An Inconspicuous Scholar

Former Brazilian President Quietly Assumes Duties at Kluge Center

Posted November 11, 2003 at 2:05pm

Less than a year after leaving office, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, now a Kluge scholar at the Library of Congress, exhibits few of the usual trappings of power. 

He and his wife, Ruth, also a scholar at the Library, live in downtown Washington “in a small flat without any help, no guards, no drivers,” he says.

They ride the Metro to work every day. They eat lunch in the Library cafeteria. 

And Cardoso, the man who ruled Latin America’s most populous nation for the better part of a decade, couldn’t be happier. 

“When I am abroad … I prefer not to be known,” he says simply. 

To illustrate his success at effecting l’air incognito, he points to a recent exchange in Providence, R.I., that occurred when he was teaching at Brown University, where he is professor at-large. 

“I took a car from my apartment to the university and the driver said, ‘You know there is a president now teaching here.’” 

He laughs. 

Still, since arriving in Washington in late October, Cardoso’s dance card would hardly qualify him for wallflower status. In just a few short weeks, he’s received the Fulbright Prize, dined with Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and rubbed shoulders with his former counterpart, Bill Clinton, at the annual meeting of the Club of Madrid (comprised of former heads of state and government) in Spain. This weekend, he’s off to Bolivia for the Ibero-American summit to deliver a report recommending major changes in the summit system.

And the 72-year-old former sociology professor remains active in the international community, chairing a United Nations panel on relations with civil society.

“What is needed is a much more active U.N.,” Cardoso asserts, holding forth from his Kluge Center office on a recent Thursday morning.

“It’s true in the last 10 years every decision by the Security Council was postponed, was not implemented — that’s what gave maybe moral ground for the Americans and British to act [in Iraq] because they had a paralysis in the U.N. system,” adds Cardoso, who opposed the war.

While the 2002 Brazilian elections saw Cardoso’s left-of-center Brazilian Social Democratic Party candidate — former Minister of Health Jose Serra — handily defeated by his longtime rival Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the far-left Workers’ Party, Cardoso says the power handover hasn’t resulted in major policy shifts.

“They are just continuing basically a very similar approach that I was implementing. … If you look at the economic situation, the financial situation, it’s exactly the same as when I was there, even in the social programs.

“Democracy now is well-rooted in the country and in my mind that is what in terms of heritage, in terms of legacy … is more important,” he adds. 

Asked if he agrees with da Silva’s hard-line stance vis-à-vis the United States when it comes to demanding reduced tariffs for Brazilian agriculture products — a key stumbling block at September’s failed global trade talks in Cancun — Cardoso says matters of style, not substance, constitute the biggest distinction between him and his successor.

“The difference would be in terms of rhetoric, not in terms of practical difference,” says Cardoso, who believes the United States and Europe must open their markets to Brazilian agriculture products. “I believe Lula is very, very insightful. He has a pragmatic mind. Probably he will realize it’s better not to go too far in that direction,” he adds, referring to da Silva’s confrontational language. (Recent reports that U.S. and Brazilian trade officials had reached an understanding just before next week’s hemispherewide trade talks in Miami seem to reinforce this view.)

Ever the self-effacing professor, Cardoso seems to revel in his everyman anonymity. He is dressed in a neat black suit, paired with a black and white geometric-designed tie. His bespectacled visage is framed by a fine tuft of silvery white hair. His office is bare, and Cardoso — who will be at the Library at least through January 2004 — has no plans to decorate.

Professor-cum-Politician

Prior to the military takeover of Brazil in 1964, Cardoso was an associate sociology professor at the University of São Paulo. His more left-wing views, however, did not sit well with the right-wing regime.

“I was 33 years old and well-known enough to become one of those selected … to be blamed as responsible for disorders in Brazil,” remembers Cardoso, who fled the country.

After four years in Chile working for the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, he headed to France in 1968 for a post at the University of Paris, Nanterre, the epicenter of the student revolts that gripped the nation that May.  

“It was fantastic,” Cardoso recalls of the heady days of revolution. “It was a cultural transformation of France and the movement started in my faculty.” 

At the end of 1968, he returned to his homeland having finally earned the full professorship he had long been denied. But six months later, the military forcibly retired him, leaving him with a pension but no venue to practice his craft.

Even so, the 1970s were busy years for Cardoso. There were teaching gigs at Stanford, Princeton, Cambridge and Paris’ École des Hautes Études; a new social policy research nongovernmental organization founded with colleagues; the publication of his seminal work, “Dependency and Development in Latin America”; and finally his election in 1978 as deputy senator from São Paulo and the passage of an amnesty law, which allowed Cardoso to work “more calmly.”

After the end of the military regime in 1985, Cardoso’s political fortunes improved dramatically, and he rose to foreign minister and then finance minister before being elected president on a centrist platform by an overwhelming majority in 1994.

“And now, as I used to say, I’m again a post-doctoral student in America,” he quips.

Library Life

Cardoso and his wife, Ruth, who have adjacent Kluge Center offices, represent an unprecedented combination for the Library: a former president and first lady serving as scholars in residence, says Librarian of Congress James Billington, who adds that the pair were an ideal addition to the center’s stable of intellectual stars.

“I think it’s marvelous for the larger purposes of the Kluge Center to have with us someone who … has seen how intellectual theories and scholarship have looked from not only the scholar’s desk, but also from the implementer’s desk,” notes Director of Scholarly Programs Prosser Gifford, who heads the center.  

Coming on the heels of eight frenetic years as president, Cardoso says Billington’s invitation to the Library was a godsend. 

“A place isolated, protected is all that I like now,” he says quietly.

“It’s always a good sign to me when politicians are what they are before office and resume where they left off once they leave office,” observes Billington, who has known Cardoso since the mid-1970s when Billington was director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Cardoso served on the advisory panel for the center’s Latin America program. 

As a senior scholar, Cardoso receives $13,500 per month. And both he and his wife are using their perch to complete books. Cardoso is already hard at work on “The Art of Politics,” which will explore both the recent political transformation in Brazil as well as his experiences as president, while Ruth Cardoso’s tome will look at sociopolitical aspects of contemporary Brazil.

Looking to the future, Cardoso hopes to have his presidential library up and running in São Paulo by April 2004. When it opens it will be only the second such institution in a nation long dominated by colonial and military powers, and Cardoso envisions a center of “lively debates.”

While Cardoso says he was, in part, inspired by the American system of presidential libraries, the center will likely conform to a more modest model: that of former Portuguese President Mario Suarez. 

“Americans have money, Europeans much less, and Brazilians still less,” he observes. “So I have to not try to imitate Americans because we can’t.”