The Accidental President of Brazil

A Memoir


By Fernando Henrique Cardoso

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Fernando Henrique Cardoso received a phone call in the middle of the night asking him to be the new Finance Minister of Brazil. As he put the phone down and stared into the darkness of his hotel room, he feared he’d been handed a political death sentence. The year was 1993, and he would be responsible for an economy that had had seven different currencies in the previous eight years to cope with inflation that had run at 3000 percent a year. Brazil had a habit of chewing up finance ministers with the ferocity of an Amazon piranha.

This was just one of the turns in a largely unscripted and sometimes unwanted political career. In exile during the harshest period of the junta that ruled Brazil for twenty years, Cardoso started his political life with a tentative run for the Federal Senate in 1978. Within fifteen years, and despite himself, this former sociologist was running the country.

And what a country! Brazil, it is often said, is on the edge of modernity, striding with one foot in mid-air towards the future, the other still rooted deep in a traditional past. It is a land of sophisticated music and brutal gold-digging, of the next global superpower and the last old-time coffee plantations. It is gloriously ungovernable, irrepressibly attractive, and home to the family, friends and extraordinary life of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. This is his story and his love song to his country.


Praise for The Accidental President of Brazil
"[Mr. Cardoso] . . . deserves enormous credit, not least for the intellectual honesty that allowed him to abandon collectivist ideals as the world changed."
The Wall Street Journal
"In this most engaging and very personal history of twentieth-century Brazil, a genuine philosopher-king recounts how he combined principle and pragmatism to transform a harsh military dictatorship into a hopeful, modern democracy. . . . Readers with even a passing curiosity about Brazil will enjoy—and all aspiring Latin American politicians should study—this rare 'lessons learned' memoir by one of the foremost statesmen of our times."
Foreign Affairs (Editor's pick)
"Honest, personable and engaging."
Washington Post
"[A] charming account of the life of a sociology professor turned unlikely leader. . . . Cardoso shaped Brazil for years to come."
Providence Journal
"In [The Accidental President of Brazil] . . . the ex-president . . . uses his life story to illuminate Brazil's ongoing evolution. . . . Along the way, he offers revealing vignettes of his dealings with two American presidents, sounds a cautionary note about China, and offers a surprising conclusion about his homeland's future . . . Cardoso's personal journey in the past half century mirrors the changes in Brazilian society. . . ."
USA Today
"First-rate . . . [Cardoso has] the panache of a seasoned history writer . . . [while] Cardoso's family history would seem to have predisposed him to the role of public man, his story is that of a maverick whose curious mind and love for his country helped bring Brazil into the twenty-first century as a formidable economic and political power."
Publishers Weekly
"An engaging and thoughtful look at the turbulent history of government in Brazil. . . . Cardoso has a deep and intimate perspective on that nation's politics. . . . Readers interested in the political history of this fascinating nation, of huge importance on the American continent, will enjoy this book."
"A candid memoir about Cardoso's successes . . . and failures . . . provides a context for studying Brazil's political evolution in recent years and will be particularly useful for public and undergraduate libraries."
Library Journal
"This is a book about the art of politics and the craftsmanship of governing. The political trajectory of Fernando Henrique Cardoso has important lessons for countries struggling to consolidate their democracies and stabilize their economies . . . it offers insights into how political and economic change occurs in a country renowned for its instability."
Development Policy Review
"Fascinating. . . . This entertaining memoir brings together the best of Cardoso's insights as sociologist, politician, president, and elder statesman. It is must-reading for everyone interested in Brazil's past or concerned about its future."
—Professor Ted Goertzel, InfoBrazil
"Possesses the seductive prose of someone who likes, and knows how, to tell a good story . . . Fernando Henrique Cardoso's story, with his experiences and ideas, is a book full of love for Brazil."
O Estado de São Paulo
"A captivating narrative for those interested in history, politics, and sociology."
El Diario/La Prensa
"The Accidental President of Brazil comes on the scene as a petite classic . . . mixing personal confession, historical thriller, and hard truths."

Charting a New Course:
The Politics of Globalization and Social Transformation
with Maurício Font, Editor
Dependency and Development in Latin America.
with Enzo Falletto

Joana, Helena, Julia, Pedro, and Isabel

In the 1990s, for the first time in history, more than half the world's population lived under democratically elected governments. This democratic revolution swept across our hemisphere. As never before, the Americas came together to embrace common goals and common values. My friend, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, both symbolized and led this movement. He endured arrest, blacklisting, and exile without giving in to despair. His office was bombed, and his friends were tortured, but he never wavered from the ideals of tolerance and understanding.
We have a special responsibility and a special ability, Brazil and the United States, to work together with the other countries of the Americas to maintain the democratic momentum and to expand its benefits to those who have not yet felt them. Our nations have the largest populations and the largest economies, rich natural resources, and enormous diversity among our peoples. Most importantly, we both cherish the same values: freedom and equality, respect for the individual, the importance of the family and community, social justice, and peace. President Cardoso and I forged a close friendship and productive working relationship because of these shared values.
Brazil faced a series of daunting challenges during President Cardoso's terms and, with his leadership, overcame many of them. Brazil emerged from dictatorship only 20 years ago, thanks in part to Cardoso's efforts. He worked as a senator and government minister to consolidate and steady Brazil's fledgling democracy, and then as minister of finance, he strived to stabilize his nation's economy.
Cardoso's economic strategy as finance minister, the Plano Real, succeeded in curbing the hyperinflation that was crippling Brazil's economy. Halting inflation dramatically boosted the real incomes of the poor, created a solid foundation for economic growth, and protected the country from many of the financial crises that have afflicted other developing nations.
The Plano Real was so successful that the people of Brazil elected Cardoso president. A highly regarded sociologist before embarking on his political career, Cardoso brought academic rigor and policy expertise to his governing style. He continued to work hard on economic and trade issues to bring prosperity to his people, embarking on a privatization effort that has raised billions of dollars. He also understood that globalization could help Brazil, and by pursuing free trade agreements between the nations of the Americas, he increased exports and expanded his country's economy.
Most importantly, President Cardoso was committed to seeking prosperity the right way, with all citizens having a chance to participate in the wealth that the global economy generates. He knew that an increasingly global economy requires deepening democracy and the rule of law, protecting workers, and educating the young people who embody the future of our countries. Under President Cardoso, Brazil spent nearly six percent of its GNP on education and worked hard to increase enrollment and to help more children complete their early years of school. His "Bolsa Escola" initiative is a model for developing nations throughout the world, and we formed the Partnership for Education to work together to prepare our children for the future.
President Cardoso's dedication to justice goes beyond his own country. He ensured that, during his presidency, Brazil was a responsible global citizen. He worked against international threats like crime, drug trafficking, and terrorism. Brazil was a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Kyoto Accords. The nation also took a forward-thinking, aggressive approach to combating the HIV/AIDS pandemic, providing anti-retroviral medicines to all Brazilians who needed them.
For two terms as president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso navigated his country through a potentially perilous landscape with courage, foresight, and grace. He assumed the presidency of a young democracy with an unstable economy, and he transformed Brazil into a mature and prosperous nation respected around the world. His memoir tells the story of his remarkable leadership as president, his fascinating personal life, his remarkable encounters with other historical figures, and perhaps most movingly, his lifelong love for Brazil. No one has served Brazil better or more faithfully than he has.

POLITICS FIRST INTERRUPTED my life on a crystalline beach in Niterói, across the bay from Rio de Janeiro. It was May 1938, and I was just six years old. My family had been enjoying a typically carefree vacation of tropical sun and surf when, late one night, a jangling telephone jostled us awake. My father lifted the receiver from the wall, listened, said nothing, and then slammed the phone down. Hurriedly, he changed into a military uniform, grabbed a revolver, and rushed out the door.
It was the night of the coup attempt by the integralistas, a rather bizarre band of fascists who spewed hatred against Jews and Communists under the motto "God, Fatherland, Family." They received funding from Mussolini and envisioned themselves as the heirs to Hitler, but the integralistas were unmistakably, uniquely Brazilian. They raised their right arms to salute like the Nazis, but instead of "Sieg heil!" they shouted "Anaué!"—an Indian word of murky meaning that was supposed to reflect the group's nationalist leanings. Shoved out of power soon after the president had ordered Congress closed the year before, a small band of integralistas had panicked and made a daring, foolish attack that May night on the presidential palace.
With the palace unguarded, President Getúlio Vargas had no choice but to try and repel the attackers himself. The paunchy, cigar-smoking strongman appeared in the palace window with a handgun and took potshots at the rebels outside, while Alzira, his twenty-three-year-old daughter, frantically telephoned military commanders and begged for reinforcements. The integralistas, who turned out to be no experts in combat themselves, haplessly returned fire from behind exploding flowerpots and sculptures. The battle turned decisively when someone mounted a submachine gun in the palace window. In one of the most surreal moments in Brazilian history, Getúlio himself then proceeded to blaze away at the attackers, keeping them at bay for several hours until my father and other soldiers arrived.
A dozen of the integralistas were killed, and the rebellion was summarily crushed. From that point on, Getúlio established a personal squad of bodyguards who accompanied him at all times, reflective of a deep paranoia that would eventually lead to his death.
When my father returned home the next day, he was sweaty and exhausted, but unharmed. "Everything's fine now, Fernando Henrique," he told me with an easy smile. "We can go back to our vacation."
That night at the beach, I realized for the first time that, in Brazil, a government sometimes had to defend itself with guns. This was a hugely disturbing revelation because, in my young mind, Brazil's government was altogether inseparable from my family; they were one and the same. My great-uncle, Augusto Ignácio do Espírito Santo Cardoso, had been Getúlio's minister of war. My father worked in the ministry with him. Several other family members were also generals and officials intimately tied to the regime; one of my cousins later followed his father as war minister, and another cousin became the government-appointed mayor of Rio. A coup attempt was therefore akin to an assault on all of my family.
To a six-year-old, it was a vivid political baptism.
As the years went by, I realized such episodes were hardly an aberration. I grew up hearing fantastic tales about my great-grandfather, a provincial governor on the parched, backward Brazilian high plateau; about my grandfather, a general who had helped found the Republic; and about my father, a general also, who had been imprisoned twice for joining doomed rebellions in the 1920s. Politics, it seemed, was both a life-consuming passion and an unwelcome, violent intrusion for generations of my ancestors. There was a certain inevitability about it. "Always try to make casual conversation with your jailer," my father once instructed me. "Make yourself seem as human as possible. You must always talk. And with the guard, not with the captain." I couldn't have been much older than ten when he said this. Yet I never once questioned why he would be telling me such a thing. His fatherly advice would, indeed, prove indispensable later on.
Still, if politics seemed to be the Cardoso family business, then I took the route of many favorite sons—I spent my early life trying to avoid it. Some of my friends (and more than a few of my critics) scoff at this notion, believing I was naturally drawn to power at any cost: It was said that "Fernando Henrique couldn't be pope, so he settled for being the president of Brazil." But the fact is that I was always more interested in quietly reading books in the sun, preferring the world I had known before the phone rang that autumn night in Niterói.
People forget this: Back when the job fell to me, who in their right mind would have wanted to be president of Brazil?
Following twenty years of military dictatorship, which finally collapsed in 1985, I was Brazil's third civilian president. One of my predecessors had died before he could be inaugurated. The other was impeached for allegedly embezzling millions of dollars. Look further back in time, and the stories of Brazilian heads of state get even bleaker. One ended his presidency by shooting himself in the heart; another died heartbroken, bankrupt and exiled in a Paris hotel room; still another resigned out of the blue one day, got rip-roaring drunk, and boarded a boat for Europe.
Failure alone does not drive men to such extremes. It could only be the special kind of failure that results when tantalizing potential falls tragically short of expectations. That is the kind of failure that Brazil has always specialized in.
At first glance, it is easy to be dazzled. When we travel abroad, Brazilians are gently mocked for our habit of using superlatives to describe our country. We cannot help it. Brazil is the world's fifth-largest country in terms of both size and population, with 185 million people spread over an area larger than the continental United States. It has the biggest economy in Latin America, and the ninth largest in the world, putting it ahead of Russia and just behind Italy. It is the world's number one producer of sugar, oranges, and coffee, but it's not just a producer of commodities; it's also one of the world's top ten makers of airplanes and automobiles. Its rich ethnic diversity can be matched only by the United States: According to rough estimates, Brazil boasts at least 25 million people of Italian heritage, 10 million of German descent, and more than 10 million Lebanese. Brazil has more people of African descent than any country besides Nigeria. There are more ethnic Japanese in São Paulo than in any other city outside Japan. Brazil is the number one beef exporter, the planet's most populous Roman Catholic country, and so on.
All of this abundance sits on a gorgeous and varied landscape of white beaches, emerald forests, and fertile plains. Brazil possesses a quarter—a quarter!—of the world's arable land. The country is practically self-sufficient in oil, and over the centuries it has yielded vast quantities of gold. There is seemingly no limit to the natural and human riches that lie within its borders.
So surely Brazil is a paradise? It could be, were it not for hellish problems of an equally superlative nature.
Despite its abundant natural resources, Brazil is probably most notorious for having one of the world's largest gaps between rich and poor, with 10 percent of the population earning about half of the country's wealth. One in four people earn less than $1 a day. Despite Brazil's vast farmland, there are still pockets of malnutrition. Thousands of abandoned street children roam our cities. The murder rate is so high that it meets the United Nations' definition of a low-grade civil war. We have the world's highest number of gun deaths. São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have morphed into veritable "cities of walls," with the middle class seeking refuge in compounds that resemble penitentiaries more than apartment blocs. The legacy of slavery, which saw more African slaves brought here than anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere, left one of the world's most unjust traditions of brutality, exclusion, and exploitation. The world's highest foreign debt, coupled with chronic budget deficits, has left the government's finances in a permanent state of crisis.
Politics in Brazil is about trying to reconcile these monumental contradictions. The scale of the challenge is hard to appreciate. Every new president, an optimist on his first day in office, thinks he can pull it off. But in the past, by the time many of these men left the job they were reduced to a bitter shadow of their former selves. What happened in the middle was rarely a pretty story.
Bill Clinton once told me that every country has one great fear and one great hope. Russia will always fear foreign invasion, for example, whereas China will always fear disintegration from within. I told Clinton that, in Brazil's case, the fear and the hope are essentially one and the same.
Our hope is to become a prosperous and just world power, worthy of our continental size. We have always believed this is our destiny. The almost childlike obsession with our potential, and the belief that we will one day achieve greatness, are even emblazoned in our national anthem:
Brasil, um sonho intenso, um raio vívido
De amor e de esperança à terra desce,
Se em teu formoso céu, risonho e límpido,
A imagem do Cruzeiro resplandece
Gigante pela própria natureza,
És belo, és forte, impávido colosso
E o teu futuro espelha essa grandeza
Brazil, an intense dream, a vivid ray
Of love and hope settles on the earth.
As in your beautiful sky, smiling and serene
The image of the Southern Cross shines.
Strong, an intrepid colossus,
A giant by nature, you are beautiful,
And your future will match this grandeur.
Powerful words, never realized. As I told Clinton, the reality in Brazil has been much closer to our national fear: that we will never realize our destiny, that we will remain imprisoned by the memorable line from Stefan Zweig: "Brazil is the land of the future, and it always will be."
Brazilians have always resented that cliché. We have equal distaste for the way the world sees Brazil: as a country of frivolous, perpetually beach-bronzed youths, reveling in an eternal Carnival, partying hard with the Girl from Ipanema without ever having to worry about the hangover. Not so, we protest, desperate to be taken seriously. But there is some truth to the way the world sees us. Brazil does have to overcome an irresponsible, almost clownish streak of character that has sometimes made the country look ungovernable. History offers some clues as to why, but understanding this instability and conquering it are two different things altogether.
I have spent most of my life as a professor of sociology, trying to explain the way complex social forces cause countries to change. In fact, this is the thirtieth book that I have participated in writing. This book, however, is vastly different from the rest. It is not a detailed discussion of my academic career; nor is it an exhaustive policy analysis of my government. That information can be found elsewhere. Rather, this is mostly a book about people. And, somehow, I think the story is best told this way. Looking back on my life, I find it stunning—and more than a bit scary—how individual personalities can have such a profound effect on a country. This is a book about the people, some of them famous, others less so, who have shaped Brazil over the past century.
It tells the story of how Brazil took a step toward its great hope—a shaky step, but a step nonetheless. It is the story of my life, my family, and my country—all of which, through chance or fate, have been intertwined in the most personal and improbable ways. It is the story of my great love for Brazil: a love that has had dizzying ups and downs, but has survived them all. And it is the story of my unlikely journey to the top, which was aided by good fortune, good friends, and, yes, more than my share of lucky accidents along the way.

IN A PALACE nestled in the emerald hills outside Rio, there hangs a lithograph depicting the moment in 1889 when Dom Pedro II, the second and final emperor of Brazil, was ordered into exile. The scene represents a moment of truth, the kind of high-stakes confrontation that can alter a country's history forever.
On the right-hand side of the image, three stern military officers deliver a letter instructing the emperor to leave Brazil within twenty-four hours. To the left stands the royal court, a sea of dismayed faces. And in the middle, slumped in a chair, sits Dom Pedro II. He was a frail, sixty-three-year-old man by the time they finally came for him, a coarse white beard cascading down his chest, his once-striking six-foot-four frame wracked by diabetes and old age. In the lithograph, he appears curiously calm; he limply extends his hand to take the letter, and his handsome, sparkling blue eyes have an air of tired disinterest. He looks every bit like a man resigned to his fate.
Perhaps Dom Pedro II had been expecting a more dignified sendoff. The emperor had ruled for nearly half a century, spanning the lion's share of Brazil's history since it won independence from Portugal in 1822. Dom Pedro II, himself a descendant of the Portuguese royal family, had inherited the Brazilian throne under less than ideal circumstances. His predecessors had enjoyed mixed results in taming the wild young country; his great-grandmother had been known simply as "Mad Maria"; his grandfather, Dom João, fared better as a ruler, but his merits were nearly overshadowed in the public imagination by his notorious appetite for fried chicken, chunks of which he was known to hide in the pockets of his flowing dress uniform. Dom João also had to lock the queen in a convent when she was found to have arranged for the murder of her boyfriend's wife. This kind of scandal rocked the royal court from its inception, eroding authority that was already tenuous in a vast and chaotic country.
It was under this dubious legacy that Dom Pedro II inherited the Brazilian throne at the tender age of five, when his father returned to Portugal to seek the more prestigious throne there. A regency was meant to run the day-to-day affairs of Brazil until Dom Pedro II became an adult, but fate intervened; he was rushed into full governing duties at just fourteen in an attempt to preserve the unity of the country, which was threatened by regional revolts. Having a teenager in charge was hardly a recipe for success for a fragile country that was almost as young as he was, but Dom Pedro II eventually blossomed into an enlightened and accomplished leader, by the standards of his time.1
The emperor spoke or read ten languages, including English, French, Spanish, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and Hebrew. One of his favorite diversions was traveling abroad under an alias, wandering into synagogues, and reading aloud from the scrolls. He ordered an astronomical observatory built in his palace, and with his love for opera, painting, sculpture, and the theater, he single-handedly sparked a cultural boom in Rio. In his spare time, he amused himself by penning poetry and translating foreign texts, or by sending letters to his numerous friends abroad, who included Louis Pasteur, Victor Hugo, Alexander von Humboldt, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A man of incurable wanderlust, he traveled widely throughout Europe and the United States, helping give rise to the enduring image of the amiable Brazilian abroad.
Dom Pedro's most high-profile voyage was in 1876, when he became the first foreign head of state ever to set foot on U.S. soil. This seems incredible in retrospect, but both Brazil and the United States were still relative pretenders in a world dominated by the monarchies of Europe. In fact, the emperor's royal bloodlines arguably bestowed his country with more prestige than the United States had, according to the backward calculus of the times. He was anything but traditional, however. Dom Pedro II raised more than a few eyebrows when he timed his visit to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of U.S. independence—which, after all, celebrated overthrowing a European monarch to establish a republic. The symbolism could not have been accidental, and it foreshadowed the changes to come.
The centerpiece of the emperor's trip was the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. There, Dom Pedro II sought out a young, relatively obscure teacher at the School of the Deaf named Alexander Graham Bell, with whom he had exchanged letters. Trailed by a phalanx of reporters, the emperor strolled up to Bell's exhibition booth, which was buried in a poorly lit corner of the fair. Bell excitedly told Dom Pedro II of his newest invention, which had received scant attention thus far, and asked the emperor to help demonstrate it to the growing mass of curious newspapermen.
The emperor picked up the strange "telephone," then dropped it in astonishment when he heard Bell on the other end, reciting Hamlet's soliloquy: "To be or not to be?"
"My God!" Dom Pedro II exclaimed. "It speaks!"
Thanks to the publicity, Bell's invention became the sensation of the fair.


On Sale
Mar 27, 2007
Page Count
320 pages

Fernando Henrique Cardoso

About the Author

Fernando Henrique Cardoso was President of the Federative Republic of Brazil for two consecutive terms, from January 1995 to December 2002. Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1931, he is married, with three children, and lives in SãPaulo.

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