitals. . . . I don't see things changing any time soon."
Others employ the language of betrayal. Celestino Lopes dos Santos, 49, the owner of an auto repair shop, said he has had to lay off five mechanics in recent months because his business has shrunk by more than 50 percent since the devaluation.
"The people aren't well," said dos Santos, who voted twice for Cardoso. "I'm embarrassed to have Fernando Henrique as president. . . . It's like I'm married to a woman and she goes to another man."
CAPTION: President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has moved toward economic reform, but analysts say he must do more to satisfy investors and voters.