On tomorrow’s Brazilian election

Tomorrow, on October 26th, people in Brazil will vote for the next Brazilian president. The two contenders are on the one side, Dilma Rousseff, from the Workers' Party (PT) and also the current president; on the other side, Aécio Neves, who comes from the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB). The last Brazilian president belonging to the PSDB was Fernando Henrique Cardoso, whose life captured my attention because he was an academic that decided to enter into politics and finally ended his career as the president of the biggest Latin American country. “Methodology, more than ideology, was the true legacy of my academic career,” says Cardoso in his book.

Many years ago I wrote a review of his biography but I never published it. Now, in the wake of the elections that can put a new PSDB president in power, I decided to make my old piece public:

“The Accidental President of Brazil: A Memoir” by Fernando Henrique Cardoso with Brian Winter. Published in the United States by Public Affairs, 2006.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso served as President of Brazil from 1995 to 2002. Cardoso’s memoir, “The Accidental President,” shows how his prestigious academic background later impacted his political career. He characterizes himself as a “sociologist professor,” but says his book “is not an exhaustive policy analysis of my government… [It is] about the people, some of them famous, others less so, who have shaped Brazil over the past century… It is the story of my life, my family and my country” (7).  Through the lens of one of the most important actors of the late 20th century, the reader learns Brazilian and Latin American recent history, as well as fascinating anecdotes that make it a true page-turner of a book.

In an Introduction by President Bill Clinton, the former United States president highlighted that his friend, President Cardoso, symbolized and led the “democratic revolution” (ix) movement that ended in the 1990’s. Clinton observes that Cardoso always advocated for democratization, using available legal instruments, instead of force. In Cardoso’s words, “we had to win the battle of ideas” (115) because “only democracy could solve the problems of Brazil.” (131)

Cardoso eventually had to leave his country for political reasons. “There are few things more undignified than exile,” (82) Cardoso says. He was a young professor with no political affiliation. But he was a militant, as many intellectuals in Latin America during the 60’s to the 80’s living under authoritarian or dictatorship regimes,. During exile, he developed many ideas that he mentions in this book, such as that “poor countries in a position of ‘dependency’ on the rich ones could take certain steps toward progress in spite of the existing system.” (97) It was also during the 1960’s that Cardoso determined that “the problem faced by Latin America was political in nature rather than economic” (97). His thoughts at that time anticipated the beginning of globalization; in the book, he quoted what he said years before, when he explained that the world “was being linked by ever better communications and the companies were emerging that had a foothold in several countries around the globe. Countries that harnessed those companies to their benefit would, in turn, prosper. Today, we would call these companies multinationals, but this was a relatively new term then” (98).

Cardoso clearly explains his political and economic views: “Free market capitalism had proven itself to be the best system for creating a society that was more wealthy, prosperous, and fair in the long term” (231). Cardoso explains his lost enthusiasm for communism very simply: “Stalin horrified me,” (62) he says. He also considers that in Brazil, as in probably the rest of Latin American countries, populism is not necessarily the same as the leftist movement’s beliefs.

Regarding the contrast between natural resources and economic potential, on one hand, and high rates of poverty, on the other, Cardoso says that “Politics, in Brazil, is about [how] to reconcile these monumental contradictions” (5). Moreover, Cardoso considers that slavery “had left an unquestionable legacy of violence and inequality” (51).  He recognizes that understanding race issues leads requires understanding the history of slavery. Cardoso said that realizing the connection between the country’s slave history and present race issues transformed the way he looked at Brazil.

I believe it would be helpful for policy makers in Latin America to read this book. Improvisation is a disgraceful pattern in many Latin American governments. Cardoso, explaining the plan his government implemented to stop inflation in Brazil, says that “[B]efore making a decision, I struggled to collect all the relevant information and understand all points of view,” (206) as his sociologist mentors had taught to him. “Methodology, more than ideology, was the true legacy of my academic career.” (206) It is desirable that others follow his lead.

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