Brazil's cattlemen and government lock horns over price freeze

Brazil, the country with the world's fourth-largest herd of beef cattle, is facing a serious meat shortage. While cattle roam across the vast pasturelands, the country's larders are nearly bare and tempers have turned ornery all around. The government and a wealthy elite of livestock breeders are in a dispute that could seriously affect the fate of Brazil's economic stabilization plan.

The seven-month old Cruzado Plan, which froze prices and knocked the 250 percent annual inflation rate down to single digits, made President Jos'e Sarney a popular hero. In recent months, however, food shortages have appeared in the markets as farmers withhold supplies in an attempt to drive up prices.

For weeks, the government in Bras'ilia tried patient persuasion, then stern demands, and finally outright threats to get cattlemen to increase delivery of steers to the stockyards. The government boosted meat imports and then prohibited exports.

Last week, the gentlemen in Bras'ilia lost their temper. ``The government has exhausted all its instruments of negotiation by peaceful means,'' declared Fernando C'esar Mesquita, spokesman for President Sarney.

He warned that if meat did not appear in the markets soon, the government would be forced to seize cattle in the field and take punitive action against herders, such as cutting off rural loans and credits.

Officials have already prepared a list of about 300 ranchers who could be charged with ``crimes against the popular economy.''

The announcement came less than a week after Bras'ilia and ranchers struck a ``gentleman's accord'' to boost the retail price of beef, which had been frozen since March under the government's inflation-fighting plan.

Most ranchers, however, said that the new price was too low. They also argued that the meat shortage has been due mostly to a scarcity of mature cattle and to a boom in consumer shopping, not to a boycott.

In this largely rural country, ranchers represent a wealthy and powerful lobby. They have been the most visible sources of resistance to the continued price freeze under the economic stabilization plan.

The government, fearing a resurgence of inflation, has vowed not to lift the price freeze any time soon. No one expects the price lid to be lifted before the Nov. 15 congressional elections, which will be the first ballot test for Mr. Sarney's economic policies.

A presidential aide said in an interview that, with Sarney's high popularity ratings, if push comes to shove, a move to strong-arm recalcitrant cattlemen back into line would win widespread applause.

On the other side of the barricades, ranchers say that the economy cannot be run by the police. ``Economic problems require economic solutions, not the power of the police,'' said Flavio Telles Menezes, head of a farmers' association.

Meanwhile, as ranchers and government officials spar, most people in this land of sprawling pasturelands and sumptuous barbecues have had to settle for more scrambled eggs and vegetable casseroles.

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