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Jobless in Sao Paulo

Desperate Brazilians hit the streets before dawn in search of work. Some brand President Lula a traitor and a Pinocchio for his empty promises.

May 30, 2004|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

SAO PAULO, Brazil — Not even the sun rises as early as Antonia Mariano. The stars are out and the streets deserted when she shuts the door behind her and catches a lonely bus downtown at 4 a.m.

The ride takes nearly 90 minutes. It's still dark and chilly when she reaches her destination -- a queue that already snakes around a building and down the block. The line is led by people who camped out the night before or managed to arrive even earlier than she did.

Luckily, she is among the 240 supplicants who make the cutoff and get ushered inside the office of Brazil's largest workers union. Yet a few more hours will pass before she finds out whether there's any chance of getting what she desperately needs: a job.

Mariano, 48, has been searching for work for more than a year, after the graphics company for which she cooked and cleaned collapsed under a mound of debt. Week in and week out, she makes the rounds of Sao Paulo's union-run employment centers, then hits the pavement, passing out her resume from business to business, shop to shop. All she has earned so far are regretful shakes of the head and a pair of tired feet.

"It wears you out more than working," Mariano said. "When you go to work, you've got something fixed, you know where you're going. When you go out looking for a job, you just don't know whether you'll find anything."

Her plight seems endlessly replicated in this sprawling megalopolis, South America's largest, with a population of 18 million in the greater Sao Paulo area. Joblessness and despair beset the city that has long been the powerhouse of the Brazilian economy. Last month, the unemployment rate here hit 20.7%, the worst for any April on record, with 2 million people idle.

The bulging ranks of the unemployed form one of the biggest challenges -- and threats -- facing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in the second year of his administration. A former blue-collar worker and left-wing activist, Lula was elected on promises that he would tackle Brazil's glaring social inequities and champion the poor and the struggling.

But he spent his first year as president proving to worried international markets that he would lead a fiscally responsible government, one that kept a watchful eye on inflation, paid back its loans and spent sparingly.

Most economists say Lula has successfully shown that Brazil won't suddenly go off the rails under his command. But analysts warn that patience is stretching thin among his political base, society's underdogs, who expect him to start making good on his vows to find them jobs and improve their lives.

"The government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso" -- Lula's predecessor -- "was well known for bringing monetary stabilization," said Marcio Pochmann, who heads the municipal department of development, labor and solidarity for the city of Sao Paulo. "The victory or defeat of Lula's government will depend on employment, not on inflation. Combating unemployment is a lot more difficult than combating inflation."

A winter of labor discontent now looms as pressure on the government mounts. At the end of March, thousands of protesters turned out in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to demand jobs, marching with banners and signs that read, "Wake up, Lula!" and "Where are our millions of jobs?"

Some label the president a traitor. One scathing political poster still taped to windows here depicts the Brazilian leader with a foot-long nose and calls him Pinocchio. Lula's approval ratings have plunged to their lowest in Sao Paulo, according to a poll released May 22.

May has been a month of walkouts, sympathy strikes or threats of job action throughout Brazil by unions pushing for higher wages and better benefits, groups representing civil servants, federal prosecutors, tax auditors, schoolteachers and auto workers, among others. The federal police have been conducting work slowdowns and stoppages since March, tying up airport and customs operations.

Demonstrations have also erupted over the government's increase of the minimum wage, from $80 to about $87 a month, which critics scoff at as laughably meager.

Stung by accusations of having abandoned his core supporters, Lula has been put on the defensive. He made a public appeal for understanding, saying that he wished he could offer a bigger boost to the minimum salary but that he was held back by hard financial reality.

"The minimum wage is a clear demonstration of how Lula is convinced that there are budgetary constraints, that political will is not the only element in the decision-making process," said Mailson da Nobrega, a former finance minister.

Previously, "he thought it was a question of political will -- 'When I come there, I'll do everything in favor of the poor' -- but now he has come to the conclusion that things are more complicated," said Da Nobrega, a partner in an economic consultancy here.

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