Brazil economy minister threatens to quit over pension reform

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) –


Brazil's economy minister threatened to quit over the country's stalled pension reform in an interview published Friday, as President Jair Bolsonaro's embattled government struggles to pass its signature economic policy.

Paulo Guedes, a US-trained free-marketeer spearheading the government's pro-market agenda, told Veja magazine that if the proposal was watered down significantly or faced too much opposition, he would "get on a plane and go live abroad."

His comments come as Bolsonaro supporters plan marches across Brazil on Sunday to shore up the ultraconservative government as it faces growing opposition.

Bolsonaro, who took power in January on a promise to revive Latin America's biggest economy, has seen his popularity plunge as rising unemployment and education spending freezes fuel opposition to his administration, which is plagued by infighting.

His controversial order earlier this month permitting millions of Brazilians to carry loaded weapons in public has fuelled anger, sparked a legal challenge and added to his woes in Congress, where his relations with key leaders had already deteriorated.

Sunday's planned demonstrations come after tens of thousands of students and teachers took to the streets on May 15 in protest over the government's suspension of 30 percent of discretionary spending for public universities in the second half of this year.

After such a strong display of opposition, Bolsonaro needs a big turnout Sunday to save face and strengthen his authority.

But the former paratrooper has said he would not participate in the demonstrations, which have been organized by his most radical supporters, and has advised his ministers against taking part.

"I see the demonstrations of 26 (May) as a spontaneous demonstration of the population, which in an unprecedented way, has become the main voice of the political decisions that Brazil must take," Bolsonaro tweeted Tuesday.

Bolsonaro's ambitious overhaul of Brazil's pension system, which he says will bankrupt the country if not passed, is facing resistance from members of Congress under pressure from their own supporters to temper changes to the retirement age and benefits.

There are fears the proposal -- seen as key to Bolsonaro's ability to deliver other economic reforms -- could be significantly weakened by the time it is approved, probably later this year.

Guedes, considered one of the most powerful members of Bolsonaro's government, warned that Brazil would "burn" if that happened.

"We will not have money to pay officials, it will be chaos in the public sector," he told Veja.

"The reform is urgent."

Bolsonaro backed his minister, telling reporters Friday: "I agree with him... Brazil is plunged into economic chaos without approval of this reform."

The International Monetary Fund agreed Friday that the pension overhaul was a "crucial step," but warned additional measures were needed to reduced Brazil's public debt burden, which at 88 percent of GDP was one of the largest among its peers.