The Ralph Nader of Brazil wages an uphill battle for consumers

Former federal deputy Emilio Nina Ribeiro of Rio de Janeiro thinks consumerism is an idea whose time has come in Brazil.

As head of the National Association for the Defense of the Consumer, Mr. Ribeiro has found fault with everything from the Brazilian version of the Volkswagen beetle to the supposedly fresh fruits and vegetables Brazilians buy at this country's still popular street markets.

Like consumer advocates everywhere, association members here have won some and lost some. But they admit that in Brazil, with its authoritarian government and relatively recent industrialization, the consumer battle is distinctly uphill.

Ribeiro, who, unlike his friend and mentor Ralph Nader, is a former member of Congress (he may run again), says: ''I honestly believe many members of (the Brazilian) Congress are just plain stubborn and narrow minded when it comes to consumerism. The attitude seems to be 'let us sleep in peace.' ''

Nevertheless, the former federal deputy was able to push a drug labeling bill through Congress back in 1977. ''The bill ordered drug companies to list the possible side effects of drugs on container labels,'' he says. ''I had a huge lobby against me on that one, including many multinational drug companies active here in Brazil, but I got it through. However, the companies are still not revealing all side effects. They only provide information about effects to the general user.''

Ribeiro adds that, in the pharmaceutical field alone, ''Brazil has a long way to go.'' He notes, ''There are many drugs sold here in Brazil which are not sold in the United States because they are flatly prohibited by the Food and Drug Administration.''

One problem in Brazil is what Ribeiro calls ''the sheer incompetence'' of many of the federal agencies that are theoretically responsible for product safety and consumer protection. ''There are competent agencies and incompetent ones,'' he says.

Ribeiro found an ''efficient'' agency when he introduced a bill a few years ago to create quality standards for Brazilian-made light bulbs. He called upon the National Institute for Weights and Measures for technical guidance, which it promptly offered. ''Unfortunately, the lobby against my bill was incredible,'' he says, ''and the bill was defeated. Imagine, something as simple as light bulbs.''

But then, in 1978, Ribeiro was defeated, too.

One of the paradoxes of his two terms in the federal Chamber of Deputies was his membership in Arena. This conservative pro-government party was set up two years after the 1964 military coup which created the present authoritarian government here.

''The fact is,'' Ribeiro says, ''I just wasn't a very good Arenista. When I was first elected to the Chamber in 1970 the Arena leaders promised me a bright future. They said I could be speaker within two terms if I behaved myself. But I didn't behave.''

Although his 1975 proposal to create a select committee on consumer affairs was accepted by the Chamber, Ribeiro himself was denied membership on the panel. ''The tradition is that the member who proposes a select committee becomes chairman of it,'' he recalls. ''I wasn't even a member, although once the committee got organized its members permitted me to participate, which I did fully.''

A public shouting match between Ribeiro and Wolfgang Sauer, president of Volkswagen do Brasil, the nation's No. 1 automaker, didn't help the congressman's image with party leaders. ''I lost a lot of credit with the party, '' says Ribeiro, ''but at least I proved that Volkswagen's safety and performance standards in Brazil were way below the standards for their German-built cars.''

A 1976 effort led by the Arena Chamber of Deputies leader, Jose Bonifacio, to expel Ribeiro from the party failed. But a state Arena move to deny him party support for a reelection bid in Rio de Janeiro succeeded in 1978.

Despite his reelection defeat, Ribeiro defends his dual role as politician and consumer advocate and says he will run for a Chamber seat again this year on an opposition party ticket. ''In Brazil,'' he says, ''it's very difficult to bring denunciations of consumer fraud to public attention. Very often advertisers control the press. For example, I once had a radio program called 'Voice of the Consumer,' but advertisers complained to the station and the show was canceled. If you are a member of Congress at least you have a forum.''

Since leaving the Chamber, Ribeiro has concentrated on local comsumer issues and on developing the new national association.

He says the association ''receives some federal government money, but it isn't nearly enough. I work absolutely free, and so do the other lawyers and researchers who participate.''

Recent projects included an expose of the Brazilian meatpacking industry. ''We collected samples from a variety of retail outlets,'' he says, ''and had them tested. We found that most red meats sold in Rio de Janeiro contain double the level of nitrites permitted by the United States Food and Drug Administration.''

On a recent trip to the popular beach towns of the southern part of the state Ribeiro and his group found ''gas stations routinely selling regular gas at premium pumps, selling adulterated diesel fuel, and performing 'oil changes' using old oil.''

But the most frustrating thing, he says, is that ''we bring these abuses to the attention of local and federal government authorities and they simply don't do anything about them.''

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