Brazil government, house speaker bury hatchet to save pension bill

March 28, 2019

By Mateus Maia

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s president, economy minister and speaker of the lower house of Congress patched things up publicly on Thursday, trying to move past days of finger pointing to focus on passing a thorny pension reform to save the country’s public finances.

Their pledge to bury the hatchet helped Brazilian markets rebound a day after a sharp plunge on fears that the bickering would sink the cornerstone of the government’s economic agenda.

Elected to tackle crime and kickstart the economy, President Jair Bolsonaro has become increasingly bogged down in petty fighting and social media crusades that hurt his poll numbers and led investors to question whether he can deliver major fiscal reforms.

Brazil’s benchmark stock index jumped 2.7 percent on the peace signs and the local currency firmed 1.1 percent — in both cases nearly erasing Wednesday’s losses.

Economy Minister Paulo Guedes, who on Wednesday said he would quit if there was no appetite for his pension proposal, said the “noise” surrounding the reform will diminish.

Speaking to reporters alongside House Speaker Rodrigo Maia in Brasilia, he said he had Bolsonaro and Maia’s full support to get the pension overhaul through Congress.

Echoing the sense of a fresh start, Maia said his aim was to get the reform process back on track.

Maia also sought to downplay a festering spat with Bolsonaro, who on Wednesday said the house speaker was “shaken up by personal matters” — seen as a reference to the legal problems of his wife’s stepfather, a former minister accused of corruption.

Bolsonaro said he had “no problems” with Maia.

Marcelo Freitas, a freshman lawmaker from Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (PSL), was announced later on Thursday as the government’s lead legislator for the pension reform bill.

The president’s chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, said congressional leaders agreed it was best that the job should fall to someone in Bolsonaro’s party.

Separately, when asked whether he still planned to move Brazil’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Bolsonaro backtracked and told reporters that the government may instead open a “business office” in Jerusalem.

Brazil’s agriculture sector is ardently against any embassy move, which could threaten the country’s world-leading $5 billion in halal meat exports to Muslim countries.

(Reporting by Mateus Maia; Additional reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu; writing by Gabriel Stargardter; editing by Brad Haynes, Leslie Adler and Lisa Shumaker)

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