The Next Superpower

October 07, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London. -- Brazil, the superpower that never was, for the first time in decades has shown its stuff. The outsider may be excused, until this week, for beginning to wonder if the country still had what it takes. Military rule, repression, torture and grandiose overspending including a nuclear weapons' program gave way to parliamentary chaos and inept presidential rule, and then to corruption. All the while, Brazil suffered more economic mismanagement than the rest of Latin America put together.

When last Brazil voted, in 1989, deep pessimism prevailed in the country. No one believed that any of the candidates could brake the country's headlong rush into economic catastrophe. A TV game-show presenter finally lost out to a daredevil former governor of an insignificant state who couldn't wait to get his hands into the till.

Yet only 10 years ago Angus Maddison published his ''World Economy in the Twentieth Century,'' describing Brazil, along with Taiwan, as the growth champions of the 20th century. While world production rose 13-fold between 1900 and 1987, Latin America's -- led by Brazil -- increased 32-fold.

When Latin America crashed, Brazil crashed hardest. The world recession of the 1980s and the ensuing debt crisis stalled Latin America for the best part of a decade. But while Argentina, Mexico and even Peru conquered dizzy inflation, Brazil appeared to luxuriate in economic madness, its currency adding zeros almost faster than the printing presses could turn.

By this year, however, Finance Minister Fernando Henrique Cardoso had managed to pull Brazil out of its nose dive. Now elected to the presidency, and with a newly confident and optimistic electorate behind him, Mr. Cardoso has the mandate to make Brazil, the 10th-largest economy in the world, into a hemispherical superpower capable of overtaking Mexico and even Canada and one day standing eye to eye with the United States itself.

He has an awful mess to clean up: a crime rate out of control and the most skewed income distribution on the planet. Perhaps no other country has so many abandoned street children, and certainly in no other country are street children hunted down and exterminated like rabid dogs.

Brazil has managed to unite the worst of feudalism with the worst of capitalism in a terrible fusion that has created an explosion of social disintegration, beguiled by such hedonistic fantasies as Copacabana beach, the carnival and the samba.

Its past contains matter for pride. Brazil hasn't been to war since 1870. Revolted by a miscarriage of justice, it abolished the death penalty 140 years ago. It never codified race into legalized disadvantage. Informal barriers certainly persist, but blacks can achieve success, marry whom they please and live where they will.

The job of Brazil's newly elected president is to bring Brazil's virtues -- tolerance, gregariousness and unpretension -- into its modern age. This means encouraging discipline, starting with Mr. Cardoso's great achievement, a stable currency. It means collecting taxes from the well-to-do. It means a massive program privatization for the overstuffed state sector. It means land reform. The feudalistic maldistribution of land is the root of so many of Brazil's urban woes -- broken families, depressed wages and imprudent investment by the land-owning class.

For a day or two, Brazil deserves to savor its moment of glory. Then the hard work of building a world-class economy can commence.

B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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