Brazil: call for strike tests public reaction to economic reforms

Brazil's national labor organizations have called an unprecedented 24-hour, nationwide general strike for today to protest price rises and to urge an end to ``bloodletting debt payments.'' Union organizers have been touring cities in loudspeaker vans urging people to stay home.

Though Brazilians are upset that the government announced price increases within a week of the Nov. 15 national elections, an opinion poll in the newspaper O Globo said 61 percent oppose the strike. It is uncertain how many of the nation's more than 40 million trade union members will take part.

The government of President Jos'e Sarney has rejected the unions' proposal for a default or moratorium on the $108.6 billion debt, the largest in the developing world. But it has been moving to renegotiate debt terms. On Wednesday, Brazil obtained the blessing of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on its austerity program to slow down the booming economy, and it meets Monday with creditor countries grouped in the so-called ``Paris Club'' to seek better terms.

Only a few months ago, Brazil was considered in good financial shape. The government's Cruzado Plan to reduce inflation, announced last February, was widely praised in international financial circles and wildly popular at home. It involved a wage and price freeze that slashed inflation from 230 percent in 1985 to some 8.2 percent between March and September.

However, the government allowed the economy to become overheated. It is growing at more than a 7 percent annual rate and creating new jobs at a rapid pace. But extraordinary consumer demand has increased imports. The healthy $12 billion-a-year trade surplus of last year, providing funds to service the external debt, has declined suddenly; in October, the monthly surplus was only $210 million, the lowest in years.

After the elections, the government announced price increases on cars, gasoline, electricity and telephone service, cigarettes, and alcohol. The action sparked rioting in Bras'ilia, and Mr. Sarney's popularity sagged in the opinion polls.

The unrest has put additional pressure on the government to reduce its debt payments. Finance Minister Dilson Funaro told a conference in New York last week: ``If the debt is to be paid, it will have to be serviced at a much lower cost in the years to come.''

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