IN 1960, demonstrations by Francisco Julião’s Peasant Leagues throughout Brazil’s impoverished Northeast sent thunderclaps in quick succession through the rest of Brazil, Latin America, and the United States. If something else besides the Cuban revolution was needed to provide the impetus which transforms concern into action (as later embodied by the Alliance for Progress), the leagues of this diminutive lawyer-novelist met the requirement. Now, four years later, the danger has never materialized, having been grossly exaggerated by the Brazilian and American press, which overreacted to the first public outcries of a peasantry that had endured misery in silence for generations.

There are two principal reasons why the region’s revolutionary potential did not develop. First, the initiative for a change in the power structure, characterized by totalitarian landlordism with its private police called capangas, has been seized by three nonrevolutionary groups. They are the Church-led rural syndicates, the state governments, heavily backed by U.S. foreign aid, and the Brazilian federal developmental authority, SUDENE. Second, Julião’s movement failed to attract support from other groups on the extreme left and has been opposed by the Communist Party. Nonetheless, friend and foe alike credit Julião with awakening the nation to the plight of the peasants.

The Brazilian Northeast, called the Nordeste, is the most extensive and populated area in the Western hemisphere, with a yearly income level under $100 per inhabitant. Nordestinos number about 24 million in nine states covering a region about the size of Argentina. Most of the population live along die coast in the humid zone, not more than 100 miles from the Atlantic. Here may be found the great sugar plantations. In the semiarid interior, cotton and tobacco are grown, and there is some cattle raising. The economy of the Northeast is mainly agricultural.

Two thirds of the people live in the rural areas. Most are direct descendants of the slaves who were set free in 1888, when slavery was abolished in Brazil. Now. as salaried peasants or sharecroppers on the plantations, they labor under more subtle forms of servitude. Fewer than 2 percent of the landowners own 75 percent of the land. The productivity of the soil is about the lowest in the world. When this primitive hoe culture is combined with a scarcity of arable lands, devastating droughts, flash floods, a tyrannical landowning class, and a rocketing population growth, the rapid migration into the cities can be understood.

Starvation in the cities

Recife is Brazil’s third largest city, having doubled in population to just under a million in the past fifteen years. Sixty percent of its inhabitants live in slums; only 27 percent of its streets are paved in any way; four out of five city dwellers have no sewerage facilities; and the entire city has only twelve thousand telephones. Yet every week, hundreds of rural migrants join the already vast numbers in Recife’s slums.

Half of the babies in the slums die before their first birthday. Unemployment is a way of life. Hunting diseased water crabs and begging are the primary available vocations to get the money necessary to pay unscrupulous landlords, who connived a perpetual lease from the federal government, the original owner of the lands along the rivers. Other coastal cities of the Northeast — Fortaleza, Salvador, Natal, São Luis, Maceió, and João Pessoa — serve as dumping grounds for this humanity, a product of voiceless neglect.

For some nordestino peasants, the cities are only a way station in a traditional trek to the more prosperous and industrialized regions of the Center and South, particularly in and around São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. For decades nordestinos have supplied the Center and South with their cheap labor. Furthermore, nordestinos built Brasília in the wilderness of the great central plain.

Exploitation by the prosperous

More important in explaining the stagnancy of the Northeast is the continuing transfer of capital from the area to São Paulo and vicinity. One magnet has been the greater return on investments there. Another is that the Northeast sells to the Center and South primarily commercial agricultural products in exchange for edible foodstuffs, manufactured goods, and imported consumables. In this domestic trade between regions, the Northeast runs a persistent deficit and is victimized by the impact of import and exchange controls favoring the Center and South.

A regressive tax structure, plus an almost complete lack of interest in the Northeast investment by the São Paulo millionaires, adds fuel to the resentment of nordestinos against what they believe is exploitation by a more advanced area of their country. Foreign investment is fairly inconsequential. Disparities in growth between the two areas are constantly increasing.

The flow of money has not been wholly one way, however. Federal relief funds earmarked for victims of the droughts and for drought safeguards have been substantial in post-war years. But the developmental impact of these funds has been vitiated by the politicians and wealthy nordestinos who have managed to enrich themselves either by directly siphoning off the monies or by constructing useless dams and other public works in order to increase the value of the land for speculation purposes.

Hope for economic development

It was the great drought of 1958, coupled with the first peasant stirrings under Julião, that brought the winds of mild change to the Northeast. President Kubitschek was draining his country’s treasury in a frantic effort to construct the new capital, Brasilia, when Brazil’s leading economist, Celso Furtado, presented him with an economic and humanitarian analysis showing why the Northeast was badly in need of a federal developmental authority. A realist as well as a scholar, Furtado did not hesitate to utilize the “menace of Julião” as an additional motivating factor. The outcome of his efforts was the creation of the Superintendency for the Development of the Northeast, known as SUDENE. Headed by Furtado, SUDENE has obtained nearly 5 percent of annual federal expenditures each year.

Furtado started slowly. SUDENE was launched with a small staff of idealistic young Brazilian engineers, agronomists, and economists, fresh from the universities. It was operating in an intensely hostile environment of suspicious landowners, whose long cooperation with corrupt federal and state officials had rarely recognized the law or tolerated public officials dedicated to mass welfare.

In his strategy for economic development, Furtado acknowledges three forces necessary for action: danger, as embodied in Julião: idealism and expertise, to be provided by SUDENE; and the profit motive, which he hopes will induce São Paulo’s industrialists to build factories in the Northeast. Thus far, the strategy is mired in difficulties. Julião, now a federal deputy, no longer inspires much fear in anybody. Lacking funds, having failed to develop a corps of dedicated organizers, and confronted with illiterate, poverty-wracked peasants fearful of incurring landowner wrath, he has declined in importance as a power factor in the Northeast.

Rural syndicates, led by a group of young Catholic priests, presently outnumber his loosely knit leagues. These syndicates appeal to the peasant on the principle that “if you ask for less, you end up with more.” Their goal is not revolutionary; it is simply to secure minimum wages and other benefits for their members. The effectiveness of the Church-led unions in controlling peasant unrest has even begun to attract financial support from the Brazilian Institute for Democratic Action (I BAD), which has been described as the “Brazilian John Birch Society.”

The profit motive, garnished by strong tax and other incentives, has brought very little Brazilian capital into the region. The low purchasing power of the Northeast market and the lack of skilled labor and readily available investment opportunities are persistent deterrents.

SUDENE itself has been having problems, both with some state governors jealous of this federal intrusion and with the substantial U.S. foreign aid program under the Alliance for Progress. By an agreement signed between the two countries in April of 1962, the United States undertook to contribute $131 million over a two-year period for extending transport and electricpower services; improving educational and health facilities, water supplies, and housing; expanding the productivity and area of agricultural lands; surveying existing resources; and stimulating private initiative in manufacturing.

Misunderstandings, differences in policies and timing, and complications arising out of relationships between the U.S. mission in Recife and the state governors have severely hampered the cooperation between the American Agency for International Development and SUDENE, which has responsibility for implementing U.S. aid.

But SUDENE’s biggest difficulties are what Furtado terms “notorious structural vices” that impede the reconstruction of the agricultural economy and block the “intense rhythm of growth with a minimum of social tension,” which he envisions as an essential combination. Basic to all SUDENE’s complaints is the absence of agrarian reform, without which development is impossible. Agrarian reform, in the view of many leading Brazilian experts, must bring about a fairer distribution of land and its earnings, but they stress that other results which will flow from such a reform — for example, increased agricultural production and the achievement of first-class citizenship by the peasantry — are just as important. But land-reform legislation has been mired in the gentrydominated federal Congress for many months, and few think that any bill that passes will carry much strength.

This state of affairs is contributing to an evolving approach by SUDENE to nourish change in the countryside by providing the technical assistance and rural credit needed for organizing the peasants into cooperatives. The long-range expectation is for these cooperatives to become sufficiently prosperous so that they can ensure the enforcement of laws guaranteeing a minimum wage and other rights to rural workers and can buy or lease land from largeplantation owners. One two-yearold cooperative supported by SUDENE recently leased a sugarcane plantation of twelve thousand acres.

The quest for orderly change

The quest for orderly change necessarily involves a decentralization and transfer of power along more democratic lines. But existing procedures and institutions, both governmental and private, may well prove ineffective to meet the growing demands of the reformers. Mass misery is not easily translatable into support for popular reforms. As a young professor at the University of Recife has observed: “’The poverty here paralyzes the mind as well as the body.”

This phenomenon has been driven home with great force by the evolution of the Arraes administration during the past fifteen months in the key state of Pernambuco. Miguel Arraes was elected governor in late 1962 by a left-of-center coalition ranging from orthodox Communists to moderate liberals. His background, campaign, and the advisers he chose indicated a thoroughgoing attack on all the social injustices, waste, and corruption that had long plagued the state.

Now in his second year in office. Arraes is operating as though his sole mission were to keep his balance politically for future election. He has not even moved against the exploitation of the slum dwellers a few blocks from the Governor’s Palace. The explanation for this immobility is that Arraes has simply not succeeded in generating mass support. Without this support, he is bendingbefore the pressures of the upper classes.

There has been some progress in the Northeast. Schools, roads, health facilities, and housing units have been built. A remarkably conceived literacy movement is under way. Federal funds arc flowing in, and a corps of dedicated developers at SUDENE is growing. But the question is whether a sufficient ground swell of pressures can bring about the necessary reforms without setting off a violent eruption throughout this neglected region.