Brazil's 'shadow city' seems worse off than 20 years ago

The approach to Recife by air from the south provides a glimpse of gleaming high-rise apartments stretching for miles along a sandy Atlantic beach. Twenty years ago, there were but three tall buildings.

Today this impressively wealthy neighborhood in Boa Viagem on the outskirts of Recife boasts a shopping center, hotels, restaurants, and a new highway.

But to Dom Helder Camara, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Recife, the explosive growth of Boa Viagem is but an illusion. ''You have to go beyond the facade,'' he said, ''to understand the real Recife.''

Dom Helder's reality is in fact threatening to overwhelm the veneer of prosperity which came into being during Brazil's economic ''miracle'' of the early 1970s. Recife, a tropical port whose inhabitants exceed 1.4 million, is fast becoming a prototype of urban decay and a symbol of the sense of overwhelming despair which grips Brazilian slum dwellers almost everywhere. In a country that has experienced a massive population shift from the countryside to the cities, the specter of what some already refer to as ''Recife-ization'' presents a nightmarish vision of the future.

During daylight, Recife's downtown turns into a teeming bazaar, with thousands of vendors and beggars. At night, the homeless find shelter in doorways.

A drought which forced peasants from the countryside to take refuge in coastal cities and widespread unemployment caused by a three-year national recession have accelerated the decline.

A spiraling crime rate and deterioration of basic services have helped drive the upper and upper-middle classes from the city to ocean-front flats.

Human misery has long been a hallmark of what Ralph Nader once called Recife's ''shadow city, where living conditions are a horror to all, except perhaps the hopelessly resigned.'' At one time Recife was a focal point of social upheaval in Brazil and a source of concern for Washington. At the beginning of the 1960s, newly formed peasant leagues in the sugar-growing areas surrounding Recife demanded better working conditions, a populist governor won control of the state government, and communists competed with priests for control of rural unions. The United States responded by setting up a huge aid mission in Recife.

But in 1964 a military coup brought an end to agitation for radical change in the northeast. The new regime repressed dissent and eliminated political activity. A system of tax incentives attracted private investment to the region, and modern buildings and factories began to spring up in and around Recife.

In the long run, however, these changes did little to better the lot of Recife's poor. While entrepreneurs prospered, the new industries created jobs at a rate which lagged behind population growth. Sugar production, of vital importance to the economy of the state, remained stagnant and textile mills closed down because of competition from the south of Brazil. Natural catastrophes added to the city's woes.

Today the ''shadow city'' of Recife seems much worse off than 21 years ago. Yet despite a liberalization of the political climate in Brazil, there is a surprising absence of the kind of unrest which marked the years just before the coup.

What passes for social protest is the spread of crime, a serious problem in all major cities and perhaps the most dramatic tear in the social fabric of Brazil in recent years.

The authorities have also lost control of the vendors who have overrun downtown Recife. According to Liedo Maranhno de Souza, an authority on the street people of Recife, they number in the vicinity of 30,000.

A high rate of unemployment has nourished the ranks of street vendors, who form part of a vast underground economy.

Ignored by the residents of Boa Viagem, neglected by the rest of the country, and forgotten by the US the ''shadow city'' of Recife seems relegated to a grim role: that of probing the outer limits of the human capacity for survival.

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