The doleful awakening from carnival revelry on Ash Wednesday morning is a common theme in Brazilian popular music and literature. However, it has seldom been so appropriate as this year, as the country collectively rouses itself Wednesday to the hangover of a failed anti-inflation plan, a temporary international debt moratorium and an uncertain economic future.

Saturday, when Brazilians began their four-day celebration of the flesh, also marked the anniversary of President Jose Sarney's Cruzado Plan to quash inflation and assure stable economic growth. But as revelers took to the streets everywhere, the plan was already orphaned or dead, depending on the commentator.Some celebrants even accused Brasilia of deliberately planning the final fade out of price controls and rent freezes to coincide with carnival in order to provide one last escape valve.

However, the economy has been deteriorating long enough that there was no need to wait for Ash Wednesday. No one could deny the nation its annual bash, but the gathering economic storm has dampened festivities here.

Already concerned at a 30 percent drop in business this year, merchants and hotel and restaurant managers lamented the low turnout for what had been billed as the carnival of the decade. Parade-side bleachers remained partly empty as people questioned the price of a four-day block of tickets.

A threatened beer shortage, which moved the country to import shiploads of European and Argen tine suds, failed to materialize. Beachfront apartments listed at $250 a day for carnival last December were let for half the amount or left empty.

One samba school was an immediate popular favorite in the Rio de Janeiro parade competition for its imaginative treatment of inflation and the foreign debt in a presentation entitled Three Sides of the Coin. (That's one less than the number of inflation indexes - con tradictory but all high - vying for public attention.)

The economic crisis has been fully absorbed into the popular vocabulary, even by those who don't fully understand all the implications. We don't have the money to pay our 'external' debt. We tried a price freeze and a moratorium, but nothing worked, joked a woman director of a small, slum-based Rio samba school as she improvised last-minute repairs on tinselled costumes.

After the Cruzado Plan's brief promise last year, economic indicators are all in shadow: rising inflation, soaring interest rates, higher income taxes to pay, and supply shortages disrupting industrial production.

For most Brazilians, the plan significantly increased real wages at first, but resurging inflation has eroded them again to the level of February, 1986.

Mr. Sarney's declaration of a temporary, technical moratorium of interest payments on the country's $108 billion international debt only heightens the uncertainty.

The president promises there will be no recession this year, and Finance Minister Dilson Funaro says he does not believe in hyperinflation. There may even still be those who think that is enough, although the administration's plunging popularity ratings indicate strong doubts to the contrary.

Brasilia has promised creditors austerities on three fronts, i.e., diminish drains on the treasury, cut state-owned company spending and reduce subsidies. All have been promised before, but even a window dressing effort will mean tightened belts for many.

An austerity proposal reportedly is being drawn up that would sharply cut government spending and slash imports almost one-fourth from last year's $12.8 billion.

Government optimists insist that a recession can be blunted by some $6 billion worth of investments to be financed by a new National Development Fund, with the first $1.5 billion available this month. But the fund is fueled by compulsory deposits imposed last July on the purchase of new cars, automotive fuel and foreign travel in order to cool an overheated economy, and it depends on continued purchases of those items - less likely if the economy dips into recession.

Initial responses to the interest payment suspension were mild enough, with no seizures of Brazilian holdings by creditor banks. However, Mr. Funaro got a strong enough signal from Federal Reserve president Paul Volker last week: Renegotiation and new money will depend on a consistent economic program from Brasilia.

Baring that, the administration believes it has 90 days of increasing

pressure in which to reach an agreement with American banks before U.S. laws force them to list their Brazilian paper as inoperative loans and take an acknowledged loss in profits.

With that scenario, the feelings of many Brazilians - even before Ash Wednesday - may have been reflected in the words of an irreverent clown parading the streets of Rio de Janeiro. SOCCORRO! (Help), read his placard, followed by a long list of authorities, beginning with Mr. Funaro and Mr. Sarney and ascending through Paul Volker, Pope John Paul II and the Holy Trinity.

For the full story: Log In, Register for Free or Subscribe