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Northeastern region won't be denied

Gilberto Edson Mendes de Ribeiro is a success. In a way, his story mirrors that of his homeland, the Brazilian northeast -- long the hapless problem child of successive Brazilian governments but now beginning to show signs of promise.

When he was 17, in 1965, Gilberto's future was hardly promising. Born in poverty, he managed to get a third-grade education, worked a garbage truck in his teens, and debated whether he ought to migrate to the Brazil's south, as so many of his peers were doing, in search of jobs and economic advance.

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He stayed in Recife, eventually became an unskilled worker in a hydroelectric facility, took advantage of job training programs, got a high-school degree, and even took university courses. Now foreman of the plant, his future looks increasingly hopeful. He is in line for a management job one of these days.

Married, with a family of three children, he and his wife, Marta, are part of a small but growing number of nordestinos, as residents of the northeast are called, who are lifting themselves out of the poverty that has for so long stalked the area, one of the most economically benighted regions on earth.

The northeast was virtually written off 15 years ago as a hopeless case by many Brazilians. The thinking: Ignore the problems of the northeast and concentrate on other parts of the country, where economic success and progress were more likely.

That policy led, in part, to the so-called "Brazilian miracle" of the late 1960s and early '70s that saw this nation flex its economic muscle, racking up growth rates of more than 10 percent a year to become one of the 10 largest economies in the world. The northeast was left behind in the process.

But the northeast would not be ignored. Its 35 to 40 million residents clamored for a better life. The region was clearly something of a noose around the neck of Brazilian progress.

"This was Brazil's Achilles' heel," comments Luiz Carlos Menezes, as he talks of Brazil's northeast. "We had to make headway in solving the problems of this area if Brazil as a whole was to go ahead."

Head of CHESF (Companhia Hidro Electrica do Sao Francisco), a regional hydroelectric development centered on the powerful Sao Francisco River, Mr. Menezes believes the corner has been turned in the development of the northeast.

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Time will tell, but there is no doubt that the northeast, while still the poorest region of the populated parts of Brazil, has turned a corner. The reasons are many:

* SUDENE (Superintendencia de Desenvolvimento do Nordeste), set up by the federal government in 1959 to spur the area's development, has lured industry with promotional campaigns and fiscal incentives.

* Large industrial complexes, both private and public, have been set up in and around Recife and Salvador, the two principal cities, and in such other cities, with a total investment of $15 billion.

* The huge CHESF complex, based on the hydroelectric facilities of Paulo Afonso on the Sao Francisco River, has brought electrification to all nine states of Brazil's northeast.

* An $800 million agrarian reform program, some aspects of which are extremely controversial and the results of which are vigorously debated, has brought a 35 percent increase in agricultural production and provided a better livelihood for some farmers in the northeast during the past five years.

There are plenty of critics of the SUDENE program, some of whom argue that more should be done with agrarian reform. But SUDENE officials note that much of the northeast is hardscrabble countryside, a forbidding semiarid zone, which although homeland to 12 million nordestinos is unlikely to yield much agricultural production even with irrigation, which has come on stream as part of CHESF's hydroelectric facilities.

The Northeast development program centers on industry, creating 500,000 new jobs in the past 10 years. Many nordestinos are benefiting. Gilberto Ribeiro and his family are among them. But the northeast is still an impoverished area, where poverty abounds.

Per capita income is about $600 a year. In Brazil as a whole, it is $1,720. For everyone like Gilberto who earns $2,900 a year, there are 25 earning much less than $500 a year.

Mr. Menezes believes this bleak panorama will change quickly as new industries not only expand, but also spawn satellite industries, all of which will create more and more jobs.

Close to 25 percent of industry in the northeast is foreign-controlled, much of it from the United States, representing about 30 percent of industrial capital investment in the area.

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