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Profile : Social Critic Crusades Against Brazil Hunger : Once an exile, fragile-looking Herbert de Souza has become a potent symbol in a war on poverty.

August 03, 1993|MAC MARGOLIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

RIO DE JANEIRO — He doesn't look much like a celebrity. Pencil thin, weighing 103 pounds, Herbert (Betinho) de Souza seems to be all angles and no curves, his frame lost under a billowing shirt and trousers. A receding crown of graying hair frames a high forehead, punctuated by overgrown eyebrows. His hands seem too large for his wrists, and a watchband slides like a curtain ring nearly up to his elbow.

His most startling features are his eyes, limpid and aqua-green. His gaze is at once kindly and piercing. Only the large smile and a clear, unfettered voice make a sturdy counterpoint to his brittle physique. Souza, or Betinho as he is widely known in Brazil, would seem at home in front of a blackboard or cloistered in a monastery--anywhere, really, but in the limelight.

Yet suddenly, this studious, fragile-looking 57-year-old sociologist, who is fighting his own personal battle with AIDS, has been pressed into national service. Moved by a damning report on malnutrition and poverty, Brazilian President Itamar Franco last April created a national council on nutrition and announced his ambitious Plan to Combat Hunger and Poverty.

But Franco, thrust into office when the disgraced Fernando Collor de Mello was impeached last year, has his hands full just trying to steady Brazil's riotous course. To take on a task as big as hunger and abject poverty--a condition that afflicts one-fifth of the Brazilian population--Franco needed credibility, a scarce commodity in Brasilia these days. So he called Betinho.

Not that Betinho was a natural ally for Franco. A social critic by vocation, irreverent by instinct, Betinho is not one to break bread with the rich and famous, much less keep counsel with presidents and military men.

In 1970, during the darkest days of the military regime, he left Brazil on a long odyssey of exile. He first sought refuge in Chile, but when soldiers toppled Salvador Allende in 1973, he fled again to Mexico, then to Canada. He returned in 1979, when the military declared a general amnesty.

Back home, he set up a social research think tank, the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analysis, or Ibase, where he has churned out survey after survey exposing the ills of a society pocked by corruption, landlessness, violence and injustice. Now he is taking on the biggest problems of all: poverty and hunger.

From Dhaka in Bangladesh to Mogadishu in Somalia, the ravages of hunger are only too familiar. But hunger in Brazil? Wasn't this, after all, the United States manque, author of a decade-long economic miracle in the 1970s, an exporter of software, airplanes and frozen orange juice?

But behind the robust trade balances, another Brazil has emerged. Hunger looms large in the backlands of the northeast, punished by epic droughts. It pervades the villages of the Amazon, where farmers must scratch a living out of weak soils. It gnaws at the favelas, or shantytowns, that ring cities like some raggedy tourniquet.

Though no one is starving in Guarabu, a favela of 17,000 residents near Rio's Galeao airport, a distribution of food aid draws hundreds of people to the main square.

Like favelados all over Brazil, Guarabu's residents are not only bitterly poor but also spectators in a daily parade of plenty. Overhead, Boeings glide into Galeao, bringing tourists and business people from London, Miami, Rome and Frankfurt. Down below, children taxi toy cars through the crumbling pavement and around the black fingers of open sewage ditches.

In the booming '70s, when these distortions first appeared, Brazil earned a telling nickname, Belindia: a robust and industrious Belgium surrounded by a teeming, impoverished India. But a decade of debt and no growth have made things far worse.

The richest 20% of Brazilian society earns 27 times more than the poorest fifth--one of the worst income gaps in the world. About 32 million people--equal to the entire population of Argentina--earn less than twice the monthly minimum wage, or about $150, which is enough to buy the most basic staples--but not clothing or medicine. Fully 15 million earn only half that starving wage, and 5 million earn nothing at all, bartering their labor for food.

Inflation has done its dire part. While the well-to-do part of the country negotiates high-ante market funds, which adjust assets against inflation every 24 hours, the rest deals in sorry cruzeiros (the local currency). Cruzeiro salaries melt away by 1% a day in workers' pockets or are adjusted only tardily against the dizzy price spiral.

At least half of the hungry live in Brazilian cities, which are showing the strain. Indigence has fed anger and crime, which in turn have bloated the security industry. Bodyguard services and martial-arts instructors are prospering. Middle-class mothers push their strollers behind the bars that wall in what people insist on calling "public plazas."

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