Brazil torn between tradition . . . and life in fast lane

Brazil. Its very name conjures up images of carnival and the samba. The bossa nova and the girls from Ipanema. Carmen Miranda and her flamboyant hats, Pel'e and his equally flamboyant soccer. But these images do not do justice to this big and brassy and bold land, the world's fifth largest nation.

For Brazil in a single generation has torn itself up by its roots, transforming itself from a primarily rural, third-world society into a modern, Western-oriented one that exports airplanes, computers, and military hardware.

Now the world's eighth-largest economy, Brazil has become an economic giant in the tropics. Some forecasts suggest that by the end of the century Brazil could be among the top five economies in the world.

Yet this South American land, larger than the continental United States, is little known to most outsiders. Even some Brazilians tend to be unaware of their nation's economic muscle, its diversity, and its sheer magnitude.

``We Brazilians have not known ourselves very well,'' complains Carlos Castello Branco, Brazil's leading political columnist. ``But this is changing.''

Indeed it is. Just as the railroad drew the United States together as a nation in the late 1800s, so Brazil's dynamic economic growth over the past 15 years is pulling this nation together.

For centuries, Brazil has been a collection of regional fiefdoms with their own characteristic citizens -- the efficient, businesslike Paulista from Sao Paulo, the happy-go-lucky Carioca from Rio de Janeiro, the cautious, tight-lipped Mineiro from Minas Gerais, the independent gauchos from Rio Grande do Sul.

``We are now seeing ourselves as Brazilians in fact as well as in name,'' says Virginia Coelho da Silva, a sociologist in Recife, a city in Brazil's northeast. ``This is changing our character and the way we think, the way we act, and the way we work together.''

Auto and airplane production, arms manufacturing, the power industry -- all fueled Brazil's economic spurt in the 1970s. The nation more than doubled its gross national product between 1973 and 1984.

The world is feeling Brazil's economic mark, too. US banks -- which loaned billions of dollars in the '70s to fuel Brazil's ``economic miracle'' -- now are seeing quarter after quarter of red ink as recession-plagued Brazil can't pay interest due. The $100.2 billion debt is the major strain in relations with US. Brazil is striking a far different image in the third world. People in China are tapping out reports on Brazilian-made computers. Brazilian architects and engineers are laying out the elegant streets and helping design the lavish buildings in Nigeria's $30 billion new capital, Abuja. Brazilians have built a high-speed railway in Iraq and are set to build a highway there.

And in a mushrooming weapons program that worries the US, Brazil sells tanks, missiles, and other armaments to some 40 countries across Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, with almost no questions asked. Considering that Brazil did not have an arms industry in 1975, this supercharged industry is a technological and economic achievement of astonishing proportions.

Brazil's economic growth -- which is producing closer political and cultural ties with the developed world and widening the gap between the nation's rich and poor classes -- also is spurring some soul-searching among the nation's intellectuals, novelists, and artists. Many are appalled by, and others enthusiastically embrace, the US-style discos, fast-food restaurants, jeans stores, and television soap operas that have cropped up in Rio, Sao Paulo, and other cities.

Filmmaker Carlos Diegues, musician Milton Nascimento, and novelist Jorge Amado are among the artists whose works reflect a blend of tradition and close examination of Brazil's complex modern social problems.

At the same time they are developing a new national consciousness, there is clearly pride in being Brazilian that is visible on the streets of all major cities.

Brazil is clearly a nation in a hurry. The visitor is quickly aware of the unrelenting, and sometimes frenzied, character of traffic in the cities as well as in the countryside.

``That traffic is a mirror of a national consensus,'' says sociologist Coelho.

A national consensus has brought Brazil in 1985 to the doorstep of civilian rule after nearly 21 years of military stewardship. Civilian Tancredo de Almeida Neves is slated to take his oath as president on March 15.

Brazilians have had five generals as president in the past two decades. They were clearly tired of military rule.

In a nation where half the population of 131 million is under the age of 15, Mr. Neves, at 74, is something of a political relic. But Dr. Tancredo, as he is widely known, taps a broad base of popular support.

His role will be to lead Brazil back to democracy, to watch over what is widely called ``the redemocratiza- tion'' of the country. This will be no easy task. Neves himself was elected president indirectly -- through an Electoral College made up largely of members of Congress.

Neves's task will not be easy. Despite the growing ``Brazilness'' of its thinking, this country is still very complex.

H'elio Jaguaribe, one of the nation's leading political scientists, explains the complexity:

``Brazil is a Western Latin American society in the third world. This duality between that of a Western nation and that of a third-world nation constitutes . . . the most basic characteristic of Brazil.''

Coping with this duality may be Dr. Tancredo's biggest challenge, for Brazil is really two nations, two peoples -- those climbing the ladder into a modern society and those who cannot even locate the ladder.

Despite the so-called economic miracle of the past 15 years, Brazil is still, in many ways, an underdeveloped, third-world nation. About 50 percent, and certainly at least 60 million, of its 131 million people are largely unaffected by this remarkable economic performance. Indeed, the plight of this other half is boldly etched because it is so dramatically different from the so-called economic miracle.

Poverty stalks millions of the urban and rural poor. In the horribly parched northeast, 20 million others eke out a livelihood on the scantest of rations.

Unemployment is officially only 18 percent, but most analysts say it is about 40 percent. At least 10 million children grow up malnourished, born out of a population spiral -- at 3 percent a year -- that is one of the world's highest. Educational opportunity for this legion of young people is at best limited, ``a national disaster,'' as Jornal do Bras'ilia terms it.

``How to ease the plight of the poor and yet keep the engine of Brazil's developing economy running,'' says Jos'e Augusto Arantes Savasini, a Sao Paulo economist, ``will ultimately be the big balancing act of the new government.''

Most Brazilians agree.

Tancredo Neves's electoral campaign set out a plan -- a ``social pact'' -- with the aim of improving the purchasing power and thus of stimulating consumption and encouraging sales. Brazil's minimum wage, only about $50, is 40 percent what it was when the military took over in 1964.

For the moment, however, as he readies himself for the presidency, Dr. Tacredo is concentrating on the economy. He must try to get Brazil out of a three-year-old economic slump.

After 15 years of economic growth, sometimes recording growth of 10 percent a year, the Brazilian economy tumbled in 1982. High oil prices, the global recession, and a whopping foreign debt, now $100.2 billion, were to blame.

That debt, the world's largest, in turn results from massive borrowings abroad to pay for a crop of highways, hydroelectric facilities, and steel plants that sparked the economic boom of the 1970s and '80s.

Living standards, even for those climbing that ladder, have dropped by 10 percent a year -- or more -- over the last two years. Inflation, partly a result of the ambituous Brazilian development, soared to 223 percent last year. (It was 99.7 percent in 1982 and 211 percent in 1983.) Unemployment likewise soared.

For many Brazilians, the boom years of the 1970s have gone bust. They look to the new Neves government to get things back on track, but worry it won't be able to do much.

Dr. Tancredo himself has warned Brazilians not to expect too much right after his inauguration.

``Our problems are bigger than many of us realize, bigger than we can solve in a few months,'' he says.

The Brazilians are fond of the saying that Brazil is on the edge of the abyss, but that it won't fall in because it is bigger than the abyss.

Actually, the bottom of the slump may already have been reached.

There are signs that Brazil's economic muscle is beginning to stir again. Exports were up in 1984 -- some 60 percent over early projections -- and the trend is expected to continue in 1985, due to Brazilian efforts to sell its wares abroad and an easing of the worldwide recession. Although joblessess is high, it is not growing and even seems to heading downward a bit.

All this could prove a good omen for Brazil's first civilian government in 21 years.

Perhaps the most upbeat note is simply the fact that Brazilians are about to have a government once again of which they can be proud.

They never were proud of their military leaders -- although it was under military tutelage that Brazil marched into the 20th century.

But bridging the gap between rich and poor Brazilians remains the ultimate test of the country. Chart of history of Brazil 1500 Portuguese navigator Pedro Alvarez Cabral iscovers Brazil. 1530 First Portuguese colony established. 1538 First known shipment of African slaves arrives. Attempts to enslave local Indians proved largely unsuccessful. 1540 Francisco de Orellano explores Amazon. 1555 French establish colony near present-day Rio de Janeiro. 1624 Dutch colonization in northeast. 1695 Gold discovered in near if city what is now Minas Gerais, stimulating colonization of interior of country. 1727 Coffee cultivation introduced. 1810 British commercial domination begins. 1818 Land grants given to Swiss and Germans, who quickly settle in south. 1822 Pedro I declares Brazil's independence from Portugal, becomes emperor of new nation. 1840 Pedro II succeeds father as emperor, presiding over era of increasing European immigration and colonization of country's interior. 1873 Number of Italian immigrants arriving surpasses Portuguese. 1889 Army deposes Pedro II. Republic established as constitutional democracy with limited voting rights. 1920 Decade of peasant protests and worker agitation begins. 1930 Get'ulio Vargas seizes power. Emerges as populist dictator-president who helps unite nation. Establishes corporatist system in '37 and expands social welfare system. 1945 Military ousts Vargas. 1950 Vargas reelected, but fails to maintain sense of national stability. He kills himself in 1955. 1960 Capital moved to Bras'ilia, new city in inland jungle region. 1961 Joao Goulart nemed president. He allies himself with unions, tests military. Peasants are politiced. Modest land reform .Foreign profits pared. 1964 Military overthrows President Joao Goulart as allegations of corruption surface, left-wing rhetoric increases, and inflation edges toward 100%. 1965 Military President Humberto Castelo Branco bans existing political parties, strips many politicians of political rights, assumes dictatorial power. 1967 Military cracks down on urban terrorists. Several thousand are killed over next 8 years. 1970 Brazil gears up its arms industry. 1974 Gen.Ernesto Geisel named president, initiates Brazilian development boom. 1975 Agreement signed to purchase West German technology to build nuclear power plants. 1978 Clearing begun for world's largest hydroelectric project, the Itaip'u dam on Paran'a River. 1979 Gen.Joao Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo named president, promises to open way for democracy. Politcal process allows for limited multiparty system. 1982 Military party wins Senate in congressional election but fails to get majority in Chamber of Deputies and Military party also loses governorships and most municipal elections. Angra 1 nuclear power reactor begins operation. 1984 Massive civilian demonstrations for direct elections staged in most major cities. 1985 Tancredo de Almeida Neves elected president by indirect vote.

Inauguration ends 20 years of military rule. Chart: Voices of Brazil ``Our traffic tells us more about ourselves than most anything else. Traffic is often frenzied. It wants to get somewhere without stopping. That's the Brazilian. He wants to get somewhere without stopping.'' A Sociologist ``We don't have time to complain about the past. It is the present that worries us. How will the civilians do now tht they are coming back to power?'' A Store clerk ``Brazilians are eager to move into the 21st century. I think this helps explain the way we are going. We are a bit impatient with the present, complaining about it, eager to get on to the next step. It is all a bit frenetic.'' A Lawyer ``The big problem, will be for the government to keeps its hands off the economy, but at the same time to do something about the social dilemma. The tendency, I fear, will be for the politicians to interfere with economic growth in their zeal to improve the livelihood of Brazilians. And they'll end up not helping the Brazilians who need help -- and harming the economy.'' A Businessman ``Complaining is a national characteristic. Take it out of the Brazilian and you lose something.'' A Lawyer ``All we got to do is get the politicians to stay quiet for a time and this country will grow.'' A Taxi driver ``Those politicians are something else. They are nothing but vultures.'' A shoe-store owner ``We have had to learn to live with inflation. It is a way of life here in Brazil, and I guess inflation goes hand in hand with the development process''. A Businessman ``I tell you, this country is crazy. Any other place wouldn't put up with the nonsense of those generals. '' University professor ``I want civilians to run the government, but they didn't do too well before. This time maybe they will do better. I like Tancredo. He is a good man and I guess we have to hope he gets some good people around him.'' A Dime store clerk Chart: Brazil at a glance Population: 131 million (half under age 15), more than 90% concentrated on 10% of the land. Capital: Bras'ilia, est. pop. 1 million. Land: 3.5 million sq. mi., larger than US, about half the land mass of South America. Half the land is forest-covered, much of it rain forest. Central grasslands, narrow coastal belt. GNP per capita: About $2,500 US. Religion:90% Roman Catholic. Literacy: 75 percent, but below 50 percent in rural areas. Official language: Portuguese. Major exports: World's second-largest exporter of agricultural products, including sugar (world's largest exporter), coffee (world's leading producer), orange juice, soybeans, poultry, cocoa. 60% of export earnings come from manufactured goods, including processed steel, weaponry, aircraft, other vehicles. Major imports: Oil, sophisticated technology, chemicals. Minerals: Iron ore (world's leading exporter), bauxite, quartz, chromium, manganese, gold, silver, precious stones. Large untapped reserves of uranium, phosphates, platinum, titanium, copper, tin.

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