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The Man Behind Brazil’s Booming Economy: Former Brazilian President Cardoso

July 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
After the military dictatorship fell in the 1980s, Fernando Henrique Cardoso led efforts to combat high inflation and build Brazil's economy into one of the fastest growing in the world. Jeffrey Brown talks to former Brazilian president Cardoso about his presidency and scholarship.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, charting the rise of Brazil as a new and growing power on the global stage.

Jeffrey Brown profiles one of the men who helped build it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, Brazil is still a soccer power. And, yes, it’s still famous for its music and Carnival.

But, today, Brazil is something much more. A nation of 200 million, it’s now the world’s sixth largest economy, an energy giant with a booming manufacturing sector and growing middle class, in short, an economic and democratic power very much on the rise, and decidedly not the nation Fernando Henrique Cardoso was born into.

FERNANDO HENRIQUE CARDOSO, Former Brazilian President: When I was born in 1931, Brazil had only one paved route linking Rio with one of the province…


JEFFREY BROWN: One paved route?

FERNANDO HENRIQUE CARDOSO: One, just one. Brazil was quite apart from the world. It was quite isolated from the core. As you said, we were considered at the periphery, the poor periphery of the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cardoso, now 81, would become one of the chief architects of Brazil’s rise, as both as a scholar — he was first a leading thinker on issues of race and development and has authored or co-written more than 30 books — and then as a political figure serving as the country’s finance minister and then as president for two terms from 1995 to 2002.

He oversaw the elimination of runaway inflation, opened up markets and instituted social programs that helped launch the country on its present path.

FERNANDO HENRIQUE CARDOSO: Why should we condemned to be stagnant, underdeveloped country? I think this is not realistic. It will be possible to promote policies to implement a better economy and to move up the Brazilian economy and to become much more part of the global system.

JAMES BILLINGTON, Librarian of Congress: Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was this rare combination of scholar and politician that the U.S. library of Congress cited recently in awarding Cardoso the prestigious Kluge Prize, which the Library likens to a Nobel for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

And, indeed, Cardoso says he started out as a young sociologist in the 1960s with ambitious goals.

FERNANDO HENRIQUE CARDOSO: I would like to change the world, or if not the world, at least to improve the Brazilian situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: His early research helped explode myths on a subject as thorny in Brazil as it in the U.S.: race.

FERNANDO HENRIQUE CARDOSO: The idea was officially that Brazil could be qualified as a racial democracy.

Well, it was a myth. We had racial prejudice. We never had, by law, segregation, but Brazil imported 10 times more slaves than America. So we have an enormous population of black people. But the idea of democracy, racial democracy, was simultaneously a myth and an aspiration. Brazil society, they would have a more democratic kind of relationship between blacks and whites.

And step by step, we are building up a more open society, a more flexible and more — also more democratic with respect to race relations.

JEFFREY BROWN: The other part of your scholarship that gained you so much was challenging this idea that Brazil would always be a dependent nation, it would always be on the outside.


JEFFREY BROWN: What did you see that made you want to challenge that idea?

FERNANDO HENRIQUE CARDOSO: To me, it was clear that there is an enormous difference within the periphery.

And countries like Brazil or Argentina or Mexico, we’re already become industrialized. And they were establishing ties with global markets. You see, I had no idea. This was in the ’60s. I had no idea of what was really occurring, the globalization process. We have no words.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the issue is how does a country like Brazil find its way in this globalizing market?

FERNANDO HENRIQUE CARDOSO: Yes. That’s right. That’s right.

That was the main question, how to keep going democracy, more freedom, capacity of people to organize and also to respect contracts, to increase investment, to have good governance.

JEFFREY BROWN: Brazil’s lack of democracy, in fact, led to the turning point in Cardoso’s life. Military dictatorships forced him first into exile and then returning to Brazil to lose his academic position.

By the 1970s, he had grown more politically active, eventually becoming what he likes to term an accidental president. Cardoso left the presidency in 2002, prevented by law from seeking a third term. Victory by Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva marked an important moment for Brazilian democracy, the first time in more than 40 years that one elected civilian president passed power to another.

Lula, though leading a rival and more leftist party, kept many of Cardoso’s policies and reforms in place, as has his successor, the current president, Dilma Rousseff. Today, Cardoso sees continuing challenges and problems for his country, but also much progress.

FERNANDO HENRIQUE CARDOSO: If I look back when I remember I was a child in Rio, on Copacabana Beach, in Rio, but also a very backward country.

And now I can see a much more dynamic society in Brazil. And now we have democracy. Now we have people asking for more. Now we have protests. Now we have the free press. Now we have universities. Now we have contacts across the globe. My God, it was an enormous progress.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fernando Henrique Cardoso, thank you for talking to us.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And another symbol of Brazil’s progress, it is scheduled to host the soccer World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016.