Once-pliant Brazil challenges US on trade, other issues

A simmering dispute over Brazilian computer import laws illustrates the deterioration of US-Brazilian relations that has been going on for several years. The controversial law, which came into effect last year, virtually bars the import of mini- and microcomputers for eight years. Before the law was instituted, administrative rules applied by Brazil had a similar effect. United States computer companies allege that the policy has cost them $1.5 billion in business since 1981.

Last week, the two nations held discussions on the issue. US Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead said the talks paved the way to a ``just and equitable accord'' on the law. But final resolution of the dispute hangs on Brazil's willingness to apply the law in a way which satisfies US demands.

The computer dispute is just the latest sign of the growing tensions between the two countries, tensions also evident in diplomatic and political relations. In world councils, Latin America's biggest and most populous nation is as apt these days to line up against the US as with it. On many controversial matters, the Brazilian public no longer gives the benefit of the doubt to the US -- as it readily did during and immediately following World War II.

This change in attitude can be puzzling to US officials and observers whose recollections of Brazil are from sunnier times. During the 1960s, Brazil responded to a US call for help in thwarting what appeared to be a left-wing takeover of the Dominican Republic. Brazil's foreign minister at the time stated publicly: ``What's good for the US is good for Brazil.''

Today such an utterance is inconceivable, say experts on US-Brazilian relations. US banks and other companies -- and even the US Congress -- are commonly blamed for Brazil's foreign indebtedness and trade problems. This, despite the fact that the US is Brazil's leading trade partner, importing goods worth $5 billion more than those it sells to Brazil.

Trade issues are expected to be the thorniest and most immediate problem for Washington's new ambassador, Harry Shlaudeman, who takes up his post in mid-June. The assignment of one of the US State Department's ace trouble-shooters to a country once characterized as ``diplomatic oblivion'' illustrates the level of tension in US-Brazilian relations.

In the computer dispute, the US is pressing Brazil to permit the establishment of a joint venture between US computer giant IBM and Brazilian conglomerate Gerdau for producing computer equipment in Brazil. If the Brazilians allow the move, the US and major US manufacturers say they will be satisfied. If it is not allowed, analysts say it is possible the Reagan administration will retaliate.

Computer technology is only the latest stumbling block in US-Brazilian commercial dealings. Those relations were smooth in the days when Brazil exported only coffee and raw materials to the US and imported US industrial goods.

But problems have arisen as Brazil has acquired new manufacturing muscle in the past two decades.

Brazil's factories now compete head to head with those of the US -- selling automobiles throughout Latin America and Africa, ceramics to Europe, and weapons to the Middle East.

Analysts say that trade tensions lie behind a number of Brazilian foreign policy moves that irritate Washington. For example, Brazil opposes US support for rebel forces fighting the government in Angola, chiefly because Brazil hopes to boost exports to that nation.

However, not all the chill in US-Brazilian relations is economic in origin. Emotion and ideology also are factors. For example, many Brazilian intellectuals allege that the US had a hand in the 1964 military takeover in that nation.

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