Brazilian Hopes for `Destiny' Fade

Dream of global role for country falters after decade of frustration with economy and politics

RENATO DE ARAUJO, a young bearded man, waits in a long line of Brazilians stretching down the sidewalk outside the passport office. The chemist and computer programmer's six-month job search in Brazil has failed, and he has decided to return to London, where he studied and lived before. ``I would prefer to live here because it's my people,'' he explains. ``But you can't work here with the economic recession and the situation of the country. The government and society are in a tug of war. They don't want to build a better Brazil.''

Mr. Araujo is one of a growing number of Brazilians shelving their dreams and hopes after a decade of frustration with politics and inflation. Fernando Collor de Mello, Brazil's dynamic young president, promised to turn the situation around when he took office in March 1990. But opinion surveys show Brazilians are increasingly disappointed in him.

``We are living a moment of great national depression,'' says Laura Tetti, a historian who recently quit her job as director of community mobilization and pollution quantification programs at Cetesb, the Sao Paulo pollution control agency. Politics too often obstructed her attempts to improve quality of life, she says.

Brazil's sagging quality of life seems, more than ever, to belie the broad expectations of its people. Brazilians have been a forward-looking people since the late 1950s, when they built their gleaming, modern capital Bras'ilia in the middle of a vast, largely unpeopled territory. But the attendant dream that the country would assume a global role began to come apart in the 1980s.

In the '90s, Brazilians are discovering that many of their expectations were based on the mistaken idea that the country could realize its potential without the hard work and struggle needed to solve social, economic, and political problems, social scientists say.

Economic and political progress have come - but with increasing difficulty. The impediments of poverty, crime, and economic stagnation of the '80s have deflated Brazilians' buoyancy. Brazil's sense of its own manifest destiny seems to have bumped up against economic and political realities.

``In Brazil, you always had the idea that Brazil is big. God is Brazilian ... Brazil is the country of the future,'' says Oliveiros Ferreira, a political scientist and editorial page editor at O Estado de Sao Paulo, a daily newspaper. ``Since you say `is' and not `will be,' you have no plan for realizing your destiny. There is a lot of myth in this.... You don't have to make an effort for events to take place.''

The `economic miracle'

It did seem almost easy at first. In the period after World War II, business and government built Latin America's most-developed manufacturing base. In the 1970s, Brazil's ``economic miracle'' produced growth in gross national product as high as 10 percent. After the first oil shock in 1973, Brazil was the only country in the world to develop technology to run cars on alcohol fuel.

The country's three world soccer championships stirred national fervor and gave the world ``Pel'e,'' possibly the best player ever. Political scientists like Mr. Ferreira point to the widespread belief that the country's unique mix of Africans, Europeans, and Indians had produced a ``cosmic race'' of peaceful, cordial people who would one day play a prominent world role.

But even past progress seems illusive now. Economists today say the ``Brazilian miracle'' resulted more from protectionist policies and incentives of the military dictatorship than from efficiency and competitive power.

``We were never competitive,'' Ms. Tetti says. ``You got comfort without progress.''

Brazil's debt grew from $70 billion in 1980 to about $120 billion last year, according to the World Bank. Inflation (102 percent in 1981) undermined Brazilians' standard of living in the last decade. Despite progress since early last year, inflation averaged 2,863 percent in 1990, according to Brazil's Central Bank.

Amid the economic turmoil of the '80s, which Brazilians have dubbed ``the lost decade,'' no statistic showed the impact on individuals more clearly than the frequently backsliding national output figures. The economy fell backward last year at the rate of minus 6.5 percent per person.

Many educated Brazilians, those best prepared to help the country out of its morass, remain proud of national achievements. But many others are fed up.

``What I lost is my faith in this country, the hope that someone would be honest here and corruption would stop,'' says Giovanna Kupfer, a children's clothes and accessories manufacturer. Ms. Kupfer recently decided to stop exporting from Brazil. Frustrated by taxes, government bureaucracy, economic uncertainty, and her workers' low-educational level, she will instead manufacture in Japan, Europe, and the United States. Other Brazilians worry simply that their country is losing what it takes to succeed.

``When I was a child, poor people had dignity,'' says Roberto Hukai, a partner in an energy-consulting firm. ``Today, this is gone. Poor people have become like dogs, and the middle class takes advantage of them. We lost a sense of fundamental spiritual values.''

Mr. Hukai, a Brazilian of Japanese descent schooled in nuclear physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, realized last year he had spent the last decade ``skating in place.'' He says he will give Brazil two more years, before emigrating.

A critical situation

Many Brazilians agree the situation is becoming critical. At the start of the '80s, about 45 percent of nation's wealth was in the hands of the 10 percent most wealthy. By 1989, that concentration had risen to 52 percent.

``It was easy when the slave quarters were kilometers away from the master's house. But now they grew, and they are coming up to our gates,'' says Tetti, referring to the huge growth in urban slum-dwelling since 1960. ``You can't drink the water and you are mugged on every street corner.''

The question, observers say, is whether Brazilians can organize to solve problems - and be patient enough to await results.

``You must make a revolution,'' says Ferreira, the political scientist. ``Who will do it?''

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