Northeast Brazil

There was a time when Northeast Brazil enjoyed a reputation of being on the verge of violent revolution. Peasant Leagues were preparing the rural masses for Armageddon, with the Communists at work in the urban unions and a leftist governor moving toward national power. People talked of a “second Cuba,” and an alarmed President John F. Kennedy sent out a large mission under the Agency for International Development (AID).

When the Brazilian military met no resistance in the region during the 1964 coup, the exaggeration of prior assessments became apparent. Foreign observers had overlooked a long tradition of periodic outbursts of rebellion in the backlands of the Northeast in their eagerness to blame an international conspiracy for the unrest. Disordered agitation had been passing for the vanguard of a sinister plot to seize power.

Today, Northeat Brazil continues to suffer from hyperbole. Now the claim is that a “new Northeast" has emerged from the pre-1964 disorder, signaling the beginning of the end of the misery which has made this huge land mass the most extensive underdeveloped area in the Western Hemisphere.

Test tube

The use of repressive tactics by the Brazilian Army has stabilized the region for more than three years. Both federal and state governments have embarked upon a plan of development viewed with approval in Washington. Their strategy includes a program of attracting new industries from the more developed south of Brazil, the stimulation of public investment in the region’s infrastructure (transportation, health, education, hydroelectric projects, and so on), and an increase in agricultural production, especially in the sugargrowing zone. The AID mission has been applying funds and technical assistance under the Alliance for Progress. U.S. presence has reached such proportions that Northeast Brazil has become a sort of test tube for development, American-style.

The accompanying ballyhoo has been remarkable. For example, one reads and hears that the Northeast has been growing at a rate of 7 percent a year. The figure is a fabrication. A series of articles published by a Brazilian magazine and purporting to be an on-scene report from the “new Northeast” was in fact paraphrased from promotional literature. Things reached a crescendo in August when President Costa e Silva and his Cabinet spent a week in the Northeast issuing proclamations affirming the wondrous development about to take place.

The din of publicity celebrating the “new Northeast” is woefully premature. Massive poverty and backwardness still dominate the region. The oligopolistic structure of the economy continues to thrive, while little material progress has filtered down to the masses. No measures have been taken to alleviate the problem of overpopulation — one of every nine Latin Americans lives here — owing to an unholy alliance of Catholic and Marxist objections to birth control. The cities keep swelling, and in the humid belt along the coast, an ailing sugar industry depresses even further the economy of the region. The only missing element is one of the periodic droughts which plague the semi-arid interior.

At the same time, U.S. efforts have produced a surprisingly widespread anti-Americanism, especially on the Catholic left. Those unhappy with the current situation identify U.S. policy with the maintenance of the status quo. Moreover, Brazilian nationalism runs counter to the dominant role which the United States is playing in the region.

Taxes as a means

The push toward industrialization derives its impetus from an imaginative tax device borrowed from the Italians, who used it to draw industry from northern to southern Italy. A company doing business in Brazil may invest or reinvest in the Northeast up to 50 percent of its annual federal income tax instead of paying it to the government. The particular investment requires approval by SUDENE, the Brazilian federal agency charged with coordinating the development of the Northeast. Investors may also obtain credit on liberal terms from the Bank of Northeast Brazil and from some state developmental agencies. An aggressive promotional program has publicized these investment opportunities.

New industries attracted by this tax law will ultimately provide more than 80,000 new jobs. SUDENE claims that every job directly created will in turn stimulate four more jobs. Of the total amount of new investment planned, 25 percent is already in production.

There are several difficulties with this emphasis upon industrialization. First of all, it is still on a scale far too small to make a meaningful dent. Recife, the largest city in the Northeast, and its environs contain a population of 1.2 million people, of whom at least 60 percent live in varying degrees of poverty. About 50 percent of the available work force in the area is unemployed or underemployed. The entire region must support 26 million people. Yet despite the continuing magnitude of the problem, murmurs of discontent have been heard from industrialists in Rio and Săo Paulo, who would rather invest elsewhere. At the same time, other underdeveloped and undeveloped regions of Brazil are pressing for similar tax incentives, and American firms doing business in Brazil have found that their liability for U.S. income taxes may be less if they pay their full taxes to Brazil.

In addition, the new industries in the Northeast are naturally utilizing modern machinery, which demands fewer, more highly skilled workers. The existing manpower pool in the region is for the most part untrained and illiterate, although efforts are being directed toward adult vocational education.

The new industries have neither broken the grip of the few family groups who control the economy of the region nor stimulated any improvements of conditions within existing industries. Eight or nine close-knit groups still run almost everything within the key state of Pernambuco and Recife, its capital. Political leaders who are tolerated by the military maintain their traditional ties with these families. Thus, capital now entering the Northeast finds it expedient to work within the structure, and not compete with this concentration of economic power.

At the same time, workers in the textile mills and other older industries often must accept less than the legal minimum wage, $30 a month in Recife and lower elsewhere. Though living costs have been on the increase, the federal government has kept these levels depressed as one of its arsenal of anti-inflationary measures. Because of the manpower surplus in the region, workers find it unwise to strike. Trade unions exist, but under the domination of management or under the leadership of men apprehensive of what the army does to anyone it labels an “agitator.”Labor conditions have, however, stimulated one of Recife’s biggest businesses. Girls migrating from the interior in search of work often find themselves forced to join the ranks of the city’s 8000 full-time and 30,000 part-time prostitutes.

Sugar politics

Industrialization has also left unchanged the Northeast’s most pressing problem, poverty in the countryside, where the majority of the population still lives. An ailing sugar industry employs some 450,000 peasants, while more than 2 million Northeasterners depend upon the industry for their daily existence. Growth and production of sugar are generally inefficient because of archaic machinery, outdated methods, and bad land use. Per acre yield is 15.2 tons, as compared with 27.2 tons in Puerto Rico. Without government price supports, sugar from the region would be unable to compete with that grown in the south.

A handful of mill owners control sugar production and own much of the land on which the cane is grown. Most of the remaining land is concentrated in the hands of plantation owners, who sell their cane to the mills. With few exceptions, the mill owners have managed to thrive on the perpetual crisis in the sugar zone. When the situation reaches a critical stage, they have been able to obtain emergency financing from the government. These funds they then invest in real estate in the cities or other, more profitable industries. Many of the plantation owners do not live on their land, and likewise see no need of improving methods of production.

The landowner enjoys a highly paternalistic relationship with his peasants. Social conditions in many areas seem more appropriate to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the rural workers were slaves imported from Africa.

The first Peasant Leagues emerged on the sugar plantations in the late 1950s. Originally a sort of mutual benefit society, the movement adopted the rhetoric of revolution under the leadership of Francisco Julião. The Leagues attracted considerable attention when they led strikes, sponsored take-overs of plantations, and pressed for the enforcement of rights secured by laws never meant to be enforced. But when the Brazilian Congress gave legal recognition to the rural labor movement, the Leagues became embroiled in a battle for control of the newly organized unions. Catholic priests, Communists, Trotskyists, and Maoists all joined the fray, which came to an emphatic halt with the military coup of April, 1964.

The army completely destroyed the Peasant Leagues and arrested those who had been agitating in the countryside. New leaders were installed in most of the rural unions, which kept functioning in an ineffective way. Two Catholic priests, under the watchful eye of the military, moved into virtual control of the movement. A feud between them greatly hampered the efforts of the unions in the period immediately following the coup.

The army gave assurances that it did not intend to turn back the clock, and that the legal rights of the peasants would remain secure. At the same time, it tended to view any attempt to vindicate these rights as “agitation.”The rural unions have thus continued in a state of impotence. The leaders are democratically elected, draw handsome salaries, and do little. A land-reform law passed shortly after the coup has accomplished nothing, and authorities have ignored a law requiring that each peasant be given two hectares of land for his own use. Although there was one successful strike earlier this year, this form of protest is risky. The union leadership fears the army, and the peasants fear eviction by the landowners. The unions do provide legal assistance to any peasant who wants to make a claim before a labor court, but the scarcity of judges and backlog of cases force delayed decisions of almost a year.

Conditions today in the sugar zone are even worse than in the pre-1964 period. The failure of employers to pay the legal minimum wage (80 cents a day) has depressed the rural economy. In the old days, strikes and other forms of pressure forced the owners to comply with the law, and the peasants spent money in the towns. A nutrition study of a group of peasants in the southern part of Pernambuco revealed that they are now consuming fewer calories than in 1963. According to the report, these peasants used to consume 1990 calories daily. The figure is now 1299. What makes this astounding is that according to medical science a person doing absolutely nothing for twenty-four hours requires from 1440 to 1512 calories to maintain basic metabolism. Palmares, a municipality in southern Pernambuco, was the scene of a serious crisis this winter when one of the mill owners began to pay his workers in script redeemable at the company store. For a number of weeks the store was empty, and emergency food supplies had to be rushed to the area.

Reform of a sort

In a new approach to the sugar problem, the government has created a new agency called GERAN, which is supposed to force the mill owners to increase productivity and at the same time accomplish a genuine land reform. The idea behind GERAN is that the adoption of modern machinery and methods will enable the mill owners to produce as much sugar as they are now growing on half as much land. The surplus land would then be available for crop diversification and distribution to the peasants.

The plan is just getting into operation and will take at least five years to show results. Though it has stimulated the customary overenthusiasm which Brazilians shower upon new projects, many observers are skeptical. They say that the plan may be sound in theory, but will never be administered effectively. One of the existing agencies which is participating in GERAN has already dissipated time and resources by taking over several bankrupt sugar mills. Another fear is that the mill owners will use the plan to get rid of bad land at high prices, a common practice under many land-reform schemes in Latin America. Finally, the fate of the peasants who will become unemployed in the course of the modernization of the sugar industry is uncertain at best. Then, in August, an administrative shake-up further fouled the launching of GERAN.

The rural union in Cabo, just outside Recife, has already evidenced a lack of faith in GERAN by putting into practice its own version of an agrarian reform. One year ago, this union conducted the first successful sugar strike since the coup. More recently it forced a plantation owner to hand over his plantation to the workers as a settlement for the back wages he owed to them. The Cabo union has enjoyed unusually effective leadership from its president, joão Luis da Silva, a twenty-threeyear-old peasant whose imaginative and scrupulously legal maneuvers have avoided the wrath of the army.

Any protests against conditions in the Northeast risk being considered a threat to the stability which the armed forces have imposed upon the region. The Fourth Army, with its headquarters in Recife, is the ultimate arbiter of all matters of importance. Military men hold key positions in government agencies.

The state government is in the hands of politicians who are either members or representatives of the family groups which control the economic wealth of the region. The family of the present governor of Pernambuco, for example, virtually owns the western part of the state. The urban slum dwellers and the peasants have no real representation within the political framework. This has left without recourse unfortunates like the 300 families the mayor of Recife recently moved from a riverbank near the center of town to a little valley behind the airport. They now find it almost impossible to commute to the city, where they could at least eke out subsistence living, and are now starving. But what seems more important to the city administration is that they are out of sight.

Those on the left who were actively agitating against social and economic conditions before the 1964 coup and who did not flee into exile have been traumatized into silence. The repression in the Northeast following the military take-over was particularly brutal. Countless arrests and not infrequent instances of torture have left an indelible impression. All political prisoners are supposed to be free, but some remain under indictment and may yet receive additional prison terms. This has dulled their enthusiasm for politics or for experiments in insurgency. Six bombs exploded in Recife between March and July of 1966, but under circumstances lending credence to the popular belief that they were set off by “hard-line” elements within the army.

The students have been the only group which has taken to the streets in protest. Since most of them are from the upper and middle classes and have no families to support, they have been willing to risk beatings and temporary imprisonment. Thus far, the state police and the army have had little difficulty in dispersing demonstrations. Random arrests and the widespread use of informers have kept the students off balance.

The “Brazilian Kerensky”

This leaves Dom Hélder Câmara, Archbishop of Recife, as the only voice of protest not yet silenced or intimidated by the military. A leading spokesman for the Catholic left, the diminutive Dom Hélder has aroused the ire of conservatives in the Northeast with his insistent pleas for reform. Sociologist Giberto Freyre once called him the “Brazilian Kerensky,” and more recently made the curious charge that the archbishop is really a Communist.

Dom Hélder and his followers argue that growth without social or economic justice is not development. They hold that radical change in the region’s power structure is the only cure for the imbalances in the distribution of wealth. In their view the approach being taken to development in the Northeast, with its predominant emphasis upon private enterprise, is repeating the mistakes of the past, and thrives upon the weakness of the urban and rural labor movements. But up to now Dom Hélder and the Catholic left have confined their protests to speeches and manifestos. No organized force exists to translate these sentiments into effective action.

The frustration felt by opponents of the present military regime has produced a considerable amount of anti-Americanism in the Northeast. Brazilians regard the United States as a major prop behind the government, and feel that any attempted change disapproved in Washington risks direct American intervention. There is a tendency, especially on the Catholic left, to scorn American aid programs such as the adult literacy crusade and the work of the American Institute for Free Labor Development among the sugar workers as efforts to tranquilize the masses into accepting the status quo.


Michael Janeway is an ATLANTIC editor. Joseph Page, an associate professor of law at the University of Denver, travels annually in Brazil and has written extensively about it. In future issues, as in this one. some reports will be unsigned at the request of their authors. The ATLANTIC of course, assumes responsibility for them.

Anti-Americanism often appears quite irrational. For example, the discovery that several American missionaries in the Amazon region were sponsoring the use of intra-uterine birth-control devices among Indian women provoked a vitriolic press campaign accusing the United States of promoting the sterilization of Brazilian women. Brazilians criticize members of the AID mission in Recife for their inability to speak Portuguese, and in almost the same breath suspect that Peace Corps Volunteers fluent in the language are engaged in espionage or other such mischief.

On the other hand, there are comprehensible sources of this hostility to the United States. In part, it is probably an indirect expression of unhappiness with the military, which tends to suppress any effective criticism of governmental policies in the Northeast. It also finds roots in a sense of nationalism offended by an overwhelming U.S. presence in the region. The AID mission has grown into a formidable bureaucracy. The number of Peace Corps Volunteers and missionaries continues to increase. Americans have devised key programs such as the latest literacy crusade and the GERAN plan, and are now pressing for a complete overhaul of the Brazilian educational system. Brazilian reaction to all this has reached an ugly stage in Paraiba, just to the north of Pernambuco. There students have angrily confronted Peace Corps Volunteers, chased Mormon missionaries, and sacked an office of the literacy crusade. More recently, anti-American agitation has erupted at the University of Ceará, where a number of American professors are teaching under AID contracts.

There are no easy answers to the developmental dilemmas of Northeast Brazil. But staggering problems would seem to require an all-out attack on every front. The present “trickle-down” approach, though showing little but publicity over the short run, purports to be a gradual, evolutionary solution. The few who have profited from it so far appear oblivious to its human cost. How long those bearing the cost can be forced to wait is another question.

Joseph A. Page