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Sarney: taking charge in Brazil

BRAZIL'S month-old civilian government now faces difficult days, which demand the best from the nation's political leaders. They require understanding from other nations and the International Monetary Fund as well. As he assumes the presidency after the passing of President-elect Tancredo Neves, who was elected president by Brazil's Electoral College but never assumed office because of illness, the interim President, Jos'e Sarney, is confronted by the demand to move vigorously to take command of Brazil's government, and to be seen by his countrymen as taking charge. During Mr. Neves's illness, Mr. Sarney properly did not take decisive actions, so as not to usurp the prerogatives of the presidency. But that created an aura of governmental drift, which now must be changed.

The most important actions center on Brazil's enormous economic problems: Foreign sales declined the past two months, unemployment and underemployment are at 40 to 45 percent, inflation is at an annual rate of 230 percent. Foreign debt exceeds $100 billion. Brazil this year appears hard pressed even to pay the interest.

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Brazil, Latin America's largest nation, does have economic strengths Sarney can tap. Despite its current economic problems, the country has made great strides over the past decade in development of industry and agriculture. It stands on the threshold of becoming a major economic power. Its industry is well developed for a third-world nation. Last year it had a trade surplus nearly sufficient to pay, by itself, the interest on the foreign debt. Brazil has major agricultural resources; it is one of the world's leading producers of several crops. It also has substantial mineral resources, though many of them are not well exploited.

Here as in much of Latin America, there is a lack of confidence in the future of the economy, among potential investors, domestic as well as foreign. Throughout much of Latin America people with money invest it in the United States and other non-Latin nations; in the long run it is essential that economic conditions in Latin America improve sufficiently to persuade those with funds to invest at home.

With the passing of President-elect Neves, Sarney can expect wide political and popular support, for the present. Brazilians realize the nation must coalesce now to make the transition successfully from 21 years of military to civilian rule. Sarney should promptly take advantage of such support and tackle head on, as Neves had planned, the nation's economic problems.

Neves had indicated that he would take sharp austerity measures Today's troubled Brazilian economy requires such action. Evidence of addressing economic issues will be important if Sarney is to negotiate successfully with the IMF, beginning next month, for additional aid and stretched-out interest repayment.

Sarney should consider carrying out another Neves plan. Neves had intended to have a new constitution drawn up that would permit direct election of future presidents, thereby strengthening democracy.

Sarney's support, while broad, is not deep: Many Brazilians view his leadership skeptically. He was a supporter of military rule for much of the last 21 years, and he became an ally of Neves only a short time before Brazil's election in January. But action that suggests firm direction for Brazil would demonstrate to Brazilians that Sarney has the capacity to lead them. ----30{et

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