Reagan visit to Brazil: a pat on the back?

The coming trip of President Reagan to Brazil underscores the view from Washington of Brazil's expanding role in the world - and particularly in Latin America.

It may also signal United States approval of Brazil's shift toward democracy after 20 years of military rule. Nationwide elections are scheduled for Nov. 15 to the national congress, state assemblies, and city councils. Those bodies will choose members of an electoral college that will name Gen. Jonao Baptista de Oliveira Figueireido's successor as president in 1985.

By any reckoning, Brazil and its 120 million people are important enough to command top-level US attention.

Mere size tells much. Brazil is larger than the continental US; its 3.3 million square miles hold economic and political potential that no government in Washington can ignore. Its economy is the world's 10th largest, and its influence in Latin America and beyond is growing fast.

Relations with the US are generally good, despite some bumps in the mid-1970s - especially during the Carter years, when Washington criticized human-rights violations in Brazil. With Brazilian democracy, they ties grow stronger still.

At the same time Brazilians, like all Latin Americans, often feel Washington puts more stock in relations with Europe, the Middle East, and Asia than with nations of this hemisphere. The Reagan trip may help to dampen these feelings.

The trip will also serve as an opportunity for North Americans - many of whom know Brazil only as the world's largest coffee producer - to learn more about the country.

In the past generation, and particularly in the past decade, Brazil has taken soared ahead of most developing countries in economic terms. Consider these points:

* In 1970 Brazil's production of soybeans was minimal, but by 1980 it had become the world's second-largest producer of the crop.

* Brazil did not have an aircraft industry in 1970, but today it has the world's sixth largest, and US commuters in the Southwest frequently fly Brazilian-made Bandeirantes, two-engine turbo props.

* In 15 years, Brazil has taken control of the Latin American cutlery market away from Germany.

* Brazilian orange-juicemakers are closing in on US dominance of Canada's orange-juice market. Some predict that by the end of the decate most of the orange juice consumed in Canada will come from Brazil.

* In a majority of African lands, Brazilian-made Volkswagens outsell most other automobiles.

* Brazil's shipbuilding industry now rivals that of South Korea, and is one of the world's largest.

Brazil's economic mark in the world keeps getting larger. Moreover, Brazil is now considered to be the fourth most important trading partner of the US. Some forecast that by the end of the decade Brazil will move up to second or third place.

Brazil has plenty of economic problems, too. These include an $80 billion foreign debt, which many in Washington view as far too large. Whether the Reagan visit heralds any new loans or aid is as yet unclear.

Brazil's political and diplomatic role is also of note. Washington counts on Brazil to be a leader not only in Latin American, but in Africa. Brazil's diplomatic ties in Africa are as numerous as those of the US and Great Britain. And Washington sees Brazil as another force that can help bring stability to Africa.

Reagan's first foray into South America will be in Brazil. It will be easier to start there than in other countries on the continent, for Brazil was neutral during the Falklands war, while the US sided with Britain.

During World War II, Brazil joined the Allied cause against Germany, and Brazilian troops fought in the Italian campaign alongside US soldiers. Many of Brazil's top military leaders won their military spurs in Italy.

That military relationship helped to mute some US criticism of the military takeover in 1964 and probably toned down the criticism of the generals for human-rights violations in subsequent years.

Previous high-level diplomacy between the US and Brzail occurred last May, when President Figureido visited Washington.

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