Rio de Janeiro — When Brazil's President-elect, Tancredo de Almeida Neves, was asked which nation on his current three-continent trip was most important, he did not hestitate in saying ``the United States.'' To some, it might have seemed a gaffe -- for he said it in Italy at the start of his post-election travels.
But to Mr. Neves, who arrived in the US yesterday, it was simply a statement of fact. The US-Brazilian relationship is uppermost in the thinking of most Brazilians.
This does not imply that ties between the two countries are all harmonious or that Brazil is happy with everything Washington does. Quite to the contrary, as Neves himself has stated.
But the US relationship is seen here as essential to Brazil's evolution as a political and economic power in the years ahead. And the relationship ``needs to be nurtured,'' Neves says.
Brazil sees itself already as the major power in the South Atlantic and thus a key force in the Western world. Brazilians also feel they are tied to the West by design, not just by geography and history.
``We have chosen to be there [in the West],'' says Neves.
Neves' visit to Washington, which he terms ``a delicate mission,'' is aimed at nurturing the US relationship through support for US policies in the East-West struggle, but at same time making sure that Washington understands Brazil's special economic needs. In economic terms, Brazil is a developing nation, but it has the third world's largest foreign debt -- $100.2 billion. Many here feel the US and US banks bear some of the responsibility for their country's huge debt burden, incurred in large part at the end of Brazil's economic boom years in the 1970s when oil prices soared.
Brazil is asking for greater access to US markets. Already, 28 percent of Brazil's exports go to the US -- and $6 billion of Brazil's $13 billion trade surplus for 1984 was with the US.
``We need an even larger surplus,'' says Neves, ``if we are to pay back the bankers.''
Most of those bankers are in the US -- the large New York City, Boston, and California banks, as well as hundreds of smaller banking institutions all around the US.
For weeks he has been making the linkage in speeches here in Brazil.
It is a point upon which most Brazilians agree. They protest over what they perceive to be a protectionist sentiment in Washington. They acknowledge they have a trade surplus, but argue that Brazil merits special treatment, a favored-nation position in trade with the US. Brazilian steel, for example, needs greater access to the US market, they say.
They understand the problems that the somewhat antiquated US steel industry is facing -- and are not unsympathetic. But Brazil's need to sell more steel dominates their thinking.
It is the sort of dilemma that many a developing country faces as it deals with the more developed US and tries to sell its raw materials and manufactured goods to the US.
Neves comes determined to make the Brazilian case as clear as possible. Short of complete access to the US market, he has no specific proposals, but Brazil would be happy with any further opening of US markets to its goods.
``I am going to make that clear to Mr. Reagan,'' he said before leaving Brazil. (There is no scheduled meeting with President Reagan, for Neves is on a pre-inauguration private trip. But, as Brazil's next leader, he can be expected to make important contacts.)
In the Neves view, Brazil's general support for the US as leader of the Western world ought to count for something -- not that he is coming with hat in hand or to cry on Uncle Sam's shoulder about Brazil's problems.
``I come as President-elect of a nation that is dynamic and determined to be an integral part of the Western world,'' Neves said before leaving Brazil.
``Brazil is a Western nation with the same values as the United States,'' he added. ``We intend to remain a part of the West.''
Moreover, Brazil seems more comfortable with the Western nations than it does with many of its Latin American neighbors -- or with other third world countries with whom its shares the status of being undeveloped or underdeveloped.
Neves's trip is a case in point. He is visiting Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and the US -- and only afterward traveling on to Mexico and Argentina ``to show the flag so to speak,'' a Brazilian Foreign Ministry official says.
Some analysts here note that Africa is losing its priority in Brazilian foreign policy. President J^anio Quadros, Brazil's leader in 1961, and most of his successors, strengthened ties with emerging African nations.
Next to the US, it long seemed that Africa was Brazil's priority No. 2 in foreign policy during the past generation.
But when Neves, Brazil's first civilian leader in 21 years, speaks of international dialogues, Africa is not mentioned.
A gaffe or soemething intentional?
``You have Mr. Neves' comments as your guide,'' a Foreign Ministry official answers.