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Military Rule Ends : Brazil's New Era: Crisis --and Hope

March 15, 1985|JUAN de ONIS | Times Staff Writer

BRASILIA, Brazil — As Brazil returns to democracy today after 21 years of authoritarian military rule, a social and economic crisis stands in the way of the old nationalist dream of transforming this Latin American giant into a modern world power.

Tancredo Neves, the president-elect, has said: "If we all want it and remain united, we can make this a great nation. And we will do it."

But the 132 million people of Brazil--a nation larger than the mainland United States and more populous than all the rest of South America's countries together--are not in agreement on how to share the burden and distribute the benefits of national development. They know only that they want a change.

Millions Attend Rallies

There was broad support for ending the period of military rule, the longest since the republic was established in 1889. Millions of people calling for civilian government turned out for rallies last year in major cities. They took place even before the formation of the opposition front that elected Neves over the government party candidate in January.

Neves, 75, has spent 50 years in public life, as a congressman, a Cabinet minister and, most recently, as the elected governor of Minas Gerais, Brazil's second-largest state. A moderate reformer and pragmatic nationalist, he is seen by the major political parties, by businessmen and by most of the military as a good choice to lead the transition. Labor leaders and social progressives, including many Roman Catholic bishops, are more skeptical.

The new democracy that Neves will lead, based on a fragile coalition of parties, is saddled with critical problems. Brazil is experiencing the worst inflation in its history. The foreign debt of $100 billion is the largest in the world, and economic growth is restrained by annual interest payments of $11 billion on the debt.

Poverty Gap Widens

As the population continues to rise at an annual rate of 2.4%, the gap between the rich and the impoverished majority is widening. Two-thirds of the people are inadequately fed, according to official surveys, and infant mortality rates in the poorest states exceed 120 per 1,000 births.

"We have two countries here under one flag, one constitution and one language," observed Gov. Wilson Braga of Sergipe, a small state in the backward northeast region. "One part of Brazil is in the 20th Century, with high-technology computers and satellite launches. And, beside that, we have another country where people are eating lizards to survive."

"The military wanted to develop a modern state, and they knew how to . . . build highways and power dams and put settlers on the frontier," said Adroaldo Moura da Silva, an economics professor at the University of Sao Paulo. "But they never learned how to supply health services or schools or community development. They didn't see these as part of national security."

The malady that strikes hardest at the average Brazilian is inflation, which pushed prices up 225% last year. Wages are legally adjusted only every six months, so

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has reduced the workers' purchasing power. Mortgage contracts are automatically adjusted at a faster rate than wages, and as a result it is hard to buy a house or a car or other goods on credit.

The insecurity caused by inflation has spread a sense of anxiety through a once-confident middle class. Unemployment is increasing, and urban crime has risen to a level that has made private security services a major industry.

The pessimistic mood is reflected in a Brazilian rock group's song "Nervous Tic," now on the local hit parade. It describes a day in the life of an urbanite who loses his job, gets mugged, runs out of gas on a freeway and finally goes home to an empty refrigerator.

"Before, everyone thought about success," the lyric goes. "Now, you can't make it to the next day."

Brazilians remember that during two decades of forced industrialization and construction of huge energy, transport and communications projects, the military leaders also preached the doctrine of national power.

Economic Miracle of '70s

For a while, during the so-called economic miracle of the 1970s, the Brazilian economy achieved annual growth rates of more than 10%. Industrialization, based on vast agricultural and mineral resources and an expanding urban consumer market, put Brazil's economy in eighth place in the Western World, producing goods and services valued at more than $200 billion in 1980.

For the ruling elite--the military leaders, bankers, corporate executives and mass-media owners--Brazil was no longer an underdeveloped Third World country. There was optimism in the new middle class of managers and technicians, who could buy homes and automobiles. Skilled labor benefited from high employment, and real wages increased.

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