President Reagan's apprentice red-tape cutters could take a look at the shining record of Brazil's 10-member Ministry of Debureaucratization.

Since birth 18 months ago, it has abolished in excess of 500 formerly obligatory documents and streamlined paperwork for passports, wills, driver's licenses, export licenses and voter registration -- sparing Brazil's 119 million citizens the chore of filling out, having stamped, sealing, notarizing or authenticating roughly 400 million forms annually.

Last year, the ministry introduced legislation to exempt most small businesses from filing income taxes, cutting the number of returns by 60 percent but reducing revenue by only 1 percent. The ministry has unveiled new rules exempting small farmers and other low-income groups from paying income tax, a reform expected to reduce the number of returns by 20 percent and save 340 million sheets of paper.

This partial list of accomplishments is why Helio Beltrao, "extraordinary minister for debureaucratization," has become a hero to Brazilians, wealthy and poor. He receives more than 100 letters daily, some addressed to "Mr. Champion Minister," making his office a few doors from the president's a national suggestion box for ways to attack bureaucratic excesses.

Beltrao, 62, a former New York University law student, modestly attributes his popularity to the fact that "no one in Brazil likes bureaucracy." In an interview, he described Brazil as a nation where "officals believe more in death certificates than in cadavers."

Bureaucratic horror stories abound. A woman applying for retirement benefits patiently stood in line for several hours, clutching her bundle of papers. When her turn arrived, a conscientious offical scrutinized her forms, page by page. Then he pounced. She had forgotten to obtain an atestado de vida -- a document proving she was alive.

In his first proclamation, Beltrao abolished that and five similar forms that he said "made life hell for the poor."

The heart of his program was unveiled a few months later in a startling presidential decree: "Unitl proved to the contrary, people are telling the truth."

To get the word out, Beltrao ordered that 750,000 posters bearing these and later measures be tacked up in Brazil's 50,000 federal offices. Today in post offices and police stations across the 27 states and territories, clerks work under such slogans as "Excessive control does not stop the dishonest, it just makes life difficult for the honest," or "Your word is worth more than a lot of documents."

At the bottom of these posters and at the end of a series of television spots appears Beltrao's mailing address in Brasilia and the message "Complain to the minister."

Few complain about his crusade.

In Congress, Beltrao's programs have enjoyed bipartisan backing, some passing unanimously. But a bill to release automatically federal revenues owed to states and cities ruffled a few feathers.

One government deputy was overheard grousing, "Now my mayors aren't going to need me to free their highway funds."

While Beltrao's reforms remain largely noncontroversial in Brazil's increasingly peppery political climate, the minister's work is carving into the livelihood of despachantes, or professional middlemen.

For a fee, these despachantes will cut through the bureaucracy that has grown corpulent, cushioned from public displeasure, in almost 17 years of uninterrupted military rule. Although they learn the trade in a school, serve an apprenticeship, and register with a union, one of their primary skills is knowing where and when to drop a generous "tip" to a public functionary.

Rio's yellow pages list about 500 despachantes and even government offices have resorted to using them to conduct business with each other. But Beltrao has eliminated much of their work and union officials complain that they do not forsee offering new courses within the next few years.

In addition to simplifying life for the ordinary Brazilian, Beltrao aims to reduce the state's role in the economy.

In a country where 60 percent of industrial production comes out of state-controlled factories, private business leaders hail Beltrao as their savior. He was honored as "man of the year" by Visao magazine, the leading business weekly. In a speech kicking off a small-business conference, the minister estimated that Brazilian businesses, large and small, must keep up with 500 bureaucratic forms and obligations each year.

Beltrao also keeps at his fingertips statistics for the U.S. bureaucratic burden -- "41,000 regulations for your hamburger" -- and he says the United States is ripe for debureaucratization.

Looking back on his first 18 months of running Brazil's pioneer program, his advice to the Reagan administration is: vigorous presidential support, a tight nucleus of advisers, dramatic, eye-catching measures at the outset, and a leader with the prestige and personal qualities to capture public and congressional support.

Beltrao has the qualities to win respect. He served for two years as planning minister and until his present post was one of Brazil's highest paid executives.

He also has a sense of humor.

A lifelong guitar player, he has composed a "Samba of Debureaucratization." The refrain translates roughly as: "In the nest of the bureaucrat, there are millions of little bureaucrats -- plenty of work for the simplifying cat."