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Sarney takes the reins of Brazil's fledgling democracy

Brazilians think of themselves as a resourceful people, able to roll with the punches, and capable of dealing with the unusual. They and their fragile new democracy will need all those traits as Vice-President Jos'e Sarney this week assumes, in his own right, the presidency that was supposed to belong to another -- Tancredo de Almeida Neves, who passed on Sunday.

Clearly, President Sarney does not have the wide popular acclaim that was Dr. Neves's hallmark.

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Neves's passing puts a heavy strain on Brazil's government. To many Brazilians, Neves had become the personification of the return of democracy. But there is a rallying around Mr. Sarney much as there was in the United States when Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

That comparison was made Monday morning in at least two Brazilian papers -- Rio de Janeiro's Jornal do Brasil and O Estado de Sao Paulo.

For five weeks, since March 15 when Neves missed his inauguration because he was hospitalized, governmental bureaucracy has been largely in a stalemate.

Moreover, solutions to a series of major problems have been on hold: renegotiation of Brazil's whopping $102 billion foreign debt, austerity measures aimed at slowing inflation now running at nearly 250 percent a year, and drafting measures aimed at easing the plight of at least 30 million Brazilian ``have nots.''

Also, some 800 second-, third-, and fourth-level posts in government ministries have gone vacant because Mr. Sarney, although serving as acting president, was reluctant to usurp Neves's prerogatives in this regard.

But last week, as it became apparent that Dr. Neves would not assume the presidency anytime soon, if ever, Mr. Sarney started filling some of those posts.

Sarney also undertook a number of other initiatives. Among them, he:

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Began exercising presidential authority in Cabinet meetings. This week Sarney gave the ministers, all of whom had been appointed by Neves, details of a proposed campaign he has drafted to combat hunger and unemployment.

Met with the left-leaning Rio de Janeiro governor, Leonel Brizola, in an effort -- reportedly successful -- to head off a long-rumored Brizola challenge to his rule.

Conferred with constitutional lawyers about shortening presidential terms, beginning with his, from six to four years, as Neves had planned to do.

But the country's most pressing problems clearly center on the economy.

The foreign debt is the most demanding. Now $102.1 billion, it continues to rise and there is fresh concern that the nation may not be able to pay the interest on the debt which will hover between $12 and $14 billion this year. Last year, large export earnings which netted a $13.1 billion trade surplus, paid the interest on the debt. But exports in February and March this year fell by an estimated 9 percent compared to the same period last year.

Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund, skeptical of earlier promises to cut domestic spending sharply, is calling anew for the imposition of stiff austerity measures. This step aims to slow the 250 percent inflation rate, but will have a social impact, too, cutting the skimpy welfare benefits going to millions of Brazilians.

Already social pressures are mounting. New, unofficial jobless totals last week suggested that 27 percent of the adult work force is idle and another 15 to 20 percent is underemployed.

Moreover, labor unrest is growing. Strikes for higher wages took place last week in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. At least a million workers took part. If these strikes had spread to the auto industry, they could have had a profound effect on export earnings which are so vital in paying the interest on the foreign debt.

In dealing with these problems, however, President Sarney will have the initial support of Chamber of Deputies speaker Ulysses Guimaraes, a strong Neves backer who is the emerging leader of Neves's Brazilian Democratic Movement, which has long championed the return to civilian rule.

But President Sarney is not a member of the party and indeed is closely associated with the former military government. Many party stalwarts find it difficult to accept a man who loyally went along with the generals for many of the 21 years of military rule.

A political veteran, Sarney was tapped as Neves's running mate as a symbol of compromise and also continuity -- not so much with the military but with the institutions of government.

Sarney is faced with a delicate balancing act -- to move quickly and decisively on the many problems facing Brazil and yet to do it in ways that offend as few of Neves's followers as possible.

It is not an easy or enviable task. -- 30 --

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