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2004 Annual Meeting . . . Public Sociologies

Former President of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso: A Most Public Sociologist

The second article in a series highlighting prominent public intellectuals presenting at ASA’s 2004 Annual Meeting in San Francisco

by Gay Seidman

In 1982, during a stint as a visiting professor at Berkeley, Fernando Henrique Cardoso paused, mid-lecture, to reflect on the repression faced by Latin American intellectuals under military regimes. In the United States, he mused, academics are allowed to speak so much more freely than in Brazil; but perhaps it is because no one off-campus ever bothers to listen to them.

Twenty years later, that comment has a somewhat ironic ring. Then, Cardoso was a noted sociologist who had been exiled by Brazil’s military regime from 1964 to 1968. In 1969, when he returned, the regime canceled Cardoso’s political and civil rights and denied him permission to lecture, so he moved to an independent think tank off-campus.

Being Heard

But today when Cardoso speaks, people across the world listen. After two terms as Brazil’s president, Cardoso is surely the most public sociologist in the world, a global figure who is currently advising the United Nations on how to incorporate global civil society into international deliberations.

Cardoso, now professor-at-large at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, will give two presentations at the ASA meetings next August in San Francisco. Together with Princeton University economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, he will discuss “The Future of Neoliberalism”; and, reflecting his unique perspective, he will give a talk titled “The Sociologist as President.”

When he visited at Berkeley 20 years ago, Cardoso was already one of Latin America’s best-known sociologists, having taught at leading intellectual centers in Latin America and Europe as well as in the United States. His research, including both his early work on Brazilian racial inequality and later research on the political economy of Latin America, opened new lines of inquiry for scholars around the world. In 1982, he was elected president of the International Sociological Association, marking his stature in the academic world.

But at about the same time he was musing about the balance between academic freedom and intellectual influence, Cardoso was turning to a different audience. In 1983, he returned to Brazil to run for the federal Senate; he served as a senator for the next nine years, helping construct a center-left coalition against military rule. By the end of the decade, he had become one of his country’s most prominent politicians, serving as minister for Foreign Affairs in 1992-93, and as Minister of Finance from 1993-94, when he implemented an economic stabilization plan that ended decades of chronic hyper-inflation in Brazil.

First Presidential Re-election In 1995, Cardoso was elected to his first term as president of Brazil, and then in 1999, he was elected to a second term—the first president ever democratically re-elected in Brazil. After eight years in office, the constitutional limit, Cardoso handed over power to a democratically elected successor from a different party.

This fall, in the wood-paneled Washington office where he is writing a book analyzing his presidential experiences during a fellowship at the Library of Congress, Cardoso’s comments reflect a remarkable dual career: simultaneously sociologist and elder statesman, he is as likely to invoke Keynes, Habermas, or Marx as he is to mention a recent conversation with Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, or Kofi Annan.

Justifiably proud of his presidency—unquestionably the most democratic and stable period thus far in Brazilian history—Cardoso points with pride to a recent article in the leading Sao Paulo newspaper. The article states that even current president Luis Inacio da Silva, who led the leftwing opposition throughout Cardoso’s presidency, now praises Cardoso’s social programs, which increased primary school enrollment (especially for poor black Brazilians) to near-universal levels, reduced infant mortality, and slowed the spread of AIDS by providing free medical treatment for all HIV-positive Brazilians.

Noting Max Weber’s active participation in German politics, Cardoso insists that intellectuals can use theoretical perspectives to analyze the choices they face in historically specific circumstances. “A sociological eye helps to understand the situation,” he says—although he adds that the sociologist’s understanding that there are larger forces at play may also increase politicians’ anxiety, by reminding them of the limits of their capacity to control larger structural processes.

Explaining Substance

But, he says, his experience as a sociologist may have helped him as a politician in less-predictable ways. As a sociologist, he says, he was perhaps better poised to explain complex political ideas to mass audiences. In contrast to the flowery rhetoric common to Brazilian politicians, Cardoso had had practice discussing the substantive issues underlying economic or social policy debates, from teaching large undergraduate classes.

Of course, there were some aspects of being a politician that were harder to learn. Above all, he says, he disliked the fact that during campaigns “you have to say things you don’t believe in—or at least, you don’t believe you can do precisely as you proposed.” Indeed, he says, he was continually surprised that he could win elections, since his unwillingness to make unattainable campaign promises ensured “I was never a normal political figure in Brazil.”

When he first began campaigning, he had to learn to feel comfortable with the physical contact involved in shaking hands and embracing supporters, Cardoso says—a far cry from scholastic solitude. He also had to learn to speak to mass meetings, which he found quite different from the more sedate audiences of the lecture hall. “I learned how to be very simple, go straight to the point,” he says. Perhaps, he adds, he was helped in this by his experiences teaching outside Brazil; although he appears enviably fluent in English, French, and Spanish, he insists that a more limited vocabulary in those languages forced him to learn how to be more succinct and straightforward than he would have been in Portuguese.

Cardoso’s analysis of his presidency is as double-sided as his career, amounting almost to a participant-observation study of globalization and democratization. Drawing on sophisticated theoretical understandings of the capitalist state and global political economy to analyze choices he made in office, he insists that critics who suggest he abandoned his own theories of economic dependency are wrong. “What happened was that the whole situation changed, not just my vision. Things really changed,” he says, emphasizing the way global economic integration altered the challenges facing countries like Brazil.

Some continuities, however, are obvious. In the mid-1970s, Cardoso and co-author Enzo Faletto argued in their classic Dependency and Development in Latin America that the key to understanding economic and political dynamics in the third world lies in analyzing historically specific class relations, both globally and within individual countries.

Today, Cardoso says he would probably place more emphasis on political processes than he did then, but the same insistence on recognizing historically specific relations explicitly informed Cardoso’s political strategy. Arguing that it was important to distinguish between different fractions of the Brazilian elite, he persuaded Brazil’s democratic opposition to seek support from centrist businessmen and manufacturers as well as from progressive social movements, undermining the military regime and creating a coalition that twice elected him to the presidency.

Political Inclusion

Similarly, as a sociologist, Cardoso insists that the state should be viewed as an arena of struggle, rather than simply as an instrument of class domination. From this perspective, it is perhaps not surprising that today, Cardoso considers his presidency’s greatest accomplishment the creation of new channels of participation—an accomplishment in which he acknowledges the important role of his wife, Ruth Cardoso, a well-known Brazilian anthropologist who is widely respected for her work on and with Brazilian social movements.

In contrast to the elitist tendencies of Brazilian political culture of the past, Cardoso sought to increase the participation of social movements and non-governmental organizations in policy discussions. Throughout his administration, he created new channels for voices from the environmental movement, the Indian movement, the black movement, the women’s movement, and the landless people’s movement in national debates. He even invited activists into his presidential office.

As even his critics acknowledge, these voices clearly influenced Cardoso’s policies; during his presidency, Brazil made significant strides in reducing racial inequality, protecting indigenous people’s rights, and distributing land to formerly landless peasants, as well as virtually eliminating child labor and greatly expanding medical care.

This political inclusion did not come easily; Cardoso underscores the degree of opposition from political parties and state bureaucrats, and notes the difficulties involved in dealing with chaotic groups or sometimes intemperate movement activists whose goals may not be clear or explicit. But he is clearly proud of his administration’s accomplishment.

“In the end, we built a new path of democracy,” he says. The goal was “not just to hold elections, but to transform our institutions into much stronger institutions, and simultaneously to open up the door to movements,” creating a state that will continue to be more inclusive and democratic in the future.

Last year, Kofi Annan appointed Cardoso leader of a global task force seeking to increase non-governmental organizations’ (NGO) participation in discussions at the United Nations. Unlike most former heads of state—who tend to insist that international institutions should be ruled only by member states’ votes—Cardoso welcomes increased participation of transnational civil society.

Pointing to the environment, nuclear disarmament, or diseases like AIDS as issues that go beyond a national framework, for which “national borderlines cannot limit discussion,” Cardoso believes problems are increasingly global. Cardoso notes that non-governmental organizations already influence global discussions, and many of the most important recent discussions at the United Nations have been at conferences dominated by NGOs. These organizations’ legitimacy, he says, is derived from the nature of the issues they raise rather than from votes in the General Assembly.

“Nowadays, patterns of democracy and of movements are transnational,” he says, and the United Nations must be open to those influences. “I firmly believe that in this century we have to try to develop values that are more cosmopolitan than parochial,” he says. We need to learn to see humanity “as a new historical actor,” finding ways to incorporate diversity and difference, recognizing asymmetries of power, but replacing parochial perspectives with a more global one.

Cardoso argues, however, that a democratic global order cannot be created until international institutions—the UN, the International Monetary Fund, and other institutions created after the Second World War and reflecting power asymmetries of that moment—are restructured, to allow more democratic processes.

Altered Global Context

During Cardoso’s presidency, left-wing critics sometimes claimed that his policies of global economic integration sharply contradicted his earlier sociological analysis of economic dependency, which emphasized the way historical legacies of colonialism and raw material production constrained the choices facing developing countries in the 20th century.

But Cardoso disputes that claim, arguing that when he came to office, the global economy looked very different than it did when he and Faletto wrote their classic work. By the time he assumed the presidency, the new global trade regime enforced by the WTO required policymakers to liberalize tariff rules and reduce subsidies—both policy instruments that had been crucial to Brazil’s industrialization strategies. Moreover, Brazil was no longer simply exporting raw materials such as coffee; it was also an exporter of manufactured goods, integrated into a global economy in which investment decisions everywhere are dominated by multinational corporations.

Given the altered global context, Cardoso says, his government had to find a new strategy. Yet he insists that those who describe his government’s policies simply as neoliberal miss key differences between his strategies and those followed elsewhere in Latin America. During his presidency, Brazil privatized formerly state-dominated sectors such as the telecommunications industry or railroads, in order to increase competition and efficiency. But in sharp contrast to Argentina or Chile, Cardoso says, his government also created strong regulatory agencies, simultaneously seeking to increase productivity, break monopolies, and reduce corruption, while strengthening regulation.

At the same time, Brazil provided finance capital to Brazilian entrepreneurs, helping them compete in newly privatized sectors—again in contrast to neighboring examples, where foreign capital has often dominated privatization processes. In key industrial sectors like steel, mining, and energy, Brazilian capital accounts for about half of total investment, Cardoso says, thanks to a state program offering favorable interest rates to local companies.

Indeed, he adds somewhat wryly, Brazil’s current leaders are now pursing economic policies that are almost identical to those they criticized when he was president, and they were the leftwing opposition.

Gay Seidman is professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and currently chairs ASA’s Political Economy of the World section. She had the good fortune to be a student in Professor Cardoso’s course at Berkeley. She interviewed President Cardoso in Washington, DC, on November 20, 2003.