A Short Talk With Fernando Henrique Cardoso

Samantha Eyler Reid

Brazil’s former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso visited Cornell University on April 7 to give a lecture, talk to the press, and receive yet another academic award. The onetime Marxist sociologist, now the political leader of the centrist Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), and one of the North’s favorite neoliberal statesmen, Cardoso commands boundless respect in the international arena. He frequently airs his views in editorial pages and lecture podiums all over the world, but back in Brazil, Cardoso inspires rather less awe.

In 2002, he handed the presidential sash to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the left-of-center Workers Party (PT) after an eight-year effort at stabilizing Brazil’s volatile economy and consolidating its newly reborn democracy. The New York Times lauded Cardoso as “Brazil’s great stabilizer,” who linked neoliberal economic policies with progressive social reforms. When he left the presidency, his apparent success gave him a reputation as an elder statesman, with little formal power but enormous moral influence.

“The trick with this influence,” Cardoso told his Cornell audience, “is not to use it too much. Otherwise it disappears.”

This self-admonition has not discouraged Cardoso’s constant involvement in debates on democratic institutions and human rights. The 2008 financial crisis, he said, was “a jolt to a seemingly impregnable system” that opened a social and political space for a “new concept of humanity.” The most important revolution underway, he claimed, is not political, but social and technological, giving us “instruments of connectedness to put pressure and change society.”

He launched his latest policy crusade last year when he attacked Washington’s war on drugs and called for the decriminalization of marijuana a “more humane” strategy for curbing drug use.

“We need other instruments to reduce consumption of drugs, and to reduce harm caused by drugs,” Cardoso said at Cornell. “Now we are killing drug traffickers, not drugs.”

Northern governments admire Cardoso for what he calls his “flexibility”—and what many of his critics deride as “bait-and-switch” technocracy. In the 1970s the then-exiled sociologist contributed to elaborating what came to be known as dependency theory, which postulates that core countries in the North depend on Southern periphery economies to provide markets, cheap resources, and labor for their own growth. This keeps developing economies structurally subordinate to and dependent upon rich countries.

The policy implications of dependency theory are fairly radical, but Cardoso fiercely denies that the orthodox policies he used to stabilize Brazil’s economy in the 1990s contradict his earlier theorizing. In April he published a book called Remembering What I Said to rebut those who accuse him of betraying himself. He stands by his dependency theory, but insists that he never implied that structural dependencies were frozen: The countries in the core and periphery are in flux, he says, but the dynamic of dependency between the two remains.

Cardoso’s Brazilian critics remain sceptical. His fiscal austerity measures, following International Monetary Fund prescriptions, did little to endear him to working-class Brazilians during his administration. He also suffers from his long-standing antagonism with the extraordinarily popular Lula, despite the social-democratic ideology they share. Cardoso blames Lula for the rift.

“It’s not ideology,” he insists. “What is really at stake is power, who will control. I was expecting from the PT a much more flexible approach to [the PSDB], but they decided in 2003 that we were the enemies.”

Cardoso claims Lula’s success stems from his embrace of policies that Cardoso himself pioneered.

“The innovation policies were created in my government,” he said, “and Lula continued and amplified [them].” These policies include the anti-poverty program Bolsa Família, which Cardoso says he actually invented with his educational fellowship program. Cardoso’s mild treatment of Lula’s policies is matched by the virulence of their personal tension. “Lula himself is an actor. He never had any idea.” Cardoso accuses Lula of betraying his social class and likens him to a very competent tightrope walker: “He adapts to situations very quickly. He will say to you one thing, to me another thing.”

The acrimony is having an impact on the Brazilian presidential campaign now under way. A 2009 study revealed that almost half of Brazilian voters say they would never vote for a candidate recommended by Cardoso. Lula’s approval ratings stand at 76%, higher than they have ever been, making him one of the most popular elected leaders in the world.

Dilma Rouseff, Lula’s heir apparent in the PT, is scrambling to capitalize on voters’ goodwill toward Lula and dislike of Cardoso, framing the upcoming election as a referendum on the administrations of the two presidents—Cardoso versus Lula rather than the PSDB’s José Serra versus Dilma.

Despite the efforts of Serra and the PSDB to distance themselves from Cardoso, the ex-president cannot help embedding himself in the campaign. He does nothing to disguise his scorn for Dilma, calling her a “puppet” and Lula her “ventriloquist.” In The Miami Herald he characterized her as “dogmatic” and “authoritarian.” When Brazil’s electoral commission fined Lula last month for inappropriately campaigning for Dilma before the official start of the campaign, FHC smugly recommended that Lula take the opportunity to “reflect a little” and “change his behavior.”

Ironically, as international observers increasingly look to FHC as the impartial, seasoned face of the dynamic new Brazil, he finds himself ever more estranged from the Brazilian public and his own party. Many in his party view him as a political liability and squirm at his frequent polemics. In the words of the Bahian newspaper Atarde: “The difficult thing will be to convince the ex-president, whose vanity is renowned in song and verse, to stay on the sidelines during the campaign.”


Samantha Eyler Reid is a NACLA Research Associate.

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