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Brazil's debt crunch forces it to retool to a 'war-style' economy

Brazil, the most developed nation in Latin America, is emerging from its worst money crisis in 160 years. But its financial troubles are far from over. The country mortgaged away a good measure of sovereignty to foreign banks and global funding institutions in order to get the emergency loans that saved it from major default in December. Now Brazil is undergoing a crisis of credibility both in the world financial community and before its own people.

President Joao Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo says the country now faces ''a war economy.'' Opposition political parties are loudly complaining about austerity measures taken to obtain the emergency loans. And a few observers suggest the military, which allowed the country to take a major step toward full civilian rule in 1982, will be watching the economy very closely.

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In the short term, speedy negotiations with the International Monetary Fund produced a $5.7 billion loan-credit package for Brazil. An elaborate system of aid from creditors and the commitment of the nation's economic leaders to honor debts are keeping the country afloat.

Still ahead is a final decision on Brazil's request for huge private-bank loans - $4.5 billion in new funds and recycling of some $4.8 billion of 1983 debts - which the nation's financial planners outlined to some 120 private bank officials in New York on Dec. 20.

But Brazil took a step that may put the squeeze on these banks. It said it would pay only the interest on $446 million principal due on its debt this month. One banker describes the move as ''putting the knife to the neck'' of smaller banks, which provide crucial supplementary loans to larger lenders.

So far Brazil has secured $3.5 billion of the loan package. About 20 percent of the final package will come from Japanese banks, who entered the loan deal just last week.

Many reports have painted Brazil as a victim of world recession and of bankers' jitters about lending during the recession. But some bankers caution that Brazil itself is not blameless for the size of its $88 million debt.

''Brazil's troubles are a combination of its own mistakes and a troubled world economy,'' said a banker at a major US bank in Sao Paulo.

A major reason for Brazil's problem, he and other analysts says, is the big-spending habits begun under Gens. Arthur da Costa e Silva and Emilio Garrastazu Medici in the early 1970s. The country launched a huge program to develop nuclear power and expand hydro power. Recently the government slowed that program down, suspending work on two nuclear plants under construction in Sao Paulo State and paring spending on the nuclear program by 40 percent.

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The government also pared its budget by slashing subsidies on an array of goods and services. It has promised to move quickly on devaluations of Brazil's currency, and to reduce state sector investment over the next three years.

''But the truth is the poor performance of Brazil's economy alone wouldn't have got them into this mess,'' says a well-known banker here. ''After all 1982 was a really weird year.''

He noted that the Falklands war and Mexico's severe financial problems in August chilled international willingness to lend funds to Latin America. A series of spectacular bankruptcies (Penn Square, Drysdale Securities) did not help Latin Americans either. As a result, Brazil, which could count on some $1.5 billion in new loan money a month from January to September 1982, ''suddenly got almost no new money at all,'' noted Sao Paulo economist Celso Martone.

National planners, who only a few months earlier had been working with a network of 1,350 banks worldwide, by the end of the year were dealing with fewer than a hundred.

But if Brazil's accounts have rarely been so criticized, neither have they been so open to public scrutiny. Although the IMF agreement came swiftly, the financial world took note as the mission three times rejected Brazil's rather glowing figures and predictions.

The economic problems have also set off political tremors. Opposition parties have had a field day, and a number of prominent figures grumble about the political costs of racking up so much debt at so dear a price.

One powerful Army general protested that the nation should have a ''unilateral moratorium'' on debts, arguing that ''the Brazilian debt doesn't exist, and has already been paid many times over.''

Others, such as newspaper editor Oliveiros Ferreira, complain that Brazil is becoming too dependent on the US Treasury. Brazil so far owes the US Treasury $1 .2 billion. This worries Oliveiros Ferreira more than dependence on the IMF.

''(Brazilian) dependence on the US Treasury could leave the US with possible means of controlling crucial details of Brazilian policy, particularly arms,'' he has said.

''Sooner or later,'' he continued, ''young officers, and maybe even some generals and politicians, are going to resent this. This could mean the end of Brazil as an American ally.''

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