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The cities of South America, once noted for civility and pleasant vistas, have become sinkholes of poverty and crime, clogged by traffic and garbage.

From Buenos Aires to Bogota, Lima to Caracas, residents are frustrated by the declining quality of their lives, angry at city and national authorities for failing to provide even basic services.Antonio Ledezma, federal governor of Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, summed up the general feeling in an interview: "The people are demanding water to drink. The people are demanding new schools. The people are demanding clean streets. The people are complaining of a lack of security."

Public irritation is evident everywhere:

- In Sao Paulo, where a heavy rain paralyzes traffic and 400,000 poor people drink water contaminated by human waste.

- In Santiago, Chile, where choking, eye-searing smog fills the streets and makes respiratory ailments common.

- In Bogota, Colombia, where automobile gridlock is a daily occurrence and interruptions of water and electricity service have become commonplace.

- In Rio de Janeiro, where vigilantes killed prostitutes and street urchins in a campaign against rampant crime.

- In Caracas, where each day 120 pipes break in the worn-out water system and the crowded streets are strewn with trash.

- In Lima, Peru, where traffic lights fail so often that no one heeds them when they work, and the downtown area is clogged with poor street vendors.

"Life just gets more complicated," said Genesio Morato de Conceicao, a 48-year-old construction foreman in Sao Paulo, who spends more than three hours a day in crammed trains, subways and buses commuting to and from work.

He spoke at a construction site overlooking one of the countless cardboard-and-tin slums, called "favelas," that dot the landscape of South America's largest city.

"Everywhere you look, there are favelas," he said. "The people just keep coming."

The urban population of South America has grown dramatically since World War II. Unskilled peasants stream into the cities looking for work.OF THE CONTINENT'S 297 million inhabitants, about 225 million, or 76 percent, now live in cities, according to World Bank estimates. While the general population increases by an average 2 percent a year, cities are growing half again as fast.

Of the world's 10 largest urban centers, three are in South America: Sao Paulo, with 15 million inhabitants; Rio de Janeiro, 11 million, and Buenos Aires, 10 million.

Urban problems, rising crime and decaying services in particular, are common to cities everywhere. But years of economic decline and political upheaval have made the situation especially severe in South America, leaving its public institutions weak and impoverished.

"The biggest problem is a lack of resources," said Candido Malta Campo, an architect and former chief planner for Sao Paulo.

Although Sao Paulo has about twice as many people as New York City, its annual operating budget of $3 billion is one-tenth as large. Lima has nearly the same population as New York, but its operating budget is only $100 million.

Lima, once a refined center of business and culture, has become a classic example of the overcrowded, decaying South American city. For decades, it has pulled human and material resources from the rest of Peru into its increasingly chaotic urban whirlpool.

A study by the city government in 1990 found that Lima contained 27 percent of the nation's people, 90 percent of its commercial and financial services, 57 percent of the industry, 51 percent of the public employees and 80 percent of private investment.

Lately, the flow of people to the cities has slowed, giving authorities a little breathing room.

In huge cities such as Sao Paulo and Caracas, indications are that the migration may even be reversing. Demographers say job-seeking peasants are turning their eyes to the continent's medium-sized cities, which are expanding dramatically in number and size.

Brazil alone has 185 cities of 100,000 or more.

"The future is not so bleak," said Malta Campo, the Sao Paulo architect. "Growth rates have slowed. Professional planners are being given more influence."

Governments are decentralizing in Colombia, Venezuela and some other South American countries, granting provincial and city administrations more autonomy, authority and money.

Mayors once appointed by national governments are elected locally and have their own tax bases. Their staffs tend to include more technicians. Some are opening up neglected public services to private competition.LONG-SUFFERING city dwellers are demanding more accountability, and showing less tolerance for mismanagement.

In Buenos Aires, where the municipal government runs a yearly deficit of $500 million, an irate population forced Mayor Carlos Grosso to resign last October. He was replaced by a fiscal conservative, Saul Bouer, and is being prosecuted on corruption charges.

Venezuelan politicians concede that dramatic urban decay in Caracas contributed to the plunge in popularity of President Carlos Andres Perez. He squeaked through two army coup attempts but was forced to step aside in May. Perez, too, is to be tried for corruption.

"The system has suffered the results of decades of corrupt government and poor administration," Miguel Henrique Otero, chairman of the public services committee in the Venezuelan congress, said in an interview.

Cities across South America are adorned with grandiose public works projects that were built with much fanfare, then fell into disrepair. Some were not even finished.

Such expensive undertakings gave officials rich opportunities for self-serving propaganda, embezzlement and kickbacks. They also contributed significantly to South America's crushing foreign debt of $350 billion.

Most major cities run large budget deficits. In Caracas, for example, the figure for 1992 was more than $41 million.

Times have become more austere, but corruption and cronyism continue, victimizing even such critical services as medical care.

"The state approves money for us, but it gets lost somewhere along the way," complained Jose Luis Gomez do Amaral, clinical director of the 600-bed Sao Paulo Hospital.

The hallways of his hospital's emergency section are crowded with bloodstained beds holding patients with advanced AIDS and other serious illnesses or injuries.

"Patients sometimes have to wait four, five, six days for a bed in a proper ward," Gomez do Amaral said.A CONTINENTWIDE health crisis, including an outbreak of cholera, has helped focus attention on polluted urban water supplies. In Sao Paulo, for instance, the World Bank is financing an ambitious project to clean up the Tiete River watershed, which is fouled by industrial and human waste.

The Mapocho River, a virtual open sewer like many others in South America, irrigates a plain where most of the vegetables for Santiago, Chile, are grown. The result: one of the highest rates of typhoid and hepatitis in the region.

Mayor Jaime Ravinet said cleaning up the river would cost $500 million.

Santiago "developed with an absolute lack of awareness for the environment," Ravinet said. He favors a freeze on new growth while the city tackles smog, traffic and other problems.

Grinding poverty in most South American countries makes the search for solutions ever more difficult. In Lima, the streets are full of laid-off workers driving battered taxis and minibuses or selling cheap clothing from rickety market stalls.

"It's become chaos," said Enrique Espinoza Bellido, the city council's chief planner. "Everybody does what they feel like.

"We have to organize all this activity, but we can't strangle it. The people have to survive."