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Waiting fr democracy in Brazil

Robert Wesson is a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

In 1964 Brazil began a series of military takeovers, and the relative stability and economic growth it has achieved under a military-dominated regime since then has encoraged military governments in bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and perhaps other countries. It is consequently important that Brazilians generally take for granted, as the military leaders assure them, that they are on the way to redemocratization, to a full and genuine constitutional government with free elections.

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The march, however, has been long and slow, with steps backward frm time to time. since the military assumed power in 1964, each of the five general-presidents has promised relaxation, opening, and progress toward democracy at the beginning of his term. The first three, however, ended up strengthening their dictatrship. President Ernesto Geisel (1974-79) was the first t bring improvement, ending most maltreatment f political opponents, permitting semi-free elections for secondary offices and ending censorship of the press (although broadcast media remain controlled). Near the end of his term he revoked many dictatorial powers of the presidency.

Joao Figueirado, who became president in March 1979, expressed much more determination to democratize, even threatening to jail those who disagreed. He restored the political rights of many persons and allowed some 7,000 political exiles to return and resume oppositionist political activity. He tolerated labor unions and strikes, previously outlawed. Political parties, which had been limited to two, were permitted to organize freely; only the cmmunists remained excluded from the electoral process, although allowed to agitate and publish.

Yet the military-dominated government has surrendered no real power; such democratization as there has been has cme expressly on its terms and at its volition; and it may be reversible. Since the first part f this year, in fact, such has seemed the tendency. Whereas a metal workers strike was tolerated in 1979, a larger one in April 1980 was declared illegal; unions were interfered with, and leaders were jailed.

About the same time, as though for social balance, a retroactive increase of taxes n large incomes (in the form of a forced loan) was imposed by decree in a demonstration of arbitrary power. Local elections scheduled for November have been postponed, ostensibly fr technical reasons. A law facilitating the expulsion of foreigners was pushed through the submissive congress under the rule that proposals not voted down within 40 days are considered enacted. It was directed chiefly against refugees from neighboring military-ruled countries, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, and against foreign missionaries and priest, wh are nearly half of the Brazilian clergy and who contribute to "liberation theology."

There has been talk of the need for legal definition of the responsibility of the press, which has used its freedom exuberantly. Rightist extremists have taken this matter in hand by threatening, sometimes bombing, newsstands selling leftist papers. The authorities deplore this, but the police do not find the culprits.

Nearly everyone seems to expect and desire full democratization as the normal form of government, and this desire only grows stronger. But there is no sign that the governing powers are prepared to permit the direct election of the president or the return of genuine legislative authority to the congress. The dominant sector seems to believe that Brazil cannot now or in the near future be governed democratically. Objective conditions are less propitious for democracy now than in 1964, when Brazilians applauded the overthrow of a corrupt and disorderly as well as leftist constitutional government.

Brazilian society is even more unequal, the urban masses have swollen hugely, and economic problems are more severe. The state-directed economy -- 60 percent of investment is public -- could be hard to combine with democratic politics. Brazil present an oversize case of the common political syndrome of Latin America: it would very much like to have democracy, but has no easy way to get it and is not sure just how much it can handle; yet the present semidictatorship can hardly be considered a permanent solution.

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