In Brazil's northeast desert, it rains only at election time

Joao Paulinho dos Santos is one of the fortunate ones. Five days a week, for 70 cents a day, he swings a pick against soil that the sun has baked stone hard. The wage is, he says, ''uma miseria,'' a misery, but all he could find in the drought-withered economy of Brazil's northeast.

A blackened pot with bits of crusted rice sits in one corner of his mud home in the village of Caridade (''charity'' in Portuguese), 70 miles from Fortaleza, the elegant capital of Ceara state.

Chronic drought has existed in Brazil's northeast at least since the 16th century, when the Portuguese started recording history here. But the region, which has had five years of paltry rainfall already that may stretch into seven, the region is outdoing its own arid history.

Amplified three times since 1936, the ''drought polygon'' that delineates critical areas now covers 575,600 square miles - an area larger than the Gobi Desert. At least 10 million people are considered flagelados, those who have lost crops or jobs. They go constantly hungry.

There are indications that social order is starting to come undone in Ceara state, once an upright, hard-working region. Lootings by famished peasants are now a daily occurrence; they used to be a sporadic threat.

In late September, some 1,500 flagelados, most of them women, sacked the tiny city of Tabira in Pernambuco state on market day. That same week, police in a village in Paraiba state used tear gas to disperse 2,000 peasants who had broken into school cafeterias.

In a single week in October, Fortaleza recorded half a dozen lootings. In one , a hundred roving refugees attacked and emptied a truck carrying foodstuffs in the few seconds the vehicle was stopped for a traffic light.

''I understand their situation. They're hungry,'' said Sebastiao Moreira Uchoa, a grocer in the Ceara town of Caninde. In August he lost more than $500 to a band of 3,000 flagelados. ''Everyday I give away a little food. But if they come back again,'' he paused, ''well, there's just no way.''

The drought has claimed other victims. Many children suffer from chronic malnutrition. Infant mortality in Ceara is 25 percent, among the highest in the world.

Perhaps the worst-hit state is Ceara, with 90 percent of its region considered arid and, now, 140 of 141 municipalities in a state of ''public calamity.''

At present the city has 100,000 flagelados. That number is likely to double by year's end.

Once an exporter of crops, Ceara will lose $175 million in ruined harvests this year. Some 270 communities have exhausted their water supplies and live by the vagaries of the state water trucks, which carry in reserves from miles away. Peasants live in dried river beds, scattered with fish skeletons, and fissured by the punishing sun. ''This year,'' said Ceara civil defense coordinator, Clynton Saboia, ''the state turned into a desert.''

Yet, geological surveys show that below the dusty northeast terrain lie substantial water deposits. ''There is a virtual ocean of water below the ground. We don't have a problem of weather. Our problem is corruption, mismanagement, and inefficiency,'' said Paulo Bonavides, a political scientist at Ceara State University.

He noted that two constitutional measures that once sent hefty portions of national tax revenues directly to the stricken states - measures that today would amount to $1 billion a year - were done away with after Brazil's military coup in 1964.

Since then, ''the northeast has been treated as an internal colony,'' living by the largess of a debt-strapped federal government. In October, in fact, a much-heralded cloud-seeding program was abruptly canceled the day it was to be inaugurated - for lack of clouds, in part, but mostly for lack of government money.

What has emerged instead is a massive WPA-like work program, called ''drought bolsoes,'' employing more than 1.3 million northeasterners to scratch out wells and reservoirs in rocky terrain for $18 a week.

Election time is about the only season when money and government attention rain down here. A semiliterate woman in a severely stricken Ceara town, Maria Lenda da Silva, said she and other voters were handed $5 to $10 apiece along with model ballots bearing names of the military government party's candidates as they stood in line to vote in last November's congressional elections.

Maria da Silva is now a refugee living by handouts in far-off Fortaleza. The government Social Democratic Party, having swept the elections once again, is in power throughout the northeast.

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