Volume 3 Number 9
Forthright Voice in Paradise
01 October 1990
Jones Santos Neves of Brazil has no time for nepotism, corruption or state monopolies. Peter Hintzen talks to an industrialist and politician who believes in honesty in public life.
As Brazil, a giant pinned down by poverty, goes to the polls this month, politicians promise the moon in exchange for votes. Liberal Party Congressman Jones (pronounced 'Jo-ness') Santos Neves is different. Courageously, if solitarily, he has mercilessly decried Brazil's system of wheeling and dealing, bribery and corruption, often provoking fierce reactions from his colleagues.
Santos Neves is a civil engineer by training. With his two sons, he runs a construction firm, CIEC (Comercio Industria Engheneria Capixaba) in Vitoria, capital of the State of Espirito Santo. He has held most of the high offices in the National Confederation of Brazilian Industries (CNI) and for many years has represented Brazilian employers at the International Organisation of Employers in Geneva and served as a member of the Governing Body of the International Labour Organisation.
His home town is slung around a bright blue bay, lined with a golden, sun-drenched beach and, he maintains, is the nearest Earth gets to paradise. Vitoria is certainly more homely than crowded Rio de Janeiro, 700 km to the south.
On the lips of its citizens, and on the maps of the world, Brazil earns superlatives. It is as big as China, or as Europe undivided. Football is a serious matter - ask a Brazilian fan why he is so sure of victory and he replies, `Because God is a Brazilian!' Like his compatriots, Santos Neves loves his country and is not above bragging about its beauties. But unlike many, he is not blind to its defects.
Every year Rio's Samba Schools, composed of destitute favela dwellers, produce a dazzling show of music and colour for their city's carnival. But carnival and samba, beaches and pleasure are only one facet of Brazil. High-tech, hard-headed, efficient industry and business, impressive scientific achievements (such as the home-grown cane-alcohol-fuelled car) are another. Santos Neves, too, possesses these two sides: cheerfully patient with people, but militant in his aim. He takes life with a smile and a joke, even when discussing his strongest convictions; though he deeply believes, he seldom argues.
He was named after his father, who was Governor of the State of Espirito Santo and a national Senator. Originally appointed as Governor, Santos Neves Sr was later elected by popular vote. His memory is still revered in the State. Jones Jr and Lea started their married life living with his parents in the ornate governatorial palace in Vitoria. Lea smiles when she remembers how her husband, then working as a port engineer, was only allowed in through the back door because his clothes were considered too dirty for public display.
Vote for change
Now aged 62, Jones Santos Neves made his mark through the `concertation' system set up by the dictator Getulio Vargas in the Thirties in an attempt to stem the tide of industrial unrest. This established two parallel hierarchies, one for management and the other for labour, which are locked together in a pyramid. At the apex is the national confederation, in the middle the statelevel federations and at the bottom management and labour unions for every trade. Santos Neves rose from President of his State management federation to Secretary-Treasurer, VicePresident and now a Director of the National Confederation of Brazilian Industries (CNI).
The political arena in which his father distinguished himself was barred to Santos Neves during the 20-year rule of Brazil's 'technocratic-military regime' (1964-84). When full democracy was restored, he ran in the elections. He entered the National Congress in 1989 - at the same age as his father had retired from politics.
Brazil is no easy forum for a politician, or industrialist, who believes in honesty in public life. The contrasts and tensions between the modern agriculture of the country's south, the sophisticated industry of the central Rio-Sao Paulo belt and the poor and undeveloped north are marked. Fernando Collor de Melo, the first popularly elected President since 1964, is finding it hard to steer his austerity plan through a politically diverse Congress whose Deputies are adept at sacrificing content for appearance.
In the Congress Santos Neves does not pull his punches. Brazil's uneducated millions, he says, know what they want - in April's Presidential elections they rejected both the old guard and the exponents of Santa-Claus socialism and populism. Their verdict, he says, demonstrates a 'giant desire for change', a popular plea to eradicate the `cruel pest of nepotism, patronage, backroom dealing and bribing'. He likes the definition of revolution coined by the British author Peter Howard as a movement in which people `risk their lives, their position, their power and their property to save their countries'. This, he says, is what Brazil needs.
He believes that Brazil's ills stem principally from unreformed human nature - bribery, greed, self-interest and dishonesty - and that God can change people if they let him. This conviction was inspired in part by a book he came across in the Seventies, the autobiographical notes of a French employer, Robert Carmichael. As a result of relinquishing his authoritarian attitudes, Carmichael found a new rapport with his opposite number, the secretary general of the textile workers. Together they negotiated the gradual changeover to new forms of manufacturing as the textile industry was overtaken by depression. He went on, as President of the European Jute Industry in the Sixties, to negotiate an agreement which guaranteed fair and stable prices to the primary producers in India and Pakistan.
Santos Neves sees state monopolies as `Brazil's cancer', the engine of galloping inflation which causes stagnation and poverty. He sees no answer in the fake privatization which has turned some state-owned giants into so-called free enterprise cartels which are still monopolies. Authentic private enterprises only make up ten per cent of the national economy today; he believes they should be given space to grow. But nothing will change unless the attitudes of industrialists do: spoilt by years of state pampering, he says, they still rely on state intervention.
Debt and death
His ideal is for each business to become a community, employing no more than 350 people, who each have a share in the company's management and profits. This would make work not only a matter of survival but a source of happiness. Such community enterprises would not just benefit their members but generate resources to initiate social-welfare projects in the wider community. He has tabled a proposal in Congress to translate his dream into federal law.
Santos Neves appeals for a new way and he is prepared to battle for it. In the ILO he has worked - often behind the scenes - to promote the organization's aims of justice and of partnership between government, management and labour.
In the late Seventies he started taking part in the annual industrial conferences at the Moral Re-Armament centre in Caux, Switzerland. They were organized by a group of European industrialists - soon joined by North Americans and Japanese -who believed that social change was as much their business as that of labour.
Santos Neves was interested by these conferences, but characteristically, not satisfied. `You only think of the northern half of the planet,' he protested. `You are forgetting us!' At first he was not understood. Western industrialists were inclined to think that what was good for the West was good for everyone. But slowly his point penetrated. The conferences extended their agenda to consider such issues as the international debt crisis - an issue close to Santos Neves's heart. What seems like an issue of `banking technique' in the North, he says, means death, starvation, unemployment and lack of shelter in the South. Something must be done.
Will Jones Santos Neves be re-elected? He knows that in a country where politics thrives on promises, his Liberal Party has little popular appeal. But he sticks to his guns. And Dona Lea backs him - even though his involvement in so many causes means he spends little time in their beautiful home, only five minutes' walk from the beach.