RIO DE JANEIRO, FEB. 1 -- Brazilians reacted today with a little relief and a lot of skepticism to a new anti-inflation shock program unveiled Thursday night by Economics Minister Zelia Cardoso de Mello.
Wages and prices were frozen indefinitely. Fuel and electricity prices and public tranportation fares were raised 46 percent or more. All fiscal indexes, by which rents, taxes and many service fees were pegged to increases in inflation, were abolished.
Today was a bank holiday throughout Brazil.
Many Brazilians were relieved that the government had done something to halt a new inflationary spiral, in which prices soared by 20 percent in January. Last March, Cardoso and President Fernando Collor de Mello, in their first days in office, sought to stop 2,700 percent hyperinflation with a program that froze for 18 months every savings account with more than about $1,000. Collor pledged the plan would "liquidate" inflation.
The new measures are seen as an admission by Cardoso that her radical plan to curb prices by limiting the cash in circulation has "turned to water," in the words of Delfim Netto, a former economics minister.
Few people believe the new freezes will work for long. Prices in Brazil have already been frozen several times in the course of five anti-inflation packages over the last five years.
"We've seen this movie many times before," Netto said.
Many labor unions were outraged, claiming that in the past the government controlled wages but not prices. "The government has launched a very destructive missile at Brazil," said Carlos Calazans, a leader of the United Workers' Central, a national union confederation.
The business community, by contrast, was cautiously positive. The measures also abolished a high-interest, daily-yield bank account known as the "overnight." Many Brazilians had been shifting their savings into these accounts, making them unavailable for bank loans to industry.
Many economists noted that the new plan's far-reaching government intervention was in conflict with Collor's professed free-market beliefs.
The government pledged to cut its spending by $5 billion. But last year Cardoso was unable to make huge promised cuts in Brazil's swollen federal bureaucracy. The constitution prohibits layoffs of most government workers.
Brazil's new program came only two days after an inflation crisis and government shake-up in neighboring Argentina, which has the next largest economy in South America. In addition to recessions at home, both countries have been undermined by international market uncertainties caused by the Persian Gulf War. Because of rising prices, Brazil paid $1.2 billion more for oil last year than in 1989.
Brazil, with the largest foreign debt in the Third World, has not made any payments on the $130 billion it owes -- much of it to American banks -- since mid-1989.