Brazil's Other Atrocity

The plight of homeless children is well publicized; now the public eye should turn to widespread slavery

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'WHEN they neared the fazenda [estate], Pedro ... beat Carlito with the blunt edge of his [machete] several times. The beating ... scarred his back and rendered him unable to work for three days.'' This is not a 19th-century account of a runaway slave, as one might surmise, but is part of a 1993 human rights report on Brazil.

Slavery was officially abolished in Latin America's largest country in 1888, but the lives of thousands of humble agricultural workers like Carlito haven't really been affected by the legal change.

The plight of Brazilian street children has gained international notoriety in recent years, especially when publicity surrounded the 1993 Candelaria Massacre, in which eight homeless children were murdered in front of the famous Rio de Janeiro church. Yet, the equally alarming state of near-servitude, in which tens of thousands of Brazilian laborers live, is unknown to most.

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Trapped by 'debts'

Why isn't this issue more publicized? While one just needs to go to any major city in Brazil to see hordes of street children begging for money or food on every corner, or picking pockets of unsuspecting tourists and passersby, those who are forced to work, often at gunpoint, are mainly found in remote agricultural regions (like the Amazon forest), far from public view.

The Catholic Church's Pastoral Land Commission has documented 25,000 cases of enslavement throughout the country, but this figure is understood to be just a tiny percentage of those living under indenture, for most of the victims have no opportunity to denounce the crime.

Contemporary accounts of slave labor in Brazil seem right out of a John Steinbeck novel.

Impoverished and illiterate rural workers, lured by middlemen with promises of high-paying jobs, are transported to places far from their homes and end up caught in debt traps. Once at the fazendas, the laborers soon discover that they can buy goods only at the company store - at exorbitant rates - and, unknowingly, are charged for lodging and all other essentials, even the tools required to perform their jobs.

These workers are considered almost an article of property, and are systematically denied basic human wants, including medical care.

If they wish to leave, they are shown the debts they have acquired and are forced to stay. Those who manage to flee, often across great distances of wild territory, are hunted down like runaway slaves of the 19th century. Once caught, as Carlito was, they are harshly punished as an example for others.

The very few who escape seldom manage to bring to justice the fazenda owners and overseers. Little do they know that local and state officials usually are in league with the rich estate holders, preserving a climate of lawlessness akin to that of centuries past. Cruel, enslaving treatment of laborers exists in many locations and for a range of work, including lumber clearing, sugar cane cutting, coffee picking, rubber tapping, and gold mining.

Real crackdown, or rhetoric?

Recently, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso ordered a crackdown on such abuses, threatening to deny ''loans, subsidies, or debt rollovers to these unscrupulous farmers and businessmen,'' and to prohibit them from bidding on public contracts. He also created a new executive task force involving five ministries - Agriculture, Labor, Industry and Commerce, Justice, and Environment - to cope with this national scandal.

Mr. Cardoso reasoned that ''it is necessary to get these people in the pocketbook.'' If, as he implies, labor law violators could be so easily identified for economic sanctions to be brought against them, why not just initiate court proceedings?

The country, beginning with its president, apparently has little confidence in the existing criminal justice system. While Brazil's tainted courts may have been silent on the matter, the Penal Code isn't; it prohibits slave labor (article 149), ''the enticement of workers in order to transport them to another part of the national territory'' (article 207), and ''the frustration, through fraud or violence, of rights insured in the labor code'' (article 203).

In the aftermath of the 1992 impeachment of Brazil's first directly elected president, following years of military dictatorship, Latin America's largest and most important nation seemed to be on a steady track toward democracy. Cardoso came to power last year, riding on a wave of popular support; now he must show that there is more to his philosophy than rhetoric. A strong new currency that has slashed inflation radically and an unprecedented atmosphere of optimism have given the federal government a unique opportunity to punish those who break the law by abusing powerless laborers. The law must be applied, regardless of landowners' lofty social status or sizeable bank accounts.

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