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Brazil: Raising the Ransom Price

4 minute read

Swiss Businessman Rudi Bucher was celebrating his 54th birthday at his home near Lake Como when a congratulatory letter arrived from his brother, Switzerland’s Ambassador to Brazil. Life in Rio, wrote Giovanni Enrico Bucher, 57, a suave, popular bachelor, was “pleasant and uneventful.” One day, he predicted, Brazil would be one of the “stablest nations of Latin America.” One day, perhaps, but not just yet. Moments after Rudi Bucher finished reading the letter, he heard that his brother had been kidnaped by urban guerrillas in Rio.

Not Possible. A man of rigid habits, “Gianni” Bucher had left his house in a residential section of Rio at precisely 8:45 a.m., and followed precisely the same route he always took for the 15-minute trip downtown to the Swiss embassy. As his big Buick cruised down a busy street, half-a-dozen gunmen in two cars forced it to a screeching halt. They mortally wounded Bucher’s Brazilian bodyguard when he appeared to be reaching for a pistol, then pushed the ambassador into a waiting car and roared off. The last thing the chauffeur heard Bucher say was, “It is not possible that this is happening to me.”

The generals who have run South America’s biggest country since 1964 could only agree. The military government has gone all out to break the guerrillas, who have been bombing barracks, robbing banks and snatching diplomats for the last two years. Still, the mayhem goes on. Kidnapers have seized the U.S. ambassador, the Japanese consul-general in Sao Paulo and the West German ambassador, ransoming them for the release from Brazilian jails of 60 assorted criminals and opponents of the regime.

In Bucher’s case, the price−like the price of almost everything in Brazil−has risen precipitously. Bucher’s captors, members of the V.P.R. (for Popular Revolutionary Vanguard), a Sao Paulo-based group credited with the Japanese and West German kidnapings, demanded the release of 70 imprisoned guerrillas, who are to be flown to Mexico, Algeria or Chile. At week’s end, negotiations were still in progress.

Beginning Backfire. Brazil’s city terrorists have long been trying to provoke the generals into the sort of crackdown that could lead to chaos and revolution. In response, the regime has set aside the constitution, fired the legislature, ruled by decree, tortured suspected terrorists and canceled the political rights of more than 1,000 opponents. But lately the terrorism, which has cost nearly 50 lives so far, has begun to backfire. A growing number of Brazilians are outraged not only by the guerrillas, but also by foreign criticism of the generals’ methods.

Six years after the generals ousted President Joao Goulart’s chaotic civilian regime and set out to reshape the country, they can at last point to some solid accomplishments. Exports are at record levels, and the economy is booming. Inflation still plagues Brazil, but it has been reduced from the 87% of Goulart’s days to 22% this year. Employees are being cut in on their companies’ revenues under a new “participation fund” plan, and work has begun on the epic 3,000-mile Transamazon Highway.

Ersatz Election. Overwhelming problems still face President Emilio Garrastazii Medici, a former four-star general who was named President 14 months ago. Brazil’s prosperity is benefiting mainly the upper 10% of the country’s 90 million people. The more than one-third of Brazil’s workers who are tied to the minimum wage (now $40 a month) have watched their real purchasing power shrink by about 50% over the last ten years. Then, too, Medici has yet to make good on his early talk of “free universities, free political parties, free unions and freedom of the press.” Newspapers still squirm under requirements for rigid self-censorship, and even nonradical students tend to be alienated by the generals’ power to fire offending professors at will. Under pressure from hard-liners in the military, the President has backed away from a promise to give up his dictatorial powers and leave “democracy definitely installed” by the time his term expires in 1974.

Last month an ersatz congressional election was held in which the pro-government party, ARENA, won 70% of the 310 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. ARENA’S victory against tame, regime-approved opposition candidates was not surprising, but neither was it convincing. A terrorist plea for the casting of blank ballots as a protest gesture, meanwhile, was totally ignored. Brazil’s 30 million voters seemed determined to turn thumbs down on the terrorists, if not quite thumbs up for the generals.

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