Rio de Janeiro — This mightiest of nations in Latin America has again shown its ability to weather severe economic storms--and to emerge into 1982 somewhat battered but upright.
It wasn't supposed to happen that way; at least, many of the economic forecasters suggested that 1981 would see the end of the ''Brazilian miracle'' with the country and its 125 million people brought to their knees or worse.
As Brazil edges toward a parliamentary government to replace the 18-year-old military regime, the economy is showing a strength that will probably give Brazil a 4 percent growth rate this year. That is down from 8 percent in 1980 and 5 percent in 1981, but is still more than previously forecast.
Although world market conditions for Brazilian products and continuing economic difficulties at home are largely responsible for the slowdown, it is also due to a conscious decision of Brazil's economic planners.
They have been cooling down the economy for several years. The aim is to whittle down the whopping $60 billion foreign debt and to tackle the even more serious problem of servicing that debt. The debt service ratio now is 56.4 percent of export earnings. Moreover, Brazil has a current account deficit of $ 11 billion. And the country imports 80 percent of the oil it needs.
Planning Minister Antonio Delfim Neto recently reaffirmed ''our decision to maintain a strict economic policy for several years.''
Critics of the policy--on the left and the right--said that Brazil as a result would have to go hat in hand to the International Monetary Fund for a financial bail-out or else postone debt repayments and stop all foreign borrowing.
Neither forecast has been fulfilled. Instead, the economy continues to grow - albeit at a much reduced rate--and looks fairly prosperous. Foreign borrowing continues, as payment on previous debts is made. By the end of February this year, Brazil had obtained $5 billion in new credits, including about $2 billion in unused commitments from 1981. This already puts Brazil well on the way to meeting its foreign borrowing target for 1982 of $13.6 billion--and there is some talk of increasing the target.
Petroleum purchases have slowed slightly as Brazil locates more domestic oil and as conservation measures become effective. Other imports are down, and with the government stressing exports, foreign earnings are up. After a $2.8 billion trade deficit in 1980, Brazil chalked up a $1.2 billion surplus in 1981 and this year has set an even more ambitious target of $3 billion.
This relatively good economic report card has surprised and confounded the critics--and, of course, pleased Mr. Delfim Neto and his associates.
Still, there are serious problems facing the nation. There are a lot of people out of work in Brazil. As the population soars at a 2.5-percent-a-year growth rate, many of those coming on the job market simply do not find employment. This social problem is most evident in the industrial cities of Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Curitiba, and Recife.
Joblessness is growing in the automotive industry as it lays off workers due to slack demand for autos. The high interest rates have cut sharply into automobile sales. Domestic sales of vehicles were down 38 percent last year.
Newspapers in Rio de Janeiro made much of a recent commuter railroad's advertisement of 352 job openings. Some 30,000 candidates appeared.
The search for oil is consuming much attention here. With the country so dependent on imports, a domestic find, say offshore 100 miles above Rio de Janeiro and yielding 500 barrels a day, merits major attention in the Brazilian press.
''It is incredible,'' says the Sao Paulo newspaper Folha da Tarde, ''that we cannot locate more oil in the biggest single land mass in South America when our neighbors in Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela keep finding more and more.
''Our basic national goal must be the discovery of oil.''
To compensate for this deficiency, however, Brazil is building huge hydroelectric systems, including those on the Parana River in the south and the Sao Francisco in the northeast, both with extensive Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank funding. A much-touted nuclear energy system, largely being built with West German equipment, has been slowed due to cost overruns and a developing concern about the effects of nuclear accidents.