A recent visitor to the office of Finance Minister Mailson da Nobrega in Bras'ilia spied a curious advertisement on his desk. It was for a new course on how to survive hyperinflation. ``Look what we've come to!'' a colleague had scrawled on it. Hyperinflation brings post-war Hungary and the Weimar Republic to some Brazilians' minds.
``People spent all last week buying gold and dollars. They had wads of dollars stuffed in their desk drawers,'' said one banker of her colleagues. Worries about October's inflation rate, which came to a record 27.25 percent, in fact, sent local gold prices up almost 18 percent over inflation.
Hyperinflation is either already here, or just around the corner, depending on your definition. And it is now spurring nervous speculation, in Brazil's unpredictable political climate, about the possibility of a military coup or at least a forced resignation of the President.
``The problem is that inflation isn't stable at the 30 percent rate,'' Alexandre de Barros, a political risk consultant, says. ``It's getting unpredictable.''
Brazil's three-month moving-average indexation system protects wages from inflation, but the index can lag as inflation speeds up.
Public servants, for example, last month got a 21 percent cost-of-living increase, more than six percentage points under the October inflation rate. That's why Walter Pimentel, a clerk in the state health care system, is on strike. He spends his days at the door of a Sao Paulo clinic turning away needy patients until the clinic reopens. Last year, Mr. Pimentel sold his Volkswagen to pay his bills. He eats meat once a week, living mostly on rice and pasta. He stopped smoking to save money, and wears clothes he bought during Brazil's last economic boom, in 1986. ``I've got holes in my shoes, see?'' He lifts a foot for inspection.
Strikers such as Pimentel want a wage increase that the federal government can't afford to give. Even the Labor Ministry, where strikers usually go to present their demands, is on strike - as are 16 other ministries. Their main demand is higher wages.
Businessmen, politicians, and union leaders all say something must be done soon. Mr. Nobrega and other government officials are working on new fiscal measures to cut the government budget deficit, the prime cause of inflation. But no one knows if the measures will work, or if they can even be put into practice.
Until last month, Brazil's President could enact economic policy by decree. But under the new Constitution, Congress must consider any new policy. This won't be easy, since President Jos'e Sarney and the Congress do not have a good working relationship. Congress hasn't yet decided on its rules of order under the new Constitution. And most representatives are campaigning for the Nov. 15 local mayoral candidates in their home states.
The only hope seems to hinge on the so-called ``social pact,'' forged Friday among the government, workers, and businessmen. The pact sets a limit on price rises for basic products over the next two months, but so far has not created a mechanism to enforce it. The pact doesn't attack the causes of inflation, but could help to dampen inflationary expectations. It is significant because this is the first time in more than 20 years that business, labor, and government have negotiated anything together.
The matter is urgent, political analysts say, because democracy, installed in 1985 after a 21-year military dictatorship, is still fragile. ``If it [30 percent monthly inflation] persists, the Sarney government won't live out its term,'' predicts Fabio Feldmann, a federal deputy for the newly formed Brazilian Social Democracy Party. Sarney's term ends in March 1990.
Opinions differ on when new anti-inflation measures could come. Some analysts expect them this month after the municipal vote. Others say the government will wait until March, once summer vacation has ended.
All the nail-biting has led to the perennial question in Brazil: Will the military take over? Though there is no consensus on whether a coup will occur, political analysts suggest many scenarios - none clearly spelled out.
The possibilities include adding a prime minister to the current government; or Sarney's resignation, with an interim civilian or military government; or a combination of both. Some also expect presidential elections, set for November 1989, to be moved up, to give the government the legitimacy it needs to act on inflation. (Sarney took office after the elected president died.)
A gamut of politicians, businessmen, and political scientists have recently had their say on the possibility of a coup. The general consensus is that it will take much more than the current situation to provoke a coup.
Despite the concern over hyperinflation, unemployment is under 4 percent, largely because of an export boom. Studies released last month by the Brazilian government and the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation show that many Brazilians live and work in increasingly better conditions. And Brazil has taken positive steps on its $118 billion foreign debt. Last week, it brought its interest payments up to date for the first time since February, 1987.
But whether government now has more leeway on economic policy and its own political future is open to question. ``I don't know what will transform the deep state of individual frustration into something collective,'' says Barros. ``But the elements are there.''