Brazilian presidential candidate José Serra was born into a working-class family of Italian immigrants in 1945. His father was the semi-illiterate owner of a fruit stand in the São Paulo municipal market. The father is reported to have worked extra hard so that his son could stay home most of the time and study.
At the University of São Paulo in the early 1960s José Serra was linked to what is called the Catholic Left. In June 1963, he was elected the president of the left-leaning National Student Union (UNE).
In the hectic period just before the “revolution” of 1964, Serra, as president of the UNE, made speeches at rallies sponsored by the João Goulart government (August 1963 and March 1964 – the last on the eve of the coup at the Central do Brasil train station). The speeches brought him to the attention of military authorities.
After the military coup of March 1964 Serra was forced into exile for 14 years. First, for eight years, in Chile, where he met his wife, the Chilean psychologist and ballerina, Sylvia Monica Allende Ledezma. They have two children.
In Chile, Serra got an MA in economics. Immediately after the takeover by the Pinochet dictatorship the family moved to the United States, but first they spent eight months as refugees in the Italian embassy. In the US, Serra got a PhD in economics at Cornell and taught at Princeton.
Serra returned to Brazil in 1977, before the Amnesty Law (1979), only to have an attempt to run for Congress prohibited by the military government. The authorities said he still did not have “political rights.”
He did manage to become an economics teacher at Unicamp. In the 1980s he joined the first elected administration of São Paulo (the Franco Montoro government) as state secretary of Planning.
In 1984, he was one of a group of economists selected to draw up a plan of government for the Tancredo Neves administration. In 1986 he was elected to the federal Chamber of Deputies and participated in the Constitutional Assembly that wrote the 1988 constitution.
As a leading member of the Financial Commission, Serra had an important role in writing constitutional articles on taxes, the budget guidelines law (the LDO) and governmental multi-year investment plans.
In 1988 he was one of the founding members of the PSDB (Party of Brazilian Social Democracy, the party under which he was running for president. He was reelected a federal deputy in 1990. In 1992, he won a seat in the Senate for São Paulo.
During the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration he was minister of Planning (1995-96) and minister of Health (1998-2002). Serra directed the Brazil in Action development program while at Planning.
As head of Health, he is credited with managing the Brazilian AIDS program that has gained international recognition and making generic drugs available in Brazil.
In 2002, Serra ran for president for the first time as the candidate of continuity against Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, running for the fourth time, as the candidate of change. He lost.
In 2004, Serra was elected mayor of São Paulo and in 2006 was elected governor of the state of São Paulo.
Now it is 2010. Serra is the presidential candidate of change running against Lula’s handpicked candidate of continuity.