Brazil's old capital retools to take place in industrial future

By , Latin America correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

As their feet dangle over a rugged rock outcropping that is lashed by a raging surf, Edson Guiramaes and his six-year-old son Joao talk of coming again to watch the big waves and the tide of the South Atlantic.

''I came here with my father,'' Edson shouted as he and Joao picked their way gingerly across rocks already slippery from the spray. ''He told me he came here with his father.''

''It's like that here in Bahia,'' he said as he and Joao reached the sands and dry land of the bay just to the south of the city. ''Things don't change much.''

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But change is coming - indeed already has come - to this exotic city known officially as Salvador but widely called Bahia. Portuguese colonists and their African slaves carved out a society based on sugar and later on gold here. At independence, Bahia was for a time the nation's capital.

Today, Bahia's traditional steep, cobblestoned streets lined with profusely flowering trees and pastel-colored colonial homes are hosts also to high-rise apartments, hotels, and office buildings.

These new structures, like new buildings in just about every other city of Brazil, are testimony to new wealth based increasingly on light industry.

Edson Guiramaes' own life is evidence of this change. His great-grandfather was a slave, and none of his ancestors, including his father and mother, went to school. But Edson finished high school. He works as a lathe machinist in a factory and hopes Joao will go on to university.

''My wife, Carmen, and I often talk of Joao going into university,'' he adds. ''I think it is possible.''

Indeed, it is. And this possibility tells much about modern-day Brazil, particularly about Bahia. Within a generation, this city where the Portuguese colonial heritage and the mysteries of black African culture mingle has leaped into the 20th century ahead of much of the rest of the country.

''It might be better to say that Bahia blends the past with the present,'' says Gov. Antonio Carlos Magalhaes. ''We are no longer the poor stepson of Brazil.''

The governor was referring to Brazil's northeast, of which Bahia is an integral part. The northeast traditionally has been the impoverished part of the country, although it is home to about one-third of Brazil's 125 million people - and millions of its residents live outside the economy.

As most of Brazil began flexing its economic muscle in the 1950s and '60s, the northeast was left behind. Many doubted it would ever catch up with the more industrialized and agriculturally rich southland around booming Sao Paulo.

But the northeast has not remained stagnant.

Bahia - just two hours by air from Rio de Janeiro - has light industry, has created a large and still-growing number of jobs, and has become an important, although still minor, part of Brazil's vast economic expansion.

In the past decade, more than 50,000 jobs have been opened up in greater Bahia, an area of nearly 1.3 million. The annual per capita income here today is about $1,200 (US) - well below the $2,000 in Brazil as a whole, but better than the northeast average of $500. Approximately $2 billion has been invested here.

Residents have become very consumer-oriented - as a trip to the sprawling Iguatemi shopping center shows. Shiny new Brazilian-made Chevrolets, Fords, and Volkswagens fill the mall's attractively landscaped parking area. Their owners shop in stores that would not seem out of place in a mall in Florida or California.

''We go there a couple times a month,'' Edson says. ''But we do not have a car. We ride the bus instead. But that is all right. Once we are inside, nobody can tell whether we came in a car or a bus - or on foot.''

The Guiramaes family intends to purchase a car next year. Edson has his eye on a Volkswagen that runs on gasohol. But Carmen is holding out for a Ford.

For now the family is content to ride the bus and to enjoy their four-room stucco house on a narrow street. They purchased the house new three years ago. Mortgage rates were lower then. Edson says he ''got a good deal.''

None of his family had lived in such a fine house before. It may not be a luxury home, but it is far and away more attractive than the one-room wood house in which he grew up.

And it is part of the new Bahia, which has begun to crowd and in some cases overshadow the traditional Bahia.

''I'll have to admit that things have changed a lot,'' Edson says. ''Maybe because I live with the change, I don't realize it is taking place.

''But whether it changes or not, Bahia will always be home to me. The sea, the rolling hills, the city itself are part of it. And anyway, this is the cradle of the Brazilian nation. It may change, but it will always be the heart of where Brazil started.''

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