Pragmatism vs. Nationalism in Fernando Henrique Cardoso's Brazil

by Ted Goertzel
Rutgers University
Camden NJ 08102

A paper prepared for the meetings of the Brazilian Studies Association, Recife, June 2000, the Universidade Metodista de Piracicaba - UNIMEP, June 2000, and the International Society for Political Psychology, Seattle, July 2000.

When I began work on Fernando Henrique Cardoso: Reinventing Democracy in Brazil, I was eager to read what Brazilian scholars had written about the personalities of Brazilian leaders. I had just read Enrique Krauze's book, Mexico: Biography of Power, which gave an entirely new perspective on the Mexican revolution, highlighting culture and personality instead of economics and class struggle. As a student, I had read Samuel Ramos' classic El Perfil del Hombre y la Cultura en México, which explored the role of machismo and other traits in the Mexican national character. I looked for similar works on Brazil, I could not find much serious work examining Brazilian politics from a biographical perspective, as Krauze had done for Mexico. Although Eduardo Mascarenhas is a psychiatrist, his book Brasil: de Vargas a Fernando Henrique spends 125 pages on Vargas without ever analyzing his personality or exploring the reasons for his suicide. The only mention of Fernando Henrique I could find in Mascarenhas' book was in the title, as if Cardoso was a symbol of an era instead of a human being.

This lacuna in the literature is surprising because Brazilian political history is full of colorful personalities and events that cry out for a psychological interpretation. Luis Carlos Prestes' dramatic march into exile in the 1930s, for example, has considerable symbolic meaning to many Brazilians, especially on the left. But I could find no writer who had probed the psychological motivations of Prestes' self-defeating heroism. Nor could I find a psychological interpretation of Jânio Quadros' self-defeating resignation from the presidency in 1961 or of the bizarre family conflicts which sabotaged the Collor de Mello administration.

I did finally find one book that attempted a psychological inquiry into the Cardoso regime, O Principe da Moeda by Gilberto Vasconcellos. Vasconcellos denounces Cardoso as an "anti-herói, no sentido de que o herói, como dira Ortega y Gasset, é um sejeito que não está contente com a realidade" (p. 20) [an anti-hero, in the sense that the hero, as Ortega y Gasset says, is a person who is not content with reality]. Vasconcellos would rather ride into defeat with a hero like Prestes, than into victory with an anti-hero like Cardoso. Vasconcellos is consumed with anger not only at Fernando Henrique, but also at people such as Luís Carlos Bresser Pereira and Franscisco Weffort, because they not angry enough. He denounces the tucanos for "a ausência de qualquer indignação diante da miséria do país" (p. 20) [ the absence of any sense of indignation about the misery of the country]. He rejects the Plano Real [Cardoso's monetary reform that ended hyperinflation] because it "carece de alma, pois esta situado no reino abstrato do dinheiro. [it lacks soul because it is situated in the abstract realm of money.]" He denounces it as an example of the "erotismo castrado [ castrated eroticism]" of the São Paulo intelligentsia that "despreza o amor, a pátria, e o espírito [deprecates love, the fatherland and spirit]" (p. 40).

At first I suspected that Vasconcellos' book was satire. Surely no one could be making these arguments seriously? Brazil, it seemed to me, has never lacked love, patriotism or spirit. Not even in São Paulo. What it has often lacked is sound economic policies. Why denounce the Plano Real for dealing with money? What else would an economic plan deal with? A president, after all, is responsible for economic policy, not for a nation's romantic spirit. I never managed to meet with Vasconcellos personally. But I did talk with him at some length on the telephone and he seemed to be quite serious. If his book was a joke, he didn't let me in on it. I also talked with quite a few other Brazilians with similar ideas, although few who wrote as cleverly as Vasconcellos did.

Vasconcellos blamed Brazil's problems on a bizarre conspiracy of international financiers, pragmatic São Paulo technocrats, and Rio de Janeiro telenovela [television sitcom] producers - a group he called psicovideopopfinanzkapital [psychovideopopfinancecapital]. What infuriated him most about this group - outside of the fact that they had power and Leonel Brizola [a populist/leftist leader in Rio de Janeiro] did not - was their apparent lack of passion and spirit. His book is an anguished protest against the sterility of the modern world - a world run by economists and technicians instead of caudillos and caciques [military and political chiefs].

Perhaps I should not have been so surprised by this. Brazilians are Latins, after all. Why should they not long for a Don Quixote? But this is too easy a stereotype. Auguste Comte's slogan, ordem e progresso [order and progress], is still on the Brazilian flag. Comte was the founder of sociology, and his positivist movement had an important role in Brazilian history. Many Brazilians are quite pragmatic and compete successfully in the global economy. I could not assume that all opposition to Cardoso was based the kinds of reasons advanced by Vasconcellos. Surely there were people who had logical, pragmatic criticisms of his policies. People who had studied the options carefully and concluded that the country would have been off if Lula da Silva [the Workers' Party candidate] had been elected President in 1994.

I thought I would be most likely to get this kind of analysis from the people we call "policy wonks," the researchers who work for "think tanks" and do carefully reasoned studies of public policy issues. Brazil has a great many such experts, and I found them to be just as well informed and sophisticated as those in the United States. When I asked them what would have happened if Lula da Silva had been elected, they pretty much agreed that things would have been a good deal worse. At least in the short term, capital would have fled the country and there would have been a major social and economic crisis.

Because of this analysis, many of the policy wonks had supported Cardoso. None of them, however, seemed really enthusiastic. It was a choice of lesser evils, the best alternative under the circumstances. Others had supported Lula or Brizola or another of the leftist leaders, even though they knew the victory of their candidate would lead to many problems for Brazil. There seemed to be two reasons for this decision. First, many of them had been advocating leftist ideas all their life, and they were frustrated that these ideas had never won power. They had been cheated of power by the golpe [coup d'etat] in 1964, by the long military dictatorship, by the death of Tancrêdo Neves [a popular reformist leader who died of natural causes just after being elected President in the first democratic elections after the military dictatorship] , and then by Lula's electoral defeats. Their side deserved a chance at power, to make up for the past. Second, they seemed to want to make the country suffer for the greedy, immoral, capitalistic policies followed in the past. Perhaps they felt that the country didn't deserve success until it repented for its past sins.

These intellectuals knew, of course, that the Soviet system had collapsed, and that capitalist countries in North America, Europe and Asia were booming. They realized socialist revolution was not a realistic option for Brazil at this time, and they did not advocate it. Yet they had not quite come to terms emotionally with the failure of socialism. When I was a member of a panel at the Latin American Sociological Association meeting at the University of São Paulo, in 1997, all of the other panelists were highly critical of the Cardoso administration. But when I asked them what policies they would advocate instead of those Cardoso was following, they frankly admitted that they had no alternatives. The role of intellectuals, they said, was to criticize. They had no obligation to offer alternatives.

In every nation, there are people who feel guilty about their own nation's successes. In America, these people feel guilty about our economic success, believing that it must have been won by exploiting the third world, or pillaging the environment, or some other sin. Brazil is known around the world for sensuous women, samba, Carnival. Everyone in America knows The Girl from Ipanema. Perhaps some Brazilians, such as Vasconcellos, feel guilty about this. Why else do they denounce the country's leaders for their recusa do romântico, do carisma e do amor [recusal of romance, charisma and love]? (p. 39)? Most Americans would prefer that our president kept his pants zipped and focused on business. The thing that worried me most about Vasconcellos' book was his concern that Cardoso "tem horror à idéa de martírio, ou seja: não é o desejo de ser martir o que lhe seduz psicologicamente [has a horror of the idea of martyrdom, or we can say that the desire of being a martyr is not what seduces him psychologically.(p. 83). Having had the good luck to elect an honest president who knew what he was doing, why should a Brazilian long for one with a martyr complex? It is hard to understand this except as a psychological need to suffer for the nation's indulgences.

When I examined the information I had about Cardoso as a personality, it was obvious he did not fit the profile of the kind of revolutionary leader many Brazilians were apparently seeking. In his comparative study of Cromwell, Robespierre, Lenin and Mao Tse-tung, Bruce Mazlish (The Revolutionary Ascetic) found that these revolutionaries shared an exaggerated self-love that masked a deeper insecurity. They were highly disciplined individuals who had few loving ties to other people, but displaced their emotions onto abstractions such as "the Revolution," "the People," "Humanity," or "Virtue." They could not tolerate anyone who disagreed with them or threatened their public persona.

Cardoso is nothing like this. But neither is he self-effacing. People often describe him as arrogant. In fact, he cheerfully admits this about himself. But his arrogance does not mask any hidden insecurity. He is so comfortable with himself that he feels no need to belittle other people, so they feel comfortable around him. Psychologically, his profile is not difficult to explain. It is rooted in a happy and supportive childhood, and in many ways all happy families are the same.

His personal traits make Cardoso highly effective at the "retail" side of politics. He maintains good personal relationships with politicians from all parties and political tendencies, and it is hard to find anyone who knows him who dislikes him personally. This is especially important in Brazil, where personal relationships are much more important than party loyalties. He is weak, however, at the "wholesale" side of politics. Perhaps because of his own lack of inner pain, he has a hard time communicating his feelings to crowds. I happened to watch him on television at a time when the nation was facing a major financial crisis. His message was brief and matter-of-fact; he simply said, don't worry, we know what we're doing and we'll take care of it.

Cardoso is an urbane intellectual who uses big words and speaks foreign languages, and he simply could not fool anyone if he pretended to be anything else. He sounds like a college professor, and his speeches are full of insight and information. I found the transcripts, published in tiny type in the newspapers, very useful for my biography. But he has little ability to rouse enthusiasm in a crowd. His advisors were able to market him as an intelligent man with answers to the people's problems, but not as a sympathetic one who feels their pain.

If no one pressures Cardoso to try to be more charismatic, people are continually pressuring him to be more authoritarian. He finds that many of his supporters, "curiosamente, vivam querendo que eu seja ditador [curiously, they live wanting me to be a dictator] ." People urge him to take decisive action, going beyond the legitimate powers of the presidency. "Por que o governo n o resolve a quest o? Voce pode! Faz uma medida provisória, dizem. A vontade imperial deve prevalecer. Inconscientemente querem um ditador. [Why doesn't the government resolve the question? You can do it. Impose a provisional measure, they say. The Imperial Will must prevail. Unconsciously they want me to be a dictator]" (Veja [Brazilian Newsmagazine], 10 September 1997).

If things were this bad, I wondered, how on earth did the country end up with Fernando Henrique Cardoso instead of a figure like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez? Perhaps God is, in fact, a Brazilian? I could find, however, no evidence of divine intervention, unless He acted through then President Itamar Franco. Cardoso became president because of his surprising success in ending inflation as finance minister. And he was appointed finance minister by the political elite, not by the general public. He did not have the personal traits or skills needed to communicate his feelings to the masses, but he did have the confidence of the elites. Not because he represented elite interests, more than the interests of other Brazilians, but simply because they knew him personally and had worked with him. Itamar Franco and the Congressional leaders realized that the financial system had failed, and they had the determination to find a solution within constitutional norms. Instead of allowing the extremists to tear the country apart, as they did in 1964, the moderate majority in the national leadership turned responsibility for the economy over to a man they trusted. And they gave him the exceptional authority he needed to implement the Plano Real.

Ironically, Cardoso was able to make the economic changes that were needed because he took power at a moment of national weakness. The political elite was frightened because inflation seemed to be cycling out of control. Morale was low, not only because of inflation but because of the political disasters of the Collor de Melo administration. Collor de Melo's conduct had disgraced Brazil, making it look more like a banana republic than an emerging industrial powerhouse. Voters who had believed in him were chagrined and disillusioned, and wary of trusting any politician in the future. Even the historians, with a longer perspective on events, couldn't help but be discouraged. The distinguished historian Boris Fausto, writing the finishing remarks for a new Historia do Brasil, which was adopted in university courses all over the country, ended on a despondent note. He certainly wished that things could get better, but he couldn't imagine how. At the time, most Brazilians felt hopeless. The Workers' Party had no platform for ending inflation, they simply proposed to raise wages faster and faster to keep up with it.

But Brazil's problems were fundamentally political, not economic. Brazil had fine economists who knew how to end a hyperinflation, just as the economists done in Argentina, Bolivia and Israel. The main problem was not formulating a good economic policy. It was getting the nation to accept it. Cardoso was able to do this largely because a weakness in the nation's morale provided a window of opportunity for changes that the system would otherwise never have accepted.

In comparison to his predecessors, Cardoso has been highly effective. Yet his popularity in the opinion polls has been very low since the devaluation of the real, and was not terribly high before that. Cardoso understands that people are unhappy with him because of the economic stress and insecurity that the devaluation has caused. He is particularly disappointed, however, that he has not had more understanding from the intellectuals, who he thinks should understand better what he is doing. Cardoso seems hurt that, of all people, the intellectuals do not understand him. He says, "what concerns me most is not being understood by those who ought to understand. By the academics and the political vanguard. It is to these people that I say, it is just not possible!." Cardoso and the intellectuals often seem to be talking past each other in a dialog of the deaf. This reflects a difference in intellectual values. Cardoso has always been a pragmatist, and pragmatism has never been highly valued in Latin America, particularly among intellectuals in the humanities and the humanistic social sciences. Cardoso realizes that Brazilians "do not fully accept the pragmatic dimensions of the Anglo-Saxon spirit." In the constituent assembly he once quoted the observation that, among Brazilians and others of Iberian culture, "productive activity, by itself, is less valued than contemplation or love."

The intellectuals' distaste for Cardoso may reflect a preference for Bohemian as contrasted to Bourgeois culture (Cesar Grana (Bohenian vs Bourgois). As David Brooks notes in his new book BOBOS (Bourgeois Bohemians) in Paradise, in Europe in the 1830s "pained abhorrence of the bourgeoisie became the official emotion of most writers and intellectuals (p 66)." One of the most influential writers in this school was Gustave Flaubert, who signed some of his letters "Bourgeoisophobus" and argued that hatred of the bourgeoisie was "the beginning of all virtue." This European attitude contrasted with the frankly Bourgeois values of Americanwriters such as Benjamin Franklin.

Both the Bohemian and the Bourgeois spirits are clearly present in Brazil. Brazil's businessmen and economists have certainly shown that they can be utterly pragmatic when competing in the modern world economy. Many academic intellectuals, however, prefer noble intentions over mundane but tangible accomplishments. They often look down on politicians and businessmen as lesser spirits than themselves, preoccupied with petty, materialistic concerns. Perhaps this will change when Brazilians become more familiar with the "BOBO" - bourgeois bohemian - culture that now predominates in the high tech industry in the United States. Bobos combine combines the "hip" lifestyle Norman Mailer and others idealized in the 1960s with entrepreneurial economic and libertarian political values.

This kind of cultural change, however, would require a new generation of leadership, and I am not sufficiently familiar with trends in Brazilian culture to know how strong this tendency may be. Fernando Henrique Cardoso represents an older generation, but he has been remarkably able to recognize changes in cultural, economic and social patterns, and to take advantage of the openings that history has presented. His accomplishment has been to accept the things which could not be changed, and then to make history by changing things that could be. Did he change history? Certainly not in the dramatic way that Lenin or Castro did. He did not cause Brazil to change direction, to go towards capitalism instead of socialism. Brazil was already evolving towards mature participation in the global market economy. What he did was facilitate the process, making it much less painful than it might have been. Thanks to his intervention, the inflation problem was solved before the country went into a total fiscal crisis. Necessary reforms in the tax and retirement systems and the civil service and the political system are being made before the country reached a complete collapse. Without Cardoso, I believe it would have taken longer for these things to be accomplished. I believe that, without Cardoso, Brazil's recent history would look a lot more like that of Ecuador or Venezuela. These countries, too, will pull themselves together, but probably after a crisis, not before.

As an applied social scientist, Cardoso's role is like that of a practicing physician who prescribes the best available treatment for his patient's problems, not that of a medical researcher who seeks new treatments for incurable illnesses. Fortunately, Brazil does not suffer from unique or incurable illnesses. Treatments which are working elsewhere are likely to work in Brazil as well, and it would be irresponsible for Cardoso not to use them. Brazil is like a patient that needs to lose some weight (excess bureaucracy, pension rights, etc.). The radical visionaries are arguing about what the country should look like at the end of the process. This is like arguing about whether a person needs to lose 20 kilograms or 30. It doesn't effect what needs to be done today. Many people are hopeful for a magical potion that will make the excess weight fade away effortlessly. The populists are always pushing nostrums of this kind (refuse to pay your debts, protest the World Bank, etc.) In this analogy, Cardoso is the physician who keeps saying, the only solution is a sensible diet and exercise. Give up deserts and fatty foods, get down to the health club every few days. This advice is not exciting, and many Brazilians are not happy to be reminded of it. But if they stick to it, it will work.