Fernando Henrique Cardoso

Brazil inaugurated Fernando Henrique Cardoso (born 1931), a world-renowned sociologist, president in 1995. Cardoso's success in that office prompted a constitutional amendment to allow him to run for a second term in 1998.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso's political career lurched to an inauspicious start in 1978. Though no stranger to political thought as an academic, Cardoso, by his own admission, ran "an amateur campaign" his first time before the electorate. However, it was remarkable that he was able to run at all.

As a young intellectual with leftist leanings, Cardoso ran afoul of the government in 1964. In March of that year, President Joao Goulart was forced from power by a military coup as corruption and mismanagement threatened Brazil with chaos. Though Cardoso's father and grandfather both had been respected generals, the young sociologist irritated the new regime. Faced with certain imprisonment, Cardoso chose exile, first to Chile and then to France. After a short return to the University of Sao Paulo in 1968 and 1969, Cardoso packed his bags again for a shuttle career between the United States, Britain, and France.

By 1978, Brazil's ruling generals had relaxed after years of record growth and relative tranquillity. Citizens and foreign diplomats alike clamored for a return to civilian rule, and the military permitted congressional elections. As more of a protest than a serious bid, Cardoso ran for a Senate seat under the banner of the Brazilian Democratic Movement, an opposition party created during military rule to create the illusion of a two-party system. Though he attracted 1.5 million votes, Cardoso lost the election to Franco Montoro and returned to his academic career.

By a quirk of fate and Brazilian electoral law, Cardoso inherited the Senate seat in 1983 after Montoro moved on to become the Governor of Sao Paulo. The consummate academic became a rookie Senator, and at first embodied the clash between two polar-opposite cultures. Accustomed to worshiping ideas, Cardoso quickly learned to bow to a different god.

"As a politician, your responsibility is to change reality and not just to defend principles," said Cardoso, as reported by Alan Riding in the New York Times. "If you're committed to change, you cannot turn an ethical position into an obstacle for action. The problem is that, as an academic, you're trained to tell the truth, but a politician is taught to lie, or at least to omit. As a politician, if you say everything you want, you never get everything you want."


Academic Origins

Cardoso, born June 18, 1931 in Rio de Janeiro, earned his doctorate from the University of Sao Paulo in 1961. After a post-graduate course in sociology at the University of Paris, he returned home and raised enough of a political rumpus to attract the disfavor of the generals newly in charge of Brazil's government. While his friends suffered torture and imprisonment at home, Cardoso served as Professor of Developmental Sociology at the Latin American Institute for Economic and Social Planning in Santiago, Chile.

During this period, he collaborated with Enzo Faletto to write what would become his best known work, Dependencia y desarrollo en Amrica Latina, (Dependency and Development in Latin America). In this work, Cardoso and Faletto examined the tendency of developing post-war Latin American countries to throw off political and economic dependency on foreign powers only to reestablish a new economic dependency on international capitalists and multinational corporations. This academic analysis proved a valuable backdrop for Cardoso's eventual political career, which grew from an intimate understanding of the vagaries of international business and their effects on Brazil's domestic economy.

In 1967 Cardoso accepted a position as Professor of Sociological Theory at the University of Paris-Nanterre for one year, and thence moved home again for a year as Professor of Political Science at the University of Sao Paulo. Finding his career there was still hobbled by political disfavor in his homeland, Cardoso went into self-imposed exile again, first to Stanford University, then to Cambridge University, and finally back to Paris in 1977. Back in Brazil in 1978, Cardoso was the natural choice of the Brazilian Democratic Movement for his ill-fated run for Senate, since he had served both at home and abroad as an advocate for democracy and an advisor to the Brazilian political opposition.

Failing in his first bid for the Senate, Cardoso swung through the international academic world once more, this time as Associate Director of Studies at the Institute for Higher Studies in Social Sciences in Paris and at the University of California.


An Academic Turned Politician

Though chastened by his first foray into the Senate in 1983 and forced to adapt his speech and thinking quickly to survive, Cardoso was drawn to his new role. In 1985 Cardoso thrust himself before voters again, running this time as a social democrat for Mayor of Sao Paulo against Brazil's former President, Jnio Quadros. He ran another inept campaign and lost, too often answering questions as a professor rather than as a politician. Observers noticed he approached meetings with masses of poor, dispossessed voters with barely disguised distaste, unable to reconcile his leftist social consciousness with his sheltered social prejudices.

Though defeated for mayor, Cardoso remained in the Senate and won reelection in 1986. In 1988 he helped found the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB). In 1993, when President Fernando Collor de Mello was ousted for corruption, his Vice President, Itamar Franco, took over. Franco appointed Cardoso foreign minister, in a move to enlist the support of the new PSDB. Within months, after impressing Franco during cabinet meetings, Cardoso was shifted to the more prestigious job of finance minister. By the next general election, Cardoso had gained recognition for his program to reign in hyperinflation, then running at 50 percent per month, and the neophyte politician was a natural choice to become a candidate for president.

Brazilians were naturally weary of inflation, having watched prices increase 22 billion fold in 34 years. Economic plans and currencies had come and gone-five currencies in the eight years preceding the 1994 elections-so voters were both cynical and hopeful when Finance Minister Cardoso announced his "Real Plan." Business leaders felt a strong incentive to make this plan work, since only a strong Cardoso could defeat his popular left-wing opponent, Luis Incio Lula da Silva.

Introduction of the Real Plan was intended to give it enough time to work but not enough to fail before the election. Before its introduction, da Silva held a sizable lead. By October 3, however, with inflation reduced to between 2 and 3 percent per month, the tables turned, and Cardoso won by a 2-to-1 margin. Opponents warned that inflation would soar again just after the election, but their predictions proved false. While 64 percent of registered voters rejected Cardoso by casting their lot with his competitors or filing blank or otherwise invalid ballots, 53 percent of the valid votes swept him into office with what appeared an impressive mandate. In an interview with James F. Hoge, Jr., editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, President Cardoso stated that "Leftist politicians were virtually excluded from the political life of Latin America under authoritarian rule … This situation has changed…. If the goal of a socialist regime is forgotten, the notion of a strong state as the main instrument of development is still alive. Perhaps this is what explains why the left is now a major force among public civil servants and has developed corporate interests in several areas of the state." The alliance which endorsed Cardoso also sent a majority to Congress, though that fact would prove only a mixed blessing later.


The First Term

Cardoso took office on January 1, 1995, and seemed to meet the prayers of the broadest of constituencies. Business leaders, the oligarchy, and foreign powers counted on the new leader to put Brazil's economic house in order, while the economically disenfranchised trusted that the once leftist social scientist would correct the country's social ills. Social inequities in Brazil were staggering, with the richest 20 percent of the population earning 26 times that of the poorest 20 percent. In addition, Brazil suffered high infant mortality, short life expectancy, low literacy rates, poor educational opportunity, high incidence of serious disease, and a nearly non-existent infrastructure.

Foreign investors, upon whom Brazil depended for its growth, demanded domestic economic austerity which would make social programs impossible. Much to the pleasure of the business community and the dismay of his traditional allies on the left, Cardoso proposed to privatize previously nationalized industries, opening vast opportunity for entrepreneurs in communications, mining, energy, and heavy industry. In a risky move, Cardoso used the revenues from privatization to fund social projects beyond the reach of the government's meager resources.

Beyond this strategy, the president worked to tighten the collection of taxes, which posed an unfair advantage for the wealthy. Cardoso vowed to change that. He also tried to retain a greater proportion of the revenues collected for the use of the central government, instead of distributing 65 percent of it to the states as in the past. Since the states had few spending responsibilities, much of that revenue had been frittered away in corruption.

Despite a crisis in Latin America caused by economic disasters in Mexico, Brazil's economy grew healthier, with inflation in check and a gross domestic product increasing at five percent. While the business community complained of bank failures, increasing costs due to rising wages, and a swelling budget deficit, others faulted Cardoso for not moving fast enough toward social reform. Cardoso's popularity grew elsewhere, though, as unemployment dropped and the government initiated education reforms and rural projects which would benefit some of Brazil's poorest citizens. Writing for Current History, Carlos Eduardo Lins da Silva commented that the "new Brazilian president is a professional intellectual in the contemporary meaning of the word; not the 'humanist' of the sixteenth century or the 'philosopher' of the eighteenth and nineteenth, but someone who contributes to the production, confirmation, and dissemination of values, or what might be called 'world visions,' in his or her society."

Cardoso remained responsive to the business community, but leftist critics took comfort that the person with easiest access to his ear was unlikely to forsake social reform. That advisor was anthropologist Ruth Corra Leite Cardoso, Brazil's first lady. Some have likened her to Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States. Many of those least patient with the pace of change under Cardoso remained assured that his wife would not let him forget the ideals of their youth.


A Second Term?

Such was the confidence Cardoso inspired-many claimed he was that country's last hope to head off a return to authoritarianism-that a constitutional amendment was introduced and passed to allow presidents a second term in office. Though Cardoso had been elected to serve only until the end of 1998, he instantly became the leading contender for the term running through 2002. Unfortunately, the El Nino phenomenon brought a drought to northeast Brazil in 1998, and Cardoso was blamed for not taking enough action. Commenting on the president's status in May of that year, Cable News Network (CNN) online stated: "[the] front-runner to win the October elections, has seen his star dim in recent weeks as unrest mounts over millions starving in a severe drought while cost-cutting reforms languish in Congress." Yet, it appeared that the unlikely, awkward politician would still become Brazil's most successful president of his generation.


Further Reading on Fernando Henrique Cardoso

Business Week, October 10, 1997; June 30, 1997; February 17, 1997; June 10, 1996; October 10, 1995; October 3, 1994.

Current History, February, 1995.

Forbes, June 17, 1996.

Foreign Affairs, July/August, 1995.

Macleans, October 3, 1994.

New York Times, March 14, 1988.

US News and World Report, April 24, 1995.

CNN interactive, http://cnn.com/WORLD/americas (May 19, 1998).