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Brazil democracy at rocky point

By Louis WiznitzerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 27, 1984

Rio de Janeiro

Brazil's 20-year military dictatorship is coming to an end. While it has not, like Argentina's recently retired military leadership, been defeated at war and dishonored, it has racked up the world's largest foreign debt, put the country on the brink of bankruptcy, and lost credibility among Brazilians.

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The political jockeying that will lead to selection next January of a civilian president - Brazil's first since 1964 - is under way.

But many Brazilians who have long demanded a return to democracy remain dissatisfied. The 1985 election is scheduled to be an indirect vote by Brazil's Electoral College, which is made up of elected representatives of the federal and local legislatures but is dominated by the Social Democrats, a party that is considered to be allied with the current military government.

A crowd estimated at 250,000 people demonstrated Wednesday in Sao Paulo, the nation's key industrial city, against the plan - and in favor of a direct popular election of the president.

The protest was far larger than its organizers anticipated and is described here as the largest in Brazil's history. More such demonstrations are expected in Rio, Sao Paulo, and Belo Horizonte.

Some opposition political leaders also are pressing for direct election - among them Ulisses Guimaraes, president of the Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement, which has a wide popular following. Guimaraes wants a constitutional amendment for direct one-man one-vote, presidential elections.

The military, however insists that the vote will be indirect, according to its plan.

A good half dozen presidential candidates are regularly out on the hustings here. But many believe the man with the edge is Tancredo Neves, even though he is a member of the Brazilian Democratic Movement, not the Social Democrats. Mr. Neves is governor of the key state of Minas Gerais and was elected to that post in 1982 in direct elections for state and local offices accross the country. He is widely viewed as a man of moderation and appears to have the respect of all political parties and most military men.

Discussions with politicians, economists, and business and union leaders indicate that civilians expect the next government to take some drastic measures to grapple with the $93 billion foreign debt. These private- and public-sector leaders expect the next government to start by proclaiming a de facto moratorium on paying off its debt, with renegotiation of the terms to include lower rates of interest and a more favorable time frame for meeting payments.

''The stringent economic guidelines which the (military) government agreed to follow in order to obtain the International Monetary Fund's support last year, in seeking new credit lines and a new respite in repaying the principal and the interest of its loans abroad are unbearable,'' says Clovis Ferro Costa, a respected Brazilian economist and former congressman. ''They constitute an infringement upon our national sovereignty, they threaten to bring Brazil's economy to a state of collapse, and they disrupt in the most serious and dangerous way Brazil's society.''

The economy is near collapse by almost all standards. It was an economic near-crisis that spurred the armed forces to topple the civilian government 1964 . The Army wanted to fight corruption and inflation. Inflation at that time was close to 25 percent, and moving rapidly upward. But in recent months inflation has reached 210 percent.

Fifteen years after the world marveled at Brazil's period of economic progress, calling it an ''economic miracle,'' Brazil's economy is contracting (by 15 percent over the past three years), not growing.