Now It's Brazil's Turn

The spotlight is on Brazil. Latin America's giant has become a crucial test for economic management in the age of globalism. International lenders have supplied needed financial aid with the $41.5 billion rescue plan announced in November. Can Brazil itself supply the necessary political will?

Both elements are required to prevent a flight of capital that could put Brazil in the bread line with some of the former Asian "tigers" and Russia. That threat sends shivers throughout South - and North - America.

Success would give substance to President Clinton's vision of addressing international economic problems with early intervention - rather than post-crisis emergency help.

Economic managers in Washington and other capitals, working through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have set the stage. A number of large private banks are also in the script, pledging to maintain Brazil's lines of credit. They hope to see an economic drama marked, eventually, by a gradually lowered but stable currency, a shrinking budget deficit, and other displays of economic recovery.

But little will happen without a willing cast in Brazil itself, including the country's Congress and its powerful state governors.

Their readiness to curb spending habits is seriously in doubt. The doubts were confirmed by the failure of Congress on Wednesday to pass a measure designed to rein in Brazil's out-of-control social security system.

The linchpin of the IMF plan is the commitment made by the country's president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, to shrink the country's deficit over the next three years through $84 billion in spending cuts and tax increases. His task is daunting. Required public-sector austerity could bring on recession, ballooning Brazil's already high unemployment.

The IMF recognizes this downside, and has built into its plan the maintenance of basic social spending that aids the poor.

With strong international backing, Brazil can prove itself one "emerging market" capable of setting a sound economic course. Lots of hopes are pinned on its example.

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