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Interview: His Excellency Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil

Sep 20, 2012 Written by  Dana McKelvey, Guest Contributor

20120710 0626 edIn early July, the Library of Congress awarded Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil, the Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the study of the human experience. After years spent as a scholar developing race relations, development, and international relations theories, President Cardoso applied his academic expertise to public life. In his acceptance speech, President Cardoso expanded upon this convergence of a professorial quest for ideals and a political quest for real-world change, two notions that he does not see as mutually exclusive. Cardoso stated, “I myself appealed to the well-established dichotomy between the ethics of responsibility—those of the public official—and the ethics of absolute, final values—those of the priest, prophet and professor. Some have said that reconciling this dichotomy requires a ‘pact with the devil.’ That has always struck me as an exaggeration. But my story is, in many ways, deeply rooted in those same choices between values and practice—between reason…and emotion.”

Perhaps no one can tell the story of Brazil’s resurgence on the global stage better than President Cardoso, the man credited with starting the economic and social reforms that turned Brazil into a powerhouse. To better understand his story, and that of Brazil, the Diplomatic Courier sat down with President Cardoso just hours before his award ceremony.

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[Diplomatic Courier:] How did your academic career prepare you for the presidency?

[Fernando Henrique Cardoso:] When I started as a sociologist, my main concern was with the social structures and relations between classes, and mainly, between slave and masters. So I did some analysis on Brazil’s past, trying to understand what was the sense of Brazilian slavery, and the consequences in terms of race relations in contemporary Brazil. I was trained to speak to people, to hear people, and to be in touch with the poorest part of Brazilian society. It was the beginning. But this was important because it gave me the possibility to understand the Brazilian population from a broader point of view, not being limited to my own class. I learned how to speak with people without being pedantic, in a more simple way.

When I began running for the Senate of São Paulo, I was against the dictatorship in Brazil, so I was allowed to be a candidate just to oppose the military regime. Several colleagues and other people in parts of the press used to criticize me, saying, “Wow, you came from the university. How can you speak to the masses? It would be impossible to be understood by people.” It was important for me to be a sociologist and an academic man, because I learned how situations evolve in Brazil, practically, dealing with poor people. It also was important for me to more simple in the way I relate with people.

[DC:] As an academic, your research focused on dependency theory, and you did a lot in developing that theory. Could you tell us a little bit about how your research might have affected your relationship with the U.S. and Europe as president? Or other developed countries?

[FHC:] Well, to say this correctly, I studied the relationship between what was called the core and the periphery. Maybe my main contribution in that area was to give some dynamics in that relation, not to understand the relation as if it was a static relation. My sense has been that always it will be possible to move from the under-development toward development. Of course, I never realized what would occur nowadays, that is to say, a complete reverse. The old periphery became part of—almost, not yet—almost part of the center. This was not conceivable.

But my approach was more dynamic than the normal ones. Normally people stress dependency as it was a kind of straightjacket to prevent development, and we stress development in spite of dependency. In that sense, it also helped me to relate to the people in Europe, or in America. I was a professor here [in the U.S.], also in France and the U.K., so my knowledge of “the core” was not by reading—it was by living, by experience. So I had no difficulties in Europe or America, being President.

[DC:] In May, The Economist actually published a piece entitled the “The Brazil Backlash,” and it spoke about how Brazil is very much an up-and-coming country. But it also pointed out potential weaknesses in Brazil’s economy, including inflated currency and the high cost of doing business, as well as the fact that sources of past growth may be becoming weakened now. How would you respond to such criticisms?

[FHC:] As a matter of fact, it’s correct. When the world’s situation is now much worse than it was two or three years ago, and the trend is not toward development, this affects Brazil.

Brazil has to be more responsible in introducing new reforms. Inflation is not the main problem, because we learned how to deal with inflation; but the rate of growth depends not just on the international situation (the price of commodities) but also our capacity to be more productive domestically, to increase our own domestic market, and to continue export. Our main question now is how to increase savings, how to transform savings into investment, and how to increase productivity in a double sense: by generalizing education, and also in increasing productivity out of the factory,— roads, airports, energy, the tax burden. We have to deal with these questions. This is our agenda for the coming years.

[DC:] Not only domestically, but internationally, do you believe that Brazil has a responsibility to be a leader in global issues, or in the region, as its economic power grows?

[FHC:] Certainly. We have to have responsibility in some areas which are global, for instance the environment. I think that it is a key area in which Brazil can play an important role, provided we will be more consistent in our own domestic policy regarding the environment; and utilizing, in a more intelligent way, our natural resources: oil, sugar cane, ethanol, hydroelectricity.

We also have to take into account the necessities of our neighbors in Latin America. Leadership in the modern world will not depend not just on economy or military power, but also in areas of soft politics—how to accept differences, how to create cultural diversity—and Brazil has an advantage there, because our society is diverse.

I think we can also offer to the world some, I don’t like to say example, but some possibilities that we have in Brazil. I think it is possible and it is necessary to be more active at the global level. But we cannot imagine [ourselves] to be important, to have a positive contribution, to having a ruling action—that would be hegemony. The idea of hegemony has to be passed over. I hope that Brazil will be much more cooperative, than trying to be hegemonic.

[DC:] What advice would you have for global leaders combatting economic recession?

[FHC:] Well, it is difficult to give advice to global leaders. They don’t like! [Laughs.] I would say it is important not to leave aside hope. If you don’t open doors, if you don’t offer a horizon of new possibilities, it is difficult to ask people just what you offer. What is necessary now is to open new areas for investment, and to convince people that the future can be built in a better way.

What is now the obsession, is just on control—how to reduce the expenses, how to be more restrictive in fiscal policies. I think this in important, ideally in Brazil, but it is important to offer a horizon of possibilities. This is lacking now. The world is lacking a strong leadership capable to offer possibilities. The imagination is the first step.

[DC:] Do you believe that Brazil’s current leadership is effectively upholding your legacy of economic growth and privatization? What might you change about Brazil’s current policies, if anything?

[FHC:] I would say the basis for the model in Brazil was laid down in my government. Each new government has to face new problems that they have to enact. It is a legacy to be transformed, to [move] ahead.

I think that my success was keeping the bulk of my legacy, even without recognizing, of privatization. It never went back. And now, President Dilma is privatizing, or is giving concessions. Privatization by itself is not necessarily good—what is important is to balance, to see what is necessary.

In some areas, we are going backwards. Brazil has become much more lenient with respect to corruption and clientelism; and the political party system is becoming more degraded. Social mobility is going up, and the economy is balancing okay. But in political culture, we need to be more aggressive in making progress.

[DC:] Part of the reason that you were awarded the Kluge prize is due to your studies in Brazilian race relations. Did your intellectual background play a role in establishing human rights initiatives during your time as President?

[FHC:] Certainly. The first and second human rights programs were offered in my government. For instance in the case of racial prejudice, I was the first President to recognize publicly that it exists in Brazil. Now the policies are all being more in depth.

Then democracy. Democracy was consolidated, starting in 1988 in the new constitution. I tried to follow very seriously the constitution, and to conserve the different institutions. So now we have a new Brazil. Historically speaking, the starting point was the new constitution as a consequence of the struggles of the late seventies and eighties in Brazil. Then was the opening of the economy; then, the stabilization of the economy; then removing the old state and privatization; then social policies. Now we must look after education and the environment. But step by step we are consolidating as a nation. Now I think Brazil ready to say, wow, we have something to heal.

Photo: Former Brazil President Fernando Henrique Cardoso was awarded the 2012 John W. Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the study of humanity from Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, on Tuesday, July 10, 2012. Library of Congress Photo/ Abby Brack Lewis.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's September/October 2012 edition.

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