This nation of extremes has quadrupled its gross national product in 15 years. But in its Northeast region, where one third of the 130 million people live, the life expectancy of the poor is less than in Bangladesh.

Brazil's highest paid can earn 500 times more than the lowest. The sixth most populous country in the world, Brazil has an economic growth rate that most of the time reaches towards the 10 percent mark. Yet the real incomes of its swelling proletariat have been decreasing since 1964.

Against this background, the new economic potentate, Antonio Delfim Neto, is expected to work his magic. Delfim, Brazil's leading economist, earned his reputation when Brazil's economic "miracle" became established in the late 1960s. He is now supposed to maneuver the quicksands of an inflation rate of nearly 90 percent, a balance of payments deficit that may reach $3.5 billion this year and oil and debt-service outlays that consume nearly all export earnings.

All this worries the political and economic interests. Their nervousness is compounded by the way Delfim, as the all-powerful planning minister, is playing his cards so close to his chest. A senior international banker just back from the capital in Brazilia, said it was impossible to obtain even such basic facts as the level of reserves and the planned rate of borrowing.

There are two principal schools of thought as to what he will do.

The optimistic scenario says Delfim will bring down the growth rate to around 5.5 percent and bully the foreign bankers to keep rolling over the debts -- playing one off against the other and reminding them they cannot afford to pull the plug on the country that owes them so much.

The workers who strike would be dealt with severely, as were the metal workers a few weeks ago. Their leader, Luis Inacio da Silva, better known as Lula, was locked up and deprived of his union post and the Army was given a relatively free hand to break the strike.

These policies would prepare Brazil to resume in a year or two the high road to growth, fueled by new large loans.

The pessimistic school looks at the ever-widening balance of payments deficit and the lack of success in the efforts to halt inflation. With the industrialized world entering a recession, those skeptics ask, who wants to buy large amounts of Brazilian products? Governments, they note, are warning the banks to be careful about overextending their lines of credit.

This leads the pessimists to conclude that Brazil's growth rate must come down at least to four percent to bring the economy into balance.

The political price, it is realized, would be high. The real income of the workers would fall even faster. The social services promised in more euphoric days would be cut. The workers who step out of line would have to be repressed, perhaps violently.

Even if the first scenario were possible in the short run, it is likely to bring on the necessity for the second over the long run. Given Brazil's overwhelming backlog of social and political problems, 5.5 percent growth is not enough. At that rate, the economy can do little for half of the million workers who join the labor force each year and add to the already teeming and mushrooming city slums.

The wage squeeze, even under the milder formula, is savage enough to spur more strikes. Foreign investors and bankers might well step back a pace to see what is going to happen. Brazil's leaders, desperate to protect their image as good financial housekeepers, would then opt for the lower growth rate.

Could the government contain the resulting unrest? Although the increasingly powerful Lula is explicit that he is against violence, he also said in an interview that it may be difficult to hold the line.

The workers, moreover, have important friends, not least the Roman Catholic Church, which is prepared to support them through a long period of confrontation.

The bankers and investors could waver long before President Joao Baptista Figueiredo stabilizes the economy.

The tragedy is that being caught may be unnecessary. Brazil's ambitious road and dam programs, nuclear developments, mammoth industrial projects and credit subsidies for the big commercial farms consume large slices of the government's revenues.

If the government diverted these expenditures in the direction of land reform, credit for small farmers, water and sewers for the slums, health care for the work force and moved, as Lula suggests, to running Brazil with 130 million minds, it could buy itself a measure of tolerance, even support.