Sao Paulo's unemployment riots test Brazil's fragile democracy

Brazil's tender democracy passed through a test last week and emerged bruised but not broken. For three days Sao Paulo, the teeming industrial capital of Brazil, was turned into a battle zone.

What started out as a peaceful demonstration against unemployment by 150 protesters April 4 turned into a spree of looting and pillaging that would paralyze virtually the entire commercial zone of this city of 12 million.

The week's toll: 566 arrests, 127 wounded, 1 dead, and up to $7 million in damage stretching from the industrial belt of Zona Sul, where the violence began , to the elegant grounds of the Palacio dos Bandeirantes, Sao Paulo's state house.

President Joao Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo called the riots ''an attempt against abertura,'' as Brazil's steps toward political liberalization are called.

The riots started like a ''forest fire'' - with sparks apparently set by extreme right and left splinter groups, a newspaper said.

But if the fire of violence was deliberately set, there was plenty of tinder in Sao Paulo to feed it. Three years of recession have slowly worn away at this city of 12 million.

Home of Latin America's largest industrial park, Sao Paulo is badly hit by Brazil's economic crisis. More than 600,000 people in the city's massive industrial belt are out of work. Since January, recession-racked factories have been laying off workers at the staggering rate of 1,500 per day.

The city's combined unemployment and underemployment figure (31.1 percent) is ''comparable to that of Central America, where you have war in the streets,'' says labor economist Walter Barelli.

Compared with other global hot spots, Sao Paulo's week of siege seems mild. But in Brazil, just five years into a political liberalization era after two decades of military rule, the stakes were high. The nation's leading civilian politicians and academics are worried.

Sao Paulo's new civilian governor, Andre Franco Montoro, thinks the goal of the rioters was ''to destabilize the democratic government of Sao Paulo and the process of redemocratization in Brazil.''

Oliveiros Ferreira, who is both a political scientist at the University of Sao Paulo and a newspaper editor, says, ''If the Montoro government falls, democracy in Brazil is finished.''

The irony of this turbulent week was that Gov. Franco Montoro supports nearly every demand made by the protesters and masses who pillaged his city: more jobs, better working conditions, unemployment insurance.

The governor's first public reaction to the tumult was to announce an emergency plan to create 40,000 jobs. But even Montoro's harshest critics last week noted that the governor, a state executive in a republic of generals and technocrats, can accomplish little without generous aid from the national government. And generosity was not overflowing from the country's capital last week.

The left did not applaud Montoro's jobs plan, either.

''After the emergency plan to create jobs, then what?'' asked Luis Inacio da Silva, union leader and charismatic head of the socialist-style Workers Party.

Merchants whose shops were sacked also criticized Montoro, denouncing his orders for police restraint when whole commercial zones were being reduced to rubble.

''Sacking and depredation, Montoro's democracy,'' shouted the three-column headline in the Estado de Sao Paulo, the country's most influential daily.

Now the governor - a life-long advocate of civilian rule and human rights, leader of the Brazilian Democratic Movement party, respected on all sides of Brazil's sprawling political equation - faces the possibility of his political constituency falling apart.

When demonstrators took to the streets, editor Ferreira observed that ''Montoro is the prisoner of a dilemma, one he created himself.''

Surging into office with a two-thirds popular vote and plans for participatory democracy, Montoro found constituents pulling him in opposite directions. The left asked him to talk to ''the people'' and curb the police. The right asked him to exert the strong arm of the law. In front of him lay Brazil's worst crisis of social order in at least a decade.

How to avoid the brutal excesses of Brazil's authoritarian past and still maintain public safety and order? That remained the riddle for Montoro's fledgling government last week - and perhaps for all of Brazil as it moves toward fuller democracy.

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