WAGNER SUGAMELE created a stir the day of Brazil's most-recent election last October. On the way to the polls, he met up with a woman who could not climb stairs, because she had just had a baby. ``She wanted to vote, but the electoral official wouldn't send the ballot box downstairs to her,'' he recalls. An experienced community organizer, Mr. Sugamele made a little street speech about disabled peoples' rights and threatened to call the press. Soon the ballot box was on its way to the new mother - another small victory for the people.
Sugamele says the incident illustrates just one challenge Brazil's developing democracy faces - bureaucratic indifference. He and others were asked about the progress of Brazil's young democracy, even as the country's Congress acted last week to restrict the executive power of President Fernando Collor de Mello.
Having exercised free speech and voting rights, does Sugamele feel he lives in a democracy?
``No, I don't think so,'' he answers, sitting behind a desk at his storefront despachante firm, a Brazilian institution that cuts bureaucratic red tape - for a fee.
``As long as illiterates have to be able to read to vote, this is not a democracy,'' Sugamele says. ``Most of the population is semi-illiterate, and the ballots have no photos of the candidates.... As long as you don't have education, health, or justice, you can't have a democracy.''
And political observers say other signs indicate Brazil may be functioning less as a democracy than it should. Cited frequently are Mr. Collor's economic policies. The president, critics say, has curbed rights ensured by the Constitution with stern economic policies - including freezing individual bank accounts and setting price controls - to fight stubborn inflation.
``He has an authoritarian bias,'' says Paulo S'ergio Pinheiro, head of the Violence Studies Nucleus at the University of Sao Paulo. ``He thinks he is king.''
Mr. Pinheiro and others point out that Collor frequently uses ``temporary measures'' not ratified by elected representatives. Under the Constitution, any such temporary measure must be ratified by Congress within 30 days.
The government, these critics say, circumvents democracy by stringing together several such orders, each lasting 30 days. Even if Congress votes down a measure, another pops up to take its place for 30 more days.
The chamber of deputies (the lower house of Brazil's Congress, roughly equivalent to the United States House of Representatives), approved a bill last Wednesday restricting the president's use of temporary measures.
``We need to end this curse: Wages, the economy, everything is temporary,'' said Ulysses Guimaraes, president of the opposition Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, in a speech.
``Our lives cannot be temporary. This is not the reason so many were arrested or killed,'' he added, referring to the long struggle for a return to democracy. The Brazilian Senate must now vote on the bill to restrict Collor's use of temporary measures.
To be sure, Brazil is closer to democracy today. Ruled by a military dictatorship for more than two decades until 1985, the country has held all levels of elections since then.
``There are no soldiers in the streets,'' says Inoc^encio Martires Coelho, the Justice Ministry's legal consultant. ``The courts function. Congress functions. The press isn't censored.... And torture has disappeared as a practice, despite some localized violence.''
But if democracy is to be lasting, as many Latin countries have found, it must be a process with rules of law that are systematically followed, say Brazilian political scientists.
``There are elections, political parties, a Congress,'' says Vilmar Faria, president of Cebrap, the Brazilian Center for Planning and Analysis, an independent think tank. ``There's no threat on the horizon [to the system]. But if you understand democracy as a relationship among people, the country is far off.''
Looking for a fair trial
Still missing from Brazil's democracy of 82 million voters is a wider recognition of human rights and better access to the justice system for those accused of wrongdoing - as well as those wronged, say rights activists. Last month, for example, three alleged criminals were killed by enraged townsfolk.
``Where is the judicial system?'' asks Pinheiro. Commenting on the unpunished killing of street children, another common phenomenon, Pinheiro says: ``Hundreds of seats for judges in Sao Paulo are not filled because of a lack of money, and a lack of capable individuals.''
The government agrees with many such criticisms, and Justice Minister Jarbas Passarinho has proposed tougher criminal laws and a more organized police force. But to fix inequities in the justice system, regulators and legislators in Bras'ilia, the capital, appear to be hoping that the economic plan will succeed and that this will be the main means for addressing glitches in democracy.
Says Mr. Coelho at the Justice Ministry: ``If the economic order is more equitable, there will be fewer conflicts.... Then the state apparatus, including the justice system, can be modernized.''
Since elected civilians took office in 1985, the need to stabilize the economy has collided with democratic aims. To tame inflation, the government has imposed more price freezes, including one announced in January.
``Price freezes are implicitly unconstitutional,'' argues Celso Bastos, president of the Brazilian Institute for Constitutional Law. ``They are the negation of the principles of free enterprise.''
Indeed, capitalism's role in democracy seems clear to people like Mr. Bastos. But a popular notion of individual rights and responsibilities in this democracy takes a back seat to most people's daily economic difficulties.
In Brazil, where half of the work force earns $65 or less a month, the idea of citizenship appears overshadowed by survival needs. For this reason, and because the military disrupted Brazil's party system several times during its long rule, politics here tend to center on personalities who can deal favors, rather than on developing the country's 20-odd weak political parties.
A weakened party system
Last October for example, a Sao Paulo gubernatorial candidate hired legions of unemployed young people to wave his flags at intersections, giving a fleeting impression of popular support.
Because parties are so weak, Congress tends to make decisions on the basis of individual relationships between members, government officials, and special interest groups, analysts say. As a result, the legislative branch is an unpredictable partner in democracy.
``Congressional alliances are volatile,'' says Walder de G'o'es, a Brasilia political analyst. ``They form and come apart and form again on a new basis.''
Still, political mobilization at the grass-roots level has grown. Consumer advocate groups have begun to appear, as have groups representing street children, women, farmers, workers, environmentalists, and business. Much of the activity was sparked when Congress began to write the new Constitution in 1988.
For people like activist Wagner Sugamele, democracy has become a personal commitment, despite some uncertainty about its future here. Others have similar commitments.
Marcelo Gom'es Sodre, director of the Sao Paulo state consumer protection agency, has been working since 1985 for consumer rights and awareness. He reports calls to his agency have risen to 113,000 last year, from only 27,500 in 1984.
``I hope people see that democracy is the main thing,'' says Mr. Sodre. ``But I am not sure this is a generalized view.... The organization of society is not a guarantee that there won't be ruptures, but there is no other way except for society to organize itself more and more.''