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LATIN AMERICA | 06-03-2021 08:40

Fernando Henrique Cardoso: ‘There are times which require us to move actively towards equality’

Former Brazil president – the country’s first to be re-elected for a subsequent term – discusses Jair Bolsonaro, inequality, poverty and what it means a social democrat in the 21st century.

Few politicians in the world can boast of having created a currency. The Plano Real ("Real Plan") represented a cultural change for Brazil and a transformational modernisation. 

In this exclusive interview, former Brazil president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who turns 90 in June, expresses his take on Jair Bolsonaro – he sees him more as standing for the centre-right aspirations of certain middle-class sectors rather than populism. 

Cardoso, commonly known as ‘FHC,’ maintains that governments worldwide should pay attention to rising inequality. For him, the challenge is to grow within a context of centrist policies with the capacity to comprehend majority needs.

 

Might one think that coronavirus is an event of such global magnitude that it could change somewhat the functioning and dynamics of politics and the world economy?

There is much to change. Despite or rather because of globalisation, all countries worldwide are enmeshed in the same global market, even when socialist. But poverty is different in various countries, as is also the political situation. The challenge is to change, create, develop. 

Recently society seems less geared to people’s problems. I read newspapers and look at the photographs and I see that many countries are as badly off as many places in Brazil and Latin America. There is much to change, much to be done. That’s why Nelson Mandela created that group of Elders to look after issues going beyond particular political interests. There are many other organisations in the world dedicated to improving living conditions. The challenge is huge.

In a previous interview, in 2017, you spoke of a populism aiming for a return to the past, referring to the United States and France. Would the Jair Bolsonaro government fall under that definition?

The authoritarian streak is one thing but there is freedom of the press and people can sleep without fear. When there was a genuinely right-wing or authoritarian government, it was different, you could smell the fear. That does not exist today. For the moment there are greater degrees of freedom, not only here but everywhere. 

Nevertheless, there is no room for complacency. Here in Brazil there was a politician called Otavio Mangabeira who used to say that democracy is like a plant which needs watering every day. Democracy, liberty, public health and education all need constant care, they’re never automatic but must always be preserved. We have freedom so it’s all about preventing governments from being geared solely to their power interests. 

I was president for many years. Agreements are never easy but I believe that the commitment to good intentions and maintaining the ground rules is very important. Luckily for us in Brazil and Latin America it has become part of our culture. I hope I’m not wrong, You can never be sweeping when saying these things. You cannot go to sleep thinking that everything is in place, there are issues which need particular care.

You also told us that the 1988 Constitution pointed Brazil towards a social democratic future. What has survived of that project of refounding Brazil, after these recent years of Bolsonaro?

I was one of the authors of that Constitution belonging to the PSDB [Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira]. It was the end of a process of transformation for times already politically past their shelf life. 

What does a social democratic régime imply? For a start, social democracy normally lives within the rules of the market but that’s not what distinguishes it from other countries but rather its concern for the have-nots and the disinherited. In organised societies, such as in Europe, they are parties which pressure governments and when they reach power, their vision is more rooted in the popular interests. In countries like ours there is still plenty of scope for demagogic democracy - people who talk a lot but do nothing and yet they are still convincing.

I wouldn’t characterise the current president of Brazil as a demagogue - he’s not a person who speaks to the masses, he doesn’t have that personal gift or political orientation. I don’t like pigeonholing governments much but anyway it seems to me that Jair Bolsonaro is centre-right. He sticks to the ground rules. People can express themselves and talk without feeling afraid. But he has less concern for the social area, something highly necessary in a country like ours. He also believes too much in market forces, that the market is capable of recovering by itself. Chile has a lot of private investment yet it is a country which depends greatly on economic policy leadership with public savings occupying an important role in that context, something of which social democratic governments take good care.

In my view populism is more right-wing. In the past it was linked to the left because it was based on inclusion. Now that they are in power, they do not bother so much about inclusion, more with the economic orientation, which has to with benefitting the powers that be, those with the money. I don’t believe that populism can be defined the same way everywhere. People talk too freely on this subject without too much rigour. You cannot compare Getúlio Vargas with João Goulart or with Juan Perón in the region, where the discussion really lies in whether any of them were authoritarian governments.

Would you also place [former president Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva] as a populist?

No, I don’t think so. Lula has a different background, trade unionism. His party’s origins are strongly linked to the working-class. I knew him when he represented the workers. Although his party had elements in common with others once in power, it had one defining characteristic, a strong interest in majorities, which does not mean that it had a socialist vision. I don’t think that was ever his perspective but I wouldn’t define him as a populist either. It was a party which accepted the rules of freedom.

Do you see Jair Bolsonaro as trying to imitate Donald Trump in his handling of the health crisis?

I don’t think it’s the same phenomenon. Bolsonaro’s base arose from rhetoric very much against Lula’s PT [Partido Trabalhista] party. At some point a model had outrun its course and Bolsonaro took advantage of that to rewire Brazil in function of who has the most money. It was not spelled out that way but deep down, it comes to that, organising the state that way – always within the democratic ground rules. He’s not a traditional populist, he has no real bond with the masses. Bolsonaro’s vision corresponds to the interests of the ruling class but he does not belong to that class. He’s an Army captain with suburban attitudes. I sense him as rather lost in that world of power, that labyrinth. He doesn’t speak directly to the people, I don’t think he has the same magnetism as the traditional populist leaders. That’s part of his personal baggage although it is clear he would like to be a myth, something which (unfortunately for him) he is not. Rather he’s a common, even simple man who says whatever comes to mind with great freedom of expression. His mode of speech does not have much in common with the traditionally dominant strata, it’s more like the rising middle class but I don’t think it is characterised by populism. The latter is always present in our region where it has tradition and roots. It needs somebody with the expressive capacity to fool the people. I don’t think that’s the case with Bolsonaro. He has no defined or serious party alignment, originating as anti-PT within the conventional rules.

Speaking of populist magnetism, Néstor Kirchner did not have that gift but Cristina [Fernández de Kirchner] does, as did Hugo Chávez. Is there some analogy between the Pied Piper of Hamelin and populists luring away the masses with their tunes?

Not just that. They’re leaders without many roots in party organisations, more their own. Some have no party at all although Juan Perón and Getúlio Vargas did. But populist politics imply a certain capacity to deceive the masses. They feel that they wield power and when they speak, they go directly to the masses. 

Bolsonaro doesn’t go that far. I don’t think you can characterise him as a populist. There’s something about his personality which limits him as a personal representative of majorities. Populist leaders have the capacity to symbolise their homelands via themselves, they’re like flags. That’s not the case here where we are faced by a more traditional politician. The populist feels that he represents the masses against the existing parties while there is no struggle of this president against the party system – there is respect for the traditional scheme.

The recent midterm elections threw up bad results for both Bolsonaro and the PT. What does that suggest for 2022 when there will be presidential elections?

Brazilians orient more around personalities than parties. Somebody has to be the symbol, which does not mean that parties carry no weight. One of the problems of Brazilian democracy is that the parties give the impression of being weak. In general they are but they are important for election campaigns and very important in Congress, where the president has his party base and simultaneously claims to represent the people, seeking that direct contact without the participation of traditional agents.

Bolsonaro instinctively seeks support. At the moment he has made a grand alliance in Congress with the powers that be. There’s a bit of everything but also forces primarily interested in plunder. There are some organisations which only seek benefits from being in power and government. Bolsonaro would seem to have a different vision. I don’t even know him but he behaves like a middle-class person who wants the best for his people and does not know how to achieve it. It goes far beyond a failure of his personality to adapt to the political situation in Brazil. He’s accustomed to leadership but giving orders to sergeants or privates. He’s not a man used to having to convince people. Etymologically, “convince” stems from the Latin words “con” and “vincere,” to conquer together. He’s a traditional politician who fails to notice the importance of traditional parties as democratic players. Bolsonaro is aware of the importance of the media and uses them, talking to journalists. That’s a system he uses to express his ideas. He does not have the style of European right-wing populists who do have the capacity to convince, which is their attraction. Bolsonaro does not act that way. When I had a problem, I picked up the telephone and spoke to my colleagues and other politicians in the region and beyond as well. I don’t see him having that kind of intimacy with other countries.

What he had for Trump was a slightly naive admiration. Countries have interests. There may be personal bonds but always knowing that countries have interests. Bolsonaro behaved like a Trump fan without realising that he was the president of the United States defending the interests of that country. You get the impression that Bolsonaro prefers dealing with people like Donald Trump to Joe Biden. In my time as president, I got on well with Bill Clinton. I also knew both the Bushes, whom I respected as presidents but who were less to my taste than Clinton, perhaps because I lean more towards the Democrats than the Republicans. When you’re president, the national interest comes first.

Much the same with Argentina. I had a good relationship with Carlos Menem, Raúl Alfonsín and many others. We knew that when we sat down at a table to converse, we were doing so with certain aims in mind in the hope of coming to an agreement. Fortunately, we had more agreements than conflicts. Ditto for other countries in the region. But that does not necessarily happen in international relations. One knows that one represents certain interests.

In Argentina they talk a lot about lawfare, as they do in certain PT circles in Brazil, ever since Lula’s conviction prevented his presidential candidacy. What is your own view of lawfare, the Lava Jata corruption probe and Sergio Moro?

I have no personal relationship with Lula. I knew him when he was a union leader in São Paulo but I was never politically close to him or the PT. Many friends of mine joined the PT but I took the opposite decision. 

In general the courts proceed on the basis of facts. It’s highly improbable that anybody should be convicted without anything leading to that sentence. I don’t want to go into those facts because I respect his partisans, those who would like to cancel out the past thinking that Lula did nothing. But I don’t think so. I don’t like his current situation. I knew him as a free man, as a president and I would prefer the situation to be otherwise but I don’t think that the courts conspired against him. Would that there were some deceit but I believe that the courts ruled on the basis of elements. 

The court system in Brazil is pretty open with the possibility of appeal at various levels. There are still some Supreme Court decisions pending which could affect Lula’s trial and for sure he is counting on them in order to move forward. It gives me no personal pleasure to see anybody dedicated to politics in jail but when they break the law, there is no other alternative.

Was the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff fair?

Impeachment is in the Constitution. I was never in favour. I’ll give you a different example – Fernando Collor de Mello [the president impeached in 1992] when I was not then a senator. An impeachment implies a trauma for a country – it consists of taking out somebody who was elected by the people and naming the vice-president, who was also elected but of whom there is less public awareness. People do not take on board when voting for a vice-president that he might become president. But a trial in Congress should be based on certain constitutional arguments... I feel very sorry for Dilma because I have nothing personal against her but Congress was convinced by effective reasons. It is also true that reactionary, right-wing forces were in action against somebody thinking differently but facts are facts. 

When Congress arrives at such a resounding decision, this cannot stem from a rumour or wishful thinking. There were evidently things outside the law. The dynamics of Congress make it very difficult to build a majority with the sole aim of changing the person in power. If it were possible to avoid the impeachment, all the better because it leaves the population branded. Presidents commonly make mistakes.

Does the change of Congress leadership diminish the possibility of impeaching Jair Bolsonaro?

I didn’t vote for Bolsonaro, as everybody knows, but I do not believe that there are objective reasons for an impeachment. There is, in the population, a sharper sense of the loss of objective conditions for governability. I know that there are movements towards an impeachment but, as I said at the start, I think it’s a risky road. If it left heavy footprints in the case of Dilma, it could also do so here. I do not see any way of being able to say objectively that Bolsonaro is incapable of remaining in power.

In our 2017 interview Mauricio Macri was the president of Argentina. You told me then that it seemed important to give priority to investment over the consumer market. To what do you attribute the failure of his economic policies? Does it bear any relation to what you said about [Brazil’s Economy Minister] Paulo Guedes?

It was a family of problems. What happened in Argentina makes me very sad because I consider myself an Argentinophile, as is well-known. I believe the relationship with Argentina to be essential and Argentina’s progress is important for us. 

I think that some Argentine presidents have failed to realise that an attitude of only being hyper-connected to the markets is not what is required. I know Macri well and I feel that he let himself be carried away by that perspective. It is true that you have to pay attention to the processes in the world at large but in the context of a recession, the nation also needs to come into it. Both as minister and president, I respected the needs of the market but there are times when other types of action are required, balancing economics with attention to what the people need. 

I know that economic rules are important and I’ve devoted much of my time to studying them but I also know that life itself is the most important thing of all. When you act in politics with preconceived ideas about things, it does not work. 

You wrote: “There will be no democracy while inequality exists. We must establish a consensus that countries must grow in order to distribute better. I trust in the energy of the new generations to move down that road. They have a horizon. They should fight to end poverty and inequality.” Has coronavirus brought the cycle of neo-conservatism to an end and will future growth strategies have to contemplate equality?

The current coronavirus crisis is exposing realities. I live in an upper-middle-class neighbourhood in São Paulo and when I look out of my window, I can see somebody living on the outdoor stairway in front. And if you go downtown, you will see more street people. That’s not a good sign for the country’s future. The country will run better when people find work. Unemployment here is 14 percent. I know that capitalist economies are cyclical and that in hard times you have to look after people. The economy does not float by itself unaided. Luckily we have businessmen who plough in their savings and borrow in order to keep the productive sector going. That’s fundamental but in a context of inequality it ends up being very little.

Here we have reduced inequality. If you look at the past with slavery in Brazil, the context was a brutal inequality. In the time of my great-grandparents there was slavery and there had been for some time, leading to inequality being accepted as something natural. That’s damaging over a long term. If you go to the United States or Europe, to capitalist countries with certain levels of inequality, they will not have the poverty levels we have here. This poverty is a dead weight which prevents a more even growth. If you go to Buenos Aires, there is less poverty than here. This deadweight of poverty is why you shouldn’t just look at the markets but also the reality of the people with active policies. It’s not just about underlining education, which is very important beyond a doubt – you also need policies to stimulate job creation. Sometimes government ministers are almost ashamed to push forward such policies because their theories lead them to think it shouldn’t be that way but there are times which require you to move actively towards equality – it does not spring up by itself, it is not a flower of nature. You need to work hard for a more egalitarian society or there is no moving ahead. 

In the last century you were one of the main intellectuals behind the theory of Latin American dependence, along with Argentina’s Raúl Prebisch. Both Brazil and Argentina are now reverting to exporting primarily raw materials. Would you now think differently about the importance of primary as opposed to industrial products?

I worked with Prebisch. What did he do? He travelled to Europe to accelerate his concept of commercial integration, which was necessary for Argentina and other countries like ours. Prebisch knew that trade was very unequal and fought for a more favourable situation. 

Today the situation has changed. Brazil was a far less industrialised country than it is today but also had far less specific competition. We have progressed although not as much as certain Asian countries, Europe or the United States. Nevertheless, I think the time has come to organise ourselves a bit more. The export of raw materials is important – also for Argentina with such products as wheat and beef. China is a great importer, as are the United States and Europe. It is not necessary to destroy that base of wealth but it is necessary to understand that it is not enough to create sufficient employment. For that you need the services sector – public health, education, etc – that’s what produces employment. But at the same time you have to look at trade – it’s very important not to lose sight of it. 

Today everything is very integrated. In Perón’s time, for example, the ideal was self-sufficiency for Argentina but it’s no longer that way. Polícies which understand the way of the world and the reality facing us are required – if not, we are depriving many people of opportunities.

I’m not pessimistic. I’m about to turn 90, having seen many and deep changes in the region. Change depends on enthusiasm being contagious. There was a Brazilian president, Juscelino Kubitschek, who came to office with completely new ideas such as bringing the auto and shipbuilding industries to the country and the creation of Brasilia. He was a dreamer, no doubt, but his dreams motivated people. He was a dreamer with his feet on the ground whose adventurous proposals were motivational. 

The world is not what it was in my day – it’s much more globalised and integrated. So Brazil and Argentina need to take advantage by meeting the needs of the United States, China and Europe, to name the most visible. We must also work in conjunction with that world – there is no way other than global integration while knowing that we need to add to all that important doses of social and public policies. Both the state and the market are important levers and both are needed.

You were the founder of the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira, the PSDB. In Argentina, President Alberto Fernández has said that he is a social democrat.What does being a social democrat in the 21st century mean?

I founded the party and am still a member. The parties have lost their past force. I don’t know if it’s the same in Argentina but here they have lost their links with the people. Today politics seems a matter for those in power. 

The movements in the world have made concepts like right and left lose the force they had with everything gravitating towards the centre, which also needs an overhaul. It cannot be a lifeless, neutral centre because neutrality does not exist. It needs to be a centre mindful of majority needs. I think that’s what social democracy is today. 

Many people define themselves as social democrats. It was a concept which made more sense in the past when there were Communists, socialists, social democrats and liberals. Now there is plenty of fusion between those lines of thinking. I believe that a practical sense of things should be first and foremost without individuals ceasing to have their ideologies and their beliefs. I believe in freedom and democracy where the governments are obliged to favour the majoríty but I’m not so sure that you can really call that social democracy.

Could Peronism be that centre with social concerns?

I think that what characterised Peronism was a bad manipulation of the masses, accompanied by a high level of internal persecutions. Those were other times. At a certain stage there was a level of fascism also penetrating some sectors of Peronism. There were also high doses of populism and a certain wedge of a kind of Peronist social democracy, all mixed up and with plenty of conflicts. I don’t think that you can talk of social democracy but I think Peronism has gone changing. To say you were a Peronist was to have the same vocation as Perón who integrated those arriving in the city from the countryside. That was important and as real as many people being persecuted. 

What opinion did you form of Cristina and Néstor Kirchner and Alberto Fernández, when you got to know them?

I knew Cristina. She was always very pleasant with me. That was in São Paulo. But I never admired her as a leader. I also got to know Mauricio Macri but I don’t remember having been with Alberto Fernández. Argentina is an easier country to govern than Brazil although perhaps you don’t realise that. Argentina has great wealth, as reflected by Buenos Aires. That’s something dating from the 20th century and is part of its identity. 

I’m a partisan of the integration of the entire South American region. I knew Hugo Chávez. He was a very difficult man but I negotiated with him because he was our neighbour. In politics you cannot hold your nose. The problem of our region is not the arrival of the plague but the lack of growth and the inequality – those are the problems.

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Jorge Fontevecchia

Jorge Fontevecchia

Cofundador de Editorial Perfil - CEO de Perfil Network.

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