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Brazil economy minister defends pension reform in heated hearing

Brazilian Economy Minister Paulo Guedes on Wednesday put up a vigorous defence of the government’s proposed pension reform, insisting it is critical to fixing the country’s “doomed” social security system but opening the door to some concessions.

In often heated and combative exchanges with lawmakers at Brazil’s Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee (CCJ), Guedes said the proposals were progressive, would reduce inequality, and were urgently needed to address Brazil’s “inescapable” fiscal problems.

The hearing’s confrontational atmosphere, however, weighed on Brazilian markets, on fears political infighting may hold up deliberations on the bill. Stocks fell 0.9 percent, the real weakened and interest rates futures rose.

Elmar Nascimento, lower house whip for the DEM party, the government’s main ally in Congress, said in a tweet that Guedes may have to come back to the committee to fully explain what the impact of the new rules will be.

“The government needs to intensify its efforts to convince lawmakers and the public that reforms must reduce (pension) benefits,” Nascimento said.

Guedes recognised that proposed changes to rural, elderly and disabled workers’ pensions are a sensitive issue, adding that the role of Congress would be to weigh those concerns and act on them.

He also defended the introduction of private retirement accounts, which he called fairer and more helpful for boosting economic growth, citing the example of Chile’s system.

“It’s important to understand that our system is financially doomed, no matter the government in power,” Guedes told the CCJ.

President Jair Bolsonaro’s plans aim to save over 1 trillion reais ($260 billion) over the next decade through a range of reforms including raising the minimum retirement age and making workers contribute to the system for longer.

Bolsonaro and Guedes have been heavily criticized for not reaching out to lawmakers to build the political consensus needed to secure the bill’s passage through Congress.

Guedes has tried to strike a more conciliatory tone lately, but that was not in evidence on Wednesday.

“Venezuela’s better! Venezuela’s good!” Guedes responded sarcastically in a heated exchange with deputies who had shouted down his praise for Chile.

“Speak up! I can’t hear you!” Guedes goaded ironically, before shouting and finger-pointing later in the session.

Guedes insisted that his role in pension reform is only to put forward the proposals, not to enter the political debate.

The government needs at least 308 of the 513 lower house deputies to approve the reforms, sending them to the Senate. A survey run by transparency group Atlas Politico on Wednesday showed that the government currently has the support of 171 deputies.