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Impoverished Northeast Remains a Drain on Brazil

June 16, 1988

FORTALEZA, Brazil (AP) _ For 500 years, Brazil’s northeast has been potentially rich and chronically poor.

Today, as Brazil struggles to become a modern developed nation, the Northeast holds it back - not wholly of its own accord.

The nine northeastern states cover 1 million square miles of land where Brazil bulges out into the Atlantic. In the area, 2 1/2 times the size of Texas, live 45 million of the nation’s 143 million people.

But while the prosperous South, with its airplane and computer factories, has made Brazil the world’s eighth-largest economy, the northeast remains poor, neglected, diseased and assailed by devastating cyclical droughts.

Statistics paint a gloomy picture of the northeast:

-Infant mortality is higher than in sub-Saharan Africa at 124 deaths per 1,000 births, compared to 67 per 1,000 in the South.

-Life expectancy is 51 years, compared with 67 in the South.

-A full 50 percent of northeasterners cannot write their own names; 26 percent can’t elsewhere in Brazil.

-Diseases long-eradicated elsewhere - leprosy, chagas disease, polio, tuberculosis, even the plague - still kill and deform in the northeast.

″We’re creating a race of undersized subhumans who think only of survival,″ said Carlos Hollanda Labor, health secretary for the northeast’s Ceara state.

In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy recognized the parched region, considered one of the world’s poorest, as a possible source of social unrest. Shortly after Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba, Kennedy launched the U.S. Alliance for Progress, which promised billions of dollars and poured millions into development of Brazil’s northeast - until a 1964 Brazilian right-wing military coup eased fears of a communist or left-wing uprising.

Droughts were a tragic part of the northeastern landscape even before Portuguese conquerers recorded the first one more than 400 years ago.

A drought that lasted from 1979 to 1984 killed an estimated 250,000 peasant farmers and chased millions more to big city slums in search of food, water and jobs.

This year, an expected rainfall of 31 inches will provide a respite for the characteristically small-statured northeasterners, but it is not likely to alter their struggle to survive.

″The essential problem here is not whether it rains or not,″ said Ari Guimaraes, head of the political science department of the University of Bahia, another northeastern state. ″The problem is that the government hasn’t built reservoirs, explored underground water supplies, irrigated peasant properties or distributed land among those who have no means to survive.″

From the 1500s well into the 19th century, the northeast was a productive area, but the wealth stayed with a few.

Agriculture led the economic activity, and the vast open spaces lent themselves to production of Brazil’s most precious commodities at the time: cattle, cotton, sugar, tobacco and much later, coffee.

The Portuguese crown handed out large stretches of land to nobles and deserving soldiers. But far from central government control in the South, northeast landowners set ″wild-west″ laws for peasant ″subjects″ and used private armies to chase individual farmers from modest-sized lands.

Such scenes have been pointedly described by Brazil’s leading novelist, Jorge Amado, in ″Gabriela Clove and Cinnamon,″ ″Bahia″ and most recently ″Showdown.″

Successive governments have made promises to wrench the inland population from medieval-like poverty, but gun battles over land and vast misuse of government funds in the region are still common.

The military government that governed from 1964 through 1985 built dams for hydroelectric power, roads, soccer stadiums and stretched electricity lines across the dry, cracked land. One tough military president, the late Gen. Emilio Medici, who is said to have condoned the torture of political opponents, was on the verge of tears when he saw the northeast’s poverty first hand.

But the grandiose projects of the military government did little to ease the average northeasterner’s lack of food, jobs, water and land.

A common belief among Northesterns is that the few direct investments in their social concerns, such as food and water distributions during droughts and emergency work-relief jobs, were turned to political advantage by local land-owning politicians who pass along favors to those who vote for them.

″It is in the interests of the landowners to maintain the region in utter poverty,″ claimed Maria Luiza Fontenelle, mayor of Fortaleza, capital of Ceara and the northeast’s largest city, with a population of 1.6 million.

″When people are poor they depend upon favors to survive.″

According to Bishop Jose Rodrigues of the Roman Catholic Church in the hinterlands of Bahia, mayors control local unions and decide who gets access to government health care, jobs and other benefits.

When the military stepped down and civilian government returned to Brazil in 1985, hopes for widespread social reforms ran high. But many northeasterners say civilian rule for them has been a hollow triumph.

Last year, the region sold $4.4 billion worth of fruit, nuts, cocoa, sugar, tobacco and petroleum to southern Brazil and foreign countries but received only $1 billion in government investments.

Promises of a land reform, irrigation of 2.5 million acres of land and 2 million jobs were slashed as the government of President Jose Sarney sought to to cut a massive budget deficit, control runaway inflation projected at 600 percent annually and meet payments on a $121 billion foreign debt.

Most significantly, Brazil’s proposed new constitution makes virtually impossible a long-promised land reform to distribute the 46 percent of rural properties owned by just 1.2 percent of the population. The Catholic church has accused the government of bowing to powerful landowners on the issue.

But political scientists say the northeast’s problems are fast becoming problems for the rest of the country, most particularly the more affluent South. Northeasterners, for example, now occupy whole shanty towns in the major cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, pressing already precarious social and health services and pushing up crime rates.

″Brazil will never be a stable democracy ... nor a developed country without resolving its vast inequalities,″ said one political scientist, Helio Jaguaribe.

But the political balance also may be shifting.

In the 1986 gubernatorial elections, northeasterners chose four governors who are considered politically progressive and more likely to contest landowner power.

Mayor Fontenelle of Fortaleza, for example, is a member of the Radical Worker’s Party.

At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church presses on its own for change.

Bishop Rodrigues has helped rural workers in seven of his 11 doceses take control of local labor unions, often resulting in gun and stick battles between private armies of conservative mayors and local farmers.

End Adv Wednesday AMs June 15

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