Twenty-five Years of Presidential Leadership in Brazil

Fernando Henrique Cardoso How much credit should Brazil’s presidents get for its remarkable progress since the return to democracy in 1985? Elections have been conducted smoothly, the economy has grown, poverty and inequality have declined and social indicators are improving. Did Brazil succeed because of its presidents or in spite of them? Or because of some and in spite of others?

Two presidents, Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002) and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010), are often praised for their contributions. The others, José Sarney (1995-1990), Fernando Collor de Mello (1990-1992), and Itamar Franco (1992-1994) are not so frequently applauded. Indeed, Collor de Mello was impeached. But their contributions may have been underappreciated.

In 1985, Brazilians overwhelmingly elected Tancredo Neves, the leading opposition candidate. He was a 75 year old traditional politician who had learned his craft from Getúlio Vargas and Juscelino Kubitschek, two of the country’s most renowned presidents. He was not a charismatic figure, but a reassuring one, who had been chosen in part because the military could live with him.

Would Tancredo guide the nation back to the authoritarian ways of Vargas or the inflationary ones of Kubitschek? Would he develop a vision of a new Brazil and inspire the Congress and the bureaucracy to implement it? We will never know because he died of natural causes a few weeks before his inauguration.

The presidency fell to the vice-president elect, José Sarney, a moderate who had been chosen to balance the ticket. Sarney came from an oligarchic family and had supported the generals for most of the two decades of military rule. He certainly seemed like the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, watched over carefully by the Congress, Sarney rose to the occasion.

Brazil’s main accomplishment during Sarney’s term was drafting and passing a new constitution. The constitutional convention included the entire legislature, and they worked together constructively. Every interest group in the country mobilized to make sure its rights were given constitutional protection, and most were accommodated.

The resulting constitution was unwieldy and promised things the country didn’t have the resources to deliver. It needed a lot of amendment in later years. But it provided a legitimate framework for a democratic system. Two of the important leaders in the convention were later elected president of Brazil: Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Sarney’s main contribution was to allow the convention to do its work, and to step down voluntarily when his term ended. These virtues should not be underestimated in a world plagued by “presidents for life” who dominate their societies and suffocate independent initiative. Sometimes the best thing a leader can do is step back and allow others to take the initiative.

Theorist Bruce Tuckman found that groups go through four developmental stages: forming, storming, norming, and performing. During the forming stage, groups depend on the authority of the leader. A charismatic leader is needed at this stage. But to develop fully a group or a country needs to assert its independence from the charismatic leader.

Charismatic leaders often find it difficult to step back and let the group develop independently. At worst, charismatic leaders like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez dominate their countries for decades, suffocating development. According to Tuckman, a good leader has to know when to step back and allow members to assert their independence, a process he called the storming phase of development.

Then they can establish procedures to govern their work, which Tuckman called the norming phase. Writing a constitution is a norming process, and it proceeded well under Sarney’s presidency. By the end of his term, Brazil should have been ready for the performing stage, getting down to work on solving its problems.

But when it came time to elect Sarney’s successor, in 1989, the leading candidates were both charismatic leaders, not the rational-legal ones leadership theory says the country needed. The most noteworthy was Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a labor leader and Workers Party founder whose dramatic personal history made him a national icon.

Raised by a single mother in abject poverty, he had become a lathe mechanic and activist union leader. He was a charming man of the people, a striking contrast to the elite lawyers and military officers who usually ran Brazil. His Workers Party was a democratic and innovative organization that claimed to offer creative new approaches to Brazil’s problems.

Lula’s leading opponent, Fernando Collor de Mello, was a telegenic northeastern governor supported by large contributions from businesses that feared a Lula victory. Collor was also a charismatic figure; charisma is a matter of personality, not ideology. Charismatic leaders are wild cards; it is hard to know what they will actually do once in power.

Collor was young and not well known outside his home state of Alagoas. His main claim to fame was a dramatic campaign against what he called “Maharajas” of corruption. But he was a skillful television personality, and was the first Brazilian presidential candidate to rely heavily on professional political consultants. He launched a massive and effective television advertising campaign and defeated Lula with 53% of the vote in the second round of the elections.

As president, Collor de Mello, like Sarney, gathered a team of top economists to devise an anti-inflation plan. He resolved to be more forceful than Sarney, whose plan had failed. Collor’s plan froze all the bank accounts in the country, allowing only small withdrawals. In effect, everyone was forced to loan most of their money to the government, with no guarantee that it would be paid back in currency with any real value. The people were so frustrated and afraid of hyperinflation that they were willing to try almost anything. They gave Collor’s plan the benefit of the doubt.

The plan worked for a short time, then inflation came back with a vengeance. People were frustrated with the failure of the Collor plan, and began to doubt their wisdom in electing him. Then, to add insult to injury, the crusader against corruption was implicated in a bizarre corruption scandal involving his brother and a close advisor. Congress went into the storming mode, and impeached Collor for corruption. He was replaced by his lackluster vice president, Itamar Franco.

In Itamar Franco, Brazilians had a traditional leader, a man without much charisma or great rational-legal skills. He knew nothing of economics; the only solution he could think of to the inflation problem was to double the workers’ wages. He reluctantly backed down from this idea when his economists insisted that doing so would only feed the inflationary cycle.

Inflation was so high it seemed possible that the currency would lose all its value and the economy would collapse altogether. After several of Itamar’s finance ministers gave up in frustration, he appointed sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso to the finance ministry.

Cardoso was a distinguished intellectual and former Senator who had played a key role in the constitutional convention. At the time he was serving as Foreign Minister, a job for which he was well qualified. He reluctantly took the Finance Ministry, a position that was viewed as a kiss of death for a politician. President Itamar Franco pleaded that the country needed him there.

No one really expected Cardoso to solve the inflation problem. They just hoped that he could tamp it down a bit and get things under control. But to everyone’s surprise, Cardoso came up with an anti-inflation plan that worked. Itamar Franco’s contribution was to give him the political leeway he needed to implement it. This surprising accomplishment made Cardoso a national hero, allowing him to defeat Lula in the next election despite his lack of charismatic appeal.

In Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Brazilians had a rational-legal leader, one with great intellectual accomplishments. He was the first PhD sociologist to ever run a country. But his success did not come about because of any new theories or ideas. His sociological publications on dependency and other issues didn’t deal with plans to cure hyperinflation.

Rather than look for radical new approaches, Cardoso turned to many of the same economists who had advised Sarney and Collor. Cardoso wasn’t an economist, but he knew enough economics to understand what they recommended. More important, he understood what would be needed to make the plan work. And the congressional leaders were desperate enough to let him do it.

Leadership theorist James MacGregor Burns distinguished between transactional and transforming leadership. Transactional leaders focus on the practicalities of administration. They make the compromises and bargains needed to keep the system going.

Transformational leaders advance new ideas and new slogans. They may be personally charismatic, they may rely on the charisma of their party or social movement, or they excite the society with new ideas. The key thing is that they inspire their followers to bring about changes in the system.

This typology doesn’t fit Brazil since 1985: the greatest transformations came from transactional leadership. Cardoso transformed the system more than any of the other presidents, but he did so by using great strengths as a transactional leader, negotiating bargains and compromises with the Congress. He had no charisma, and did remarkably little to advance new ideas or visions during his campaigns or his presidency.

In his political memoirs, Cardoso wrote about what he called the art of politics, which is transactional leadership aimed at accomplishing transformational goals. As President, he spent most of his time making the system work and solving crises, many of which were triggered by international events.

Woodrow Wilson, an American president who was a distinguished scholar before taking office, developed the distinction between politics and administration. Much of Cardoso’s effort was spent on administrative reform, improving the capacity of the Brazilian government to collect and allocate revenues, fight corruption, protect the environment, and so on.

Cardoso’s opponent, in 1994 and in 1998, was the same Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva who had been defeated by Collor de Mello. Lula continued to be a charismatic personality, promising transformational changes. He criticized Cardoso as a “neoliberal” and promised to transform the country away from hegemonic corporate capitalism. This appealed to the third of the electorate that votes on the left, but not to the moderate voters who decide the elections.

Lula and his party were devastated by their losses to Cardoso in 1994 and 1998. They thought their time had come when Collor was impeached, and that they were cheated out of it by a financial trick that would fail just as previous plans had done. They were amazed when Cardoso’s anti-inflation plan worked, and the country held together.

If Lula had been elected in 1994 or even in 1998 it is possible that Brazil would have had a radical change of course to the nationalist left. In 1994, the Workers’ Party had no anti-inflation plan and saw no need for one. They strongly opposed privatization of state-owned industries, a policy that had begun under Collor and continued under Cardoso.

If they had been true to their promises, they would have greatly accelerated land reform, increased support for cooperatives and small businesses, and increased income transfer to the poor. In 1998 the country was suffering from a global economic crisis, and Lula was convinced that Cardoso had failed. If Lula had been elected, he would probably have moved to protect Brazilian industry from global competition and stopped the privatization process.

But by the end of Cardoso’s second term, Lula and his top advisors had lost enthusiasm for this transformational project. They were impressed with the progress the country made under Cardoso, especially with the benefits the poor and working class obtained from the end of inflation. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the progress China and India were making persuaded them that liberal capitalism was the wave of the future.

And they were very tired of losing elections because the middle class electorate found them too radical. So, for the 2002 election Lula hired a political consultant and moderated his image. He promised “change” but never said what the change would be. When he took office, he made only small changes to Cardoso’s financial model, most of which made it more “neo-liberal”.

Lula’s more ideological supporters were outraged. Heloísa Helena, a fiery Workers’ Party senator from the state of Alagoas, protested that:

“Everything that we condemned with vehemence during our long party militancy, they have put into practice as if they were students of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. They have not just continued the economic policies of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso government; they have deepened the commitment to the neoliberal project.”

For Marxist scholar Francisco de Oliveira, it was as if Caesar had decided not to cross the Rubicon or Lenin had called off the October revolution:

Contrary to Lenin, who perceived the breakdown of the dominant political order and pushed it further along the same path, leading the movement to socialist revolution, Lula restored the political order that the cyclone generated by Cardoso’s deregulation and capitalist globalization had blown to pieces.

To the absence of hegemony the Workers’ Party’s only response is to retreat back across the Rubicon, surrendering to the Rome of the dollar, situated somewhere between Avenida Paulista [São Paulo’s financial center] and Wall Street.

But Lula took office in 2003, not 1917. The dominant order had not broken down and Cardoso’s policies had not caused a “cyclone.” Lula commanded no Roman legions. He took power through a democratic election, not a revolution. He was able to win the election because he explicitly promised not to upset the capitalist apple cart. Brazil is better off because of his decision, just as the Russia would have been if Lenin had called off the Bolshevik revolution.

Lula knew that Brazilians were tired of being told their institutions needed to be reformed, tired of losing the security of government jobs and early retirements, tired of being hectored by environmentalists and other activists. They wanted a president who was a cheerleader, not a critic. One who would let them return to a more relaxed, traditionally Brazilian way of life.

But they also liked being paid in money that held its value and they wanted to enjoy spending it. It was Lula’s good fortune to be elected at a point in time when the Brazilian economy could sustain economic growth with some redistribution of income and without reigniting inflation. He seized the opportunity.

Heloísa Helena was expelled from the Workers Party and ran as the candidate of a leftist opposition party in 2006. In the first round of the 2006 elections, Lula got 41.6%, Helena got 6.85%.

So what can we conclude about the contributions of Brazil’s democratic presidents? José Sarney may be under appreciated. He had a tough job taking over after Tancredo Neves’ death and he played the role the country needed by standing back and letting the constitutional convention do its work.

Collor de Mello started the privatization process and opened the country up to the world economy, policies that were attacked by the left at the time but that were later accepted by Lula. Collor was impeached, which is a kind of indictment, but never convicted.

On his Web site, Collor claims that he was “accused of corruption by his political opponents and by those who felt threatened by the modernization of the Brazilian economy,” and that he was found innocent of all charges, making him “the only politician in Brazil to have an officially clear record validated by an investigation of all interests and sectors of the opposition.”

Itamar Franco, like Sarney, moved up from the vice presidency under difficult circumstances. He was honest and helped the country get back on track. He feels that he didn’t get enough credit for the anti-inflation plan, which was Cardoso’s work but done on his watch.

He supported Lula for the presidency in 2002, but later felt unappreciated, saying of Lula: “I was the first to support him. Later, he disappointed me because he became arrogant. That humble man, who assumed the presidency of the republic, no longer exists.” He complained that Lula was always saying “never before in the history of this country” as if nobody else in the history of the country had ever done anything.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso guaranteed his place in history with one singular contribution: ending hyperinflation and establishing fiscal and monetary stability. Much of his presidency was spent dealing with the myriad problems of converting to a low-inflation economy in a context of several severe global economic shocks.

But he did a lot of other things as well: administrative reform, social security reform, restructuring the banking sector, setting up the school allowances program that Lula later expanded into family allowances. Many of his efforts were attacked relentlessly by the Workers’ Party during his administration, only to be continued or expanded by them when Lula took office.

When asked about Lula, Fernando Henrique Cardoso said, “I think he will be remembered for growth and continuity, and for putting more emphasis on social spending. He’s a Lech Walesa who worked out.” Comparing his own presidency to Lula’s he said, “I did the reforms. Lula surfs the wave.”

Like the cheerleader that he is, Lula exalts his own presidency, arguing that it “can only be compared with the government of President Getúlio Vargas.” He insists that “if we had continued the Cardoso policies, Brazil would have been bankrupt. Brazil worked out only because we changed his policies. The only thing we kept was fiscal responsibility. One thing – that’s all. What happened after conquering inflation? We were very active in international policies. Brazil for many years had no policy for investment. No ability to generate jobs. No policies to redistribute wealth.”

These statements are not really accurate. Brazil had policies for all these things under Cardoso, as it did under the other presidents. They might have worked better if the Workers Party hadn’t relentlessly opposed them. Then when Lula took office he continued most of Cardoso’s policies, with modest changes, pretending that he was doing something dramatically new.

Lula has no one dramatic contribution comparable to Cardoso’s ending of hyperinflation to assure his place in history. His Zero Hunger program was supposed to be that, but it was an administrative mess and was converted to an income transfer program using administrative machinery Cardoso had set up.

His successful policies were more transactional than transformational. What Lula did do was channel a lot more money into income redistribution, and that certainly made a difference. But that was only possible because the economy was stabilized and able to grow, and because of the administrative machinery set up under Cardoso.

When commenting on the legacy of his presidency, Lula stated quite realistically that “the legacy of our government is the consolidation of social policies with economic growth in a solid macroeconomic situation.” This modest, transactional accomplishment was exactly what Brazil needed after the reforms of the Cardoso era. Lula’s only error is to take all credit for himself, blaming Cardoso for all the country’s remaining problems.

Both Cardoso and Lula faced political limitations that kept them from completing needed labor and tax reforms. If their parties had been able to work together, rather than allying with traditional parties to fight each other, they might have done more. This continual squabbling between two parties that actually share a common political perspective is an example of what Freud called the narcissism of small differences.

Perhaps the most important legacy of the Lula presidency was to definitively establish a market-friendly economic model with fiscal stability and openness to global markets. Before Lula became president, investors could not be certain that the country would not abandon this development strategy for a nationalist, anti-corporate model along the lines advocated by the World Social Forum. Once this issue was in the past, the path was clear for capitalist economic growth.

Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s new president, owes her position entirely to Lula. Yet she recognizes that his model was one of continuity, not change, in fundamental economics. When an American interviewer asked if she would continue the economic path set out by President Lula, she responded quite frankly:

There’s no question about that. Why? Because for us this was the major achievement of our country. It is not an achievement of one sole administration – it is an achievement of the Brazilian state, of the people of our country. The fact that we managed to control inflation, have a flexible exchange-rate regime and fiscal consolidation so that today we are amongst the countries in the world that has the lowest debt-to-GDP ratio.

Also, we have a not very significant deficit. I don’t want to brag, but we have a 2.2 percent deficit. We intend in the next four years to reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio and to guarantee this inflationary stability.

What Dilma couldn’t bring herself to say is that credit for what she called “the major achievement of our country” goes primarily to Fernando Henrique Cardoso. She was right that this achievement was not Cardoso’s alone. The Congress deserves credit for putting the national interest above partisan advantage in implementing the plan. Lula deserves credit for continuing it.

This continuity in policy makes a surprising contrast with the United States where the Republican opposition has adamantly put ideology and partisan advantage ahead of solving the country’s problems. Although the United States is supposedly the country that values pragmatism, it is the Brazilians who have proved more pragmatic while the Americans are paralyzed by ideological fervor.

Ted Goertzel, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. He has published biographies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. References for the quotes in this article can be found in the latter book. He is working on comparative biography of Brazilian presidents. He can be reached at


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