Sao Paulo, Brazil — At last, the drums beat out a samba in the makeshift ballroom in a slum in Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city and industrial center. A man who can no longer sit still shakes his body into dance. He forgets, in the beat of samba at midnight, the city's pollution, the hot sunshine, and another day spent shattering a sidewalk with a pick to earn his $75-a-month minimum wage.
Out onto the cement floor they go, minimum wage earners and street vendors -- forgetting briefly the high cost of kidney beans (30 cents a pound) and rice (25 cents a pound) and inflation, which, at a rate of 106 percent a year or higher, gobbles up their meager earnings.
Along with some 20 million other Brazilians -- half the country's working population -- most of these evening dancers live on $55 to $75 a month.
Since the military seized power in 1964, their wages have decreased in real value by 10 to 40 percent. Yet during this time Brazil's gross national product multiplied eight times. The poorest half of the population apparently didn't receive its share of that growth: It earned 17.4 percent of the national income in 1960 and 13.5 percent in 1976.
The economic gap between the classes has widened since the junta. Brazilian Sen. Andre Franco Montoro says, "I can think of no other place in the Western world where the gap between the rich and poor is greater. In a country like Germany, the rich make 10 times as much as the poor.But in Brazil, those at the top are earning, 1,000 times as much as those at the bottom."
As wages lag further and further behind escalating prices, a tide of labor unrest has been erupting in Brazil's major cities -- particularly in Sao Paulo. Workers have staged some 100 illegal strikes during the past year. Police have been called on to break up strikes, but in general government interference has been minimal.
President Joao Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo promised "abertura" (political liberalization) when he took office in 1979. The change is evident on Sno Paulo. Unlike most of the years under the military regime, the news media discuss poverty and social problems. Newspapers write of the return of political exiles banished during the years of the dictatorship. Bumper stickers on cars applaud amnesty extended to exiles. There are banners proclaiming, "Liberty to the people." In earlier years, such displays could have been punished by imprisonment and torture.
As Brazil's planning minister, Antonio Delfim Neto, wrestles with the economy , he says, "It is much more likely that the economy will be sacrificed to abertura, than abertura to the economy."
Mr. Neto is dealing with Brazil's enormous foreign debt, which could reach about $56 billion by the end of this year. Brazil is also dependent on foreign oil imports, a dependence that contributes to its staggering inflation rate.
Neto's plan to solve Brazil's financial crisis calls for increasing exports. He promises a growth-first policy. But the country's commercial and industrial growth has bypassed the estimated 100,000 migrants who flood into Sao Paulo each year.
An estimated 10 percent of Sao Paulo's 9 million people live in slums.
Like laborers who strike, the poor here sometimes revolt.In November 1979, for instance, hundreds of people threw stones at President Figueiredo and wielded banners demanding "down with hunger."
Although Neto says he is trying to foster "progresso," inflation keeps racing upward, strikes continue, parents put their children into the street to earn a living. No one is certain how a turnaround will take place.