The great Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, wrote: “Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking”. Nothing is more fitting to convey the feeling I have, at 80 years of age, regarding the course of my life. Looking backward, one might have the illusion that I planned all my steps and carefully put together my academic experience and my human and political trajectory to better understand the “meaning of the world”. That is not the way things happened at all.
Born in a traditional Brazilian family, thus belonging to what we would call today the upper middle class, it was not written on the stars that I was bound to be a fairly successful scholar and politician. I could have been a lawyer or a military, as my father and many of my ancestors were. Perhaps I would not have shunned a political career, since from my paternal great-grand-father onward my family has had this propensity. But, becoming a university professor or, even more unlikely, a sociologist, and paying the price of exile and removal from my university chair for my social and democratic convictions? The probability was quite low…
And yet this was the path I came to tread. My elementary and middle school education took place in private schools. I entered the University of São Paulo, a public institution, at a time when several European professors who had given shape to it on the thirties were still teaching. In the field of social sciences, the French played a prominent role, led by Levy-Strauss and Ferdinand Braudel. I enrolled in the school of social sciences (sociology, anthropology, economy and some philosophy, besides mathematics and statistics) without having a clear idea about its subject matter consisted of. I was seventeen years old, wanted to ‘change the world’ and hesitated between literary or social studies. But I had no hesitation to deem Brazilian society as profoundly unjust.
I had learned at home, with my father, himself a congressman linked to the labor and nationalist movements, and also with the memory of my grand-father, who had fought against monarchy and slavery in the nineteenth century, that an unjust society needs to be changed. I had avidly read many of the Brazilian novelists who denounced social and regional inequalities and there was no need of too much science to grasp the actuality of social injustice.
Newly-graduated at 21 years of age, I became assistant professor of Economic History and soon after of Sociology. My two main mentors in this discipline, Florestan Fernandes and Roger Bastide, encouraged me to study racial relations in Brazil. The prevailing notion at the time was that in terms of race Brazil was a democratic society, devoid of prejudices. My first academic books, written in the 50’s, Color and Social Mobility in Florianopolis and Capitalism and Slavery, following on the footsteps of those great teachers, demonstrated that this rosy picture was far from being true. There was indeed prejudice and a lot of inequality. From the study of relations between races and classes I moved to the study of the structures that conditioned them.
I contrasted the development of export capitalism based on slave labor, that had evolved in the South of Brazil in salted and dried meat production, with the ‘saladeros’ of Uruguay and Argentina, who employed paid labor. I described the limits that slavery imposed on capitalist development. On the other hand, I became aware of the differences between the concepts that had been developed mainly by Marx and Max Weber to explain European capitalism and what was needed to account for the Brazilian situation.
In Europe, as in Brazil, market laws were prevalent, but in our agrarian-export capitalism free labor was non-existent. I argued that there were no grounds to sustain the current thesis about “feudal remains” in Brazilian society: we never had them. From the very beginning, as in the United States, Brazilian economy was mercantile and export-oriented.
Hence the next step: the need for a conceptual rethinking in order to understand economic development in underdeveloped countries, at the periphery of the world capitalist system. It was necessary to acknowledge what was common to both situations but also to spell out how specific situations of underdevelopment evolved. Capitalism in underdeveloped countries could not be explained just by transposing concepts and interpretations used to explain original capitalism. For sure, not all was different in the New World: some processes are of a general nature. Such was the method of analysis that I started to call ‘historical-structural’.
Revisited from today’s perspective, the studies that I carried out in the 60’s, Entrepreneurs and Economic Development in Brazil and, later, Dependency and Development in Latin America, were a further exploration of the same basic thematic. With a significant difference: while in the 50’s I acted as a scholar, in the 60’s, the themes of economic growth, inequality, poverty and differences of class tended to politically dominate the debate, including in the academy.
I also took stands as a citizen and this engagement would ultimately explain my exile. Those were the Cold War years, permeated by outbursts of populism and military coups-d’état. I studied Brazilian entrepreneurs with the expectation that they would turn out to be agents of democratization. My hopes were dashed by reality.
Living as an exile in Santiago and working at the UN Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA), I endeavored to study the perspectives of social, economic and political development, resorting to the same historical-structural method of analysis.
I challenged the argument that economic growth was impossible because “imperialism” prevented it. With the Chilean historian Enzo Faletto, I looked at different Latin American countries and realized that, despite foreign capital or perhaps because of it, there were alternative paths for economic development, , depending on the manner in which local and external sectors were linked to each other. We were seeking to interpret without quite knowing it, the emergent phenomenon that would later be called “globalization”. “Dependent” but associated growth was happening.
Back to Brazil from exile, in the 70’s, my focus shifted from economics and the structure of society to politics: how to restore democracy to Brazil and other authoritarian countries while, at the same time, reducing poverty and offering better opportunities for all. At this point in time, my thinking was increasingly influenced by my wife, Ruth Cardoso. An avid reader, as myself, of Michel Foucault, Manuel Castells, Alain Touraine, she called my attention to the dynamics of change at the community level, to social and political micro-processes, to the emergence of social movements, to feminism and, finally, to the new themes brought about by the revolution in communication technologies and the rise of the social networks.
From my side, the American democratic thinking of Alfred Stepan, Juan Linz, Robert Dahl and, especially the insightful essays of Albert Hirschmann (whose company I enjoyed in Princeton) strengthened my convictions that without solid political institutions and social mobilization it would be hardly possible to democratize society and improve people’s lives. Hirschmann always emphasized the importance of non expected results of creeds, ideas and behaviors.
That is when, expelled by the authoritarian regime from the University of São Paulo, whose chair of Political Science I had earned on a public competition in 1968, I took the decision - not devoid of risks - to stay in Brazil and build a non-governmental center of social research (CEBRAP). To the surprise of many, this independent center was supported by the Ford Foundation and became, gradually, the point of reference for the emergence of several other nuclei of intellectual resistance to authoritarianism in Latin America.
From this platform I collaborated with the democratic resistance organized by the churches, especially the Catholic, under the brave leadership of Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, for whom I wrote, with other colleagues, the seminal book São Paulo: growth and poverty, exposing how despite high rates of economic development (at the 70’s Brazil’s gross domestic product grew at an average rate of 7% a year) people’s daily lives did not improve.
This daily experience of fighting to preserve a space for free speech and research strengthened my democratic convictions. I wrote another book, Authoritarianism and Democratization, which was prosecuted by the military regime. I became an active contributor to the opposition press, even though having my articles censored, and a public speaker in favor of freedom and democracy in all kinds of scientific associations, trade unions, local assemblies etc.
I did my best to nurture, what Albert Hirschman, calls a ‘bias for hope’. But I never approved the tactics of “armed struggle” to fight the dictatorship. At a certain point, I proclaimed that it was high time for teachers, intellectuals, artists, students and labor leaders to join the legal opposition party in order to undermine the authoritarian regime from within. I had become a public intellectual.
Despite this intense political engagement, I never stopped writing and kept trying to understand the relations between economic, political and social processes. I challenged the then fashionable thesis that in underdeveloped countries authoritarian political regimes were a precondition for accelerated accumulation of capital. And I continued to reiterate my belief and commitment to democratic values.
I argued that whenever there is a combination of economic development with effective social policies, the liberalization of society will not be an obstacle to development, but rather a favorable condition. It was with this conviction that I was elected senator by the state of São Paulo and, in the 80’s, with the restoration of democracy, re-elected as a member of a National Constituent Assembly. This enabled me to help frame the new Constitution of Brazil, promulgated in 1988.
We reached this tipping point thanks to powerful new forms of social mobilization. I fully supported the innovative labor strikes led by Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in São Paulo in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I participated actively in the huge civic and political movement in favor of direct elections for the Presidency of the Republic.
With democracy restored, the comings and goings of politics led to the impeachment of the first elected president. He was replaced by his vice-president, a former senator, who, in turn, appointed me as minister of Foreign Affairs and, soon after, minister of Finance.
These unexpected developments in a time of acute political and economic crisis opened new opportunities for putting in practice my beliefs. I dealt with a hyper-inflation (20% per month!) without resorting to heterodox measure that affront the market, private property and acquired rights. We raised the stakes and were successful in creating a new currency, the Real, and rebuilding public finances.
I persevered in the process of integrating Brazilian economy in the global market and gave new impetus to the reform of the State, moving ahead, judiciously and always avoiding the formation of monopolies, with the process of privatization. Given that the poor are the main beneficiaries of a stable economy, insofar as inflation penalizes them, by succeeding in taming it I became popular to the point of being elected, in 1994, and re-elected in 1998, as President of the Republic.
At the end of my first term in office, I wrote a book with the former president of Portugal, Mario Soares, A Dialogue in Portuguese. Mario asked me whether I would feel fully accomplished if I were to be re-elected. I told him that I would only feel a true sense of fulfillment if I could say that I had changed Brazil for the better.
It would be presumptuous to say now that I have achieved such a goal. But I do trust that when the time comes for History to pass judgment on my presidency, it will take into account not only the restoration of people’s trust in the currency and the reorganization of the public administration, but also, and foremost, that the efforts I made in the social field (which subsequent administrations expanded) have indeed helped to change Brazil.
Besides the investment in people’s capacities to self-develop from the bottom-up (in and through the social programs promoted by my wife, Ruth, in the public/private partnership called “Comunidade Solidaria”), it was possible for the first time to ensure universal access to basic public education. We also strengthened, as mandated by the Constitution, a universal public health system. We expanded access to land for all who need it, ensured that the minimum salary grew steadily in real terms since 1994 up today and created a system of direct cash transfers to the poorest families that had a major impact in reducing absolute poverty and also inequality.
I wish to conclude by saying that, as important as the social and economic transformations that I may have helped to achieve, in line with what I have always believed were the consolidation of democracy and the strengthening of institutions in Brazil. For sure, I am not the sole responsible for this achievement. This outcome is the work of many, an achievement of the Brazilian people. But I did my best to help.