Brazil’s former vice president, José Alencar, died in the Sírio-Libanês Hospital in São Paulo this Tuesday afternoon after a very long battle with cancer.
Alencar was born in 1931, the eleventh child in a poor family that had 15 children (five of them did not live to be adults). At the age of 7 he began helping his father in a kind of general store that sold goods to farmers for payment when the harvest came in, if it came in.
Alencar left home at age 14 to work behind a counter in a store that sold cloth. He also worked as a salesman in other stores. At the age of 18, in 1950, he got a loan from an older brother and opened a store where he sold cloth, footwear, hats and umbrellas. To save money, he lived in the store.
In 1953, he sold the store and moved on into different commercial areas. He certainly had a head for business, was prudent with his money and hard working (he was named best salesman in many of the places he worked). And he worked in many places over the years, always a person who knew how to do business and do it well.
Together with a group of business partners he founded a textile company in Montes Claros, Minas Gerais, in 1967, the Coteminas firm. Today it is Brazil’s biggest textile company with 16,000 employees in ten plants.
Coteminas makes thread, cloth, fabric, T-shirts, socks, towels, bathrobes and sheets. The company also has five branches in the US, one in Argentina and another one in Mexico
Alencar was prominent in trade associations. He was president of the Minas Gerais Industrial Federation and vice president of the National Industrial Confederation (CNI).
He went into politics. He ran for governor of Minas Gerais in 1994, but lost the election. In 1998 he was elected senator (PMDB) from Minas with 3 million votes.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva needed someone to calm the business community when he ran for president for the fourth time in 2002. Alencar got the nod; he was in a pro-business party, the PL, at the time.
Alencar and the president he served came from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Lula was a labor union leader, Alencar joked that he also had experience in labor negotiations – representing the management.
In spite of the differences, the former lathe operator and the self-made millionaire businessman worked well together. Alencar, ever the businessman, good-naturedly complained constantly about the country’s high interest rates (the highest real rates in the world during most of the Lula era).
For the last 13 years, Alencar fought cancer. In 1997, he was operated on for tumors in a kidney and his stomach. Since then, another 16 operations in Brazil and the United States. Through it all he showed fortitude and optimism.
He is survived by his wife, Mariza, three children, Josué Christiano, Maria da Graça and Patricia, and five grandchildren.