Cardoso, Brazil’s Neoliberal Marxist

Former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, FHCFernando Henrique Cardoso – founder of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), former two-term President of Brazil, distinguished professor-at-large at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies and Chairman of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Eminent Persons on UN Civil Society Relations – is a contradictory personality for many.

Dr. Fernando Henrique Cardoso is also well known among scholars and academics worldwide as an eminent Marxist sociologist, father of dependency theory, former President of the International Sociological Association, and left-wing political activist whose study of dependency and development has had an enormous impact on the debate over the future of Latin America and the developing world for almost 40 years.

In intellectual circles, Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s place is considered to be alongside the greatest and most respected Brazilian thinkers of the 20th century. Included among them are historian and economist Caio Prado Jr., Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, sociologists Gilberto Freyre and Florestan Fernandes, and economist Celso Furtado.

Breaking the Mold

Upon Cardoso’s landslide victory in 1994, Brazil became the first country to break the mold of voting lawyers into the executive branch by electing the first ever sociologist President.

Cardoso, however, is quick to point out that he has an expansive background in the social sciences, and says that his training in economics, political science and anthropology has helped him achieve a broad, objective understanding of Brazil’s complex social problems (1).

Cardoso’s rise to power took place via an academic career highlighted by exile to Chile and forced retirement by the military dictatorship, and a political career highlighted by Brazil’s return to democratic rule in 1985 and victory over her long-standing battle with hyperinflation in 1994.

Once president, Cardoso embarked on a political agenda geared towards free-market economic liberalization and institutional reform, and a social agenda oriented towards progressive governance in health and education with the goal of reducing poverty over both the short and long term.

“Forget what I wrote”

Cardoso can additionally be remembered for the place he secured in political folklore while serving as finance minister, this due to an notorious 1993 report by Oliveira and Seidl in the daily “Folha de S. Paulo” that Cardoso told a group of businessmen to “forget what I wrote” [as a Marxist] (2).

Today Cardoso unabashedly stands by everything he ever wrote, and although he denied ever making this comment (the validity of which has never been substantiated, nor was to whom the comment was made ever reported) (3), it has, nevertheless, had a resounding impact on the image people skeptical of politicians, intellectuals or both have of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Many see an impossible contradiction between Cardoso’s identity as both a Marxist sociologist and free-market President of Brazil.

No Apologies

On both sides of the political spectrum many are confused with Cardoso’s stand as a social democratic free-market reformer and are troubled by his refusal to apologize for either his past or his present (4).

Critics argue that President Cardoso put forth a conception of economic and political development that is inconsistent with that which was set forth by Professor Cardoso earlier in his career: the developmental path Cardoso has put Brazil on as President is the very path Cardoso warned against in his most famous book, “Dependency and Development in Latin America.” Like other nations in the developing world, Brazil today is more dependent on multinational corporations than ever.

While Cardoso’s academic writings were filled with discussions of capitalism, class exploitation and a commitment to the values of socialism, Cardoso’s presidential policies, by contrast, primarily reflect a commitment to the expansion of entrepreneurship, free enterprise and integration of Brazil into the framework of global capitalism.

Any discontinuities to be found in terms of these commitments have thus been perceived as either a betrayal of Cardoso’s academic position or his political stance.

Supporters argue that Cardoso is not only the first professional sociologist to become head-of-state, but is the most distinguished Marxist scholar to lead a nation since the death of V.I.Lenin.

As a sociologist, they argue, Cardoso has shown a profound understanding of both history and class struggle, and has demonstrated this understanding as a respected statesman through administration policy geared toward economic and social development within the framework of globalization and reformist capitalism (4).

2006 Presidential Elections

In anticipation of the 2006 presidential election and the impact Fernando Henrique Cardoso will most certainly have on it, the following series of articles will revisit the sociology and politics of Fernando Henrique Cardoso to form a construction of one of the most significant figures in modern Brazilian history.

Continuity vs. Change

The construction of Cardoso will also provide the opportunity to gather reader comments and feedback to use as a method by which to gage the public perceptions about whether and to what extent continuity exists between what Fernando Henrique Cardoso wrote as a sociologist and what he accomplished for Brazil as President.

Considering the negative image generated by politicians who change and the positive image of politicians who are steadfast in their convictions, and given the assumption that neither sociologists nor politicians are ever perfect in their interpretations of society, a further question to comment on is at what point in political leadership is change more desirable than continuity?

(1) Goertzel, Ted. 1995. “President Cardoso Reflects on Brazil and Sociology.” Published in Footnotes, the newsletter of the American Sociological Association. November, 1995, p. 1. Available from http://www.crab.rutgers.edu/~goertzel/fhcpres.htm

(2) Oliveira, J.C. & Seidl, J.C, 1993. Folha de São Paulo, May 6, 1993.

(3) Folha de São Paulo. “‘Esqueçam o que escrevi’ ainda é polêmica até hoje” (‘Forget what I wrote’ still remains polemic today). In Caderno Mais, October 13, 1996.

(4) Goertzel, Ted. 1997. “Still a Marxist.” Brazzil. Referenced September 11, 2000 (https://www.brazzil.com/blaapr97.htm).

This is the first part of a multi-part series on former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Richard F. Kane, from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of Illinois State University, can be reached at rfkane@ilstu.edu.

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