As Rio de Janeiro prepares for Carnival 2014, I thought it would be an appropriate time to recount an interesting episode in Brazilian politics (and footnote in Brazilian monetary history), which I discovered from reading the memoirs of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC), former Brazilian president and finance minister.
In 1994, FHC was cajoling legislators to accept his Plano Real (Real Plan). The introduction of the Real, a new currency, was intended to end hyperinflation, which was over 3,000 percent (annualized) by 1994. I'll write a longer post at some point on the plan, which had some very unusual features. But for the sake of this post, I'll just point out that this plan was unpopular because it unsettled entrenched political interests and was not deemed likely to succeed, even by the IMF. Against the odds, FHC seemed to be winning support for the plan, which eventually passed, but not before it was almost derailed by political scandal.
According to FHC, the 1994 Carnival was particularly spectacular, perhaps to compensate for a year of political and economic turmoil. President Itamar Franco, who was a supporter of FHC's controversial plan, decided to be the first Brazilian president to watch Carnival from Sambodrome in Rio. No-one is quite sure how, but a buxom 27 year-old model named Lilian Ramos managed to wend her way up to the special presidential balcony where Franco was sitting. She proceeded to climb on his lap, which appeared harmless enough at first, but every time she clapped her hands, her short T-shirt rose higher and higher, eventually revealing that she wasn't wearing anything below. At all. This, of course, was manna from heaven for the photographers below.
The next day, domestic and foreign newspapers launched into the story with full force. Franco was divorced, but the foreign attention annoyed the Brazilian public and military, who were sick of Brazil being made out to to be a banana republic, as well as the Catholic Church, who demanded that Franco be more supportive of family values. Some legislators threatened to impeach Franco, and FHC was apparently approached by a member of the military who enquired where FHC's loyalties would lie if impeachment occurred.
How exactly Ramos found herself on the balcony with Franco is a matter of some speculation. FHC argues that the moment was politically motivated and engineered in an attempt to embarrass Franco, and derail the Real Plan, a theory he says is corroborated by the fact that Ramos later announced plans to run for political office. That, of course, will probably never be known, but it is highly doubtful that a politically sensitive and ambitious agenda like the Real Plan could have been implemented if the country had been forced into further turmoil. Given the importance of this plan in ending hyperinflation and setting the stage for reform and growth in Brazil, it's fortunate that the scandal passed, so we can relegate the incident to an amusing footnote in Brazilian political and economic history. I'll leave you with this comic gem (non-Portuguese speakers, relax, you can use Google Translate). I imagine this was a fairly family-friendly version of some of the comics going round at the time: