In early 2004, I received a call from an editor in New York, asking me how much I knew about Fernando Henrique Cardoso. They were looking for a young (read: cheap) journalist to help Brazil’s president from 1995 to 2002 write his memoirs in English. I was flattered, but confessed that I had been to Brazil only once, spoke zero Portuguese, and I was much more familiar with Argentina. The editor replied, perhaps joking: “Isn’t it basically the same thing?”
So off I went to São Paulo, tape recorder and Portuguese dictionary in hand. I’ve always been grateful to Cardoso for not throwing me out of his office at first sight – he deserved much better than I could offer at the time. But I suppose his previous career as an internationally renowned sociology professor had taught him how to tolerate clueless gringos, and he patiently answered the questions that became the basis for the book.
My very first question was: How is Brazil different from the rest of Latin America?
The answer was more than just language and size, Cardoso explained. Brazil is a continent-sized country born from a tremendous injustice: slavery. As a result, it has suffered since its founding from extreme inequality, difficult geography and other forces working to tear it apart. But unlike Spanish-speaking mainland Latin America, which splintered into 16 countries, Brazil maintained its territorial unity. Its history was one of near-constant progress, albeit from an abysmally low base: From 1900 to 1980, Brazil’s economy grew faster than any other major nation except Japan. A mostly illiterate, malnourished country became a middle-income one.
This success, relative though it might be, could be attributed to numerous factors including mineral wealth, a favorable climate and a certain immigrants’ belief in the future that Americans tend to intuitively understand. Yet there was another, more uniquely Brazilian element that became clear as Cardoso told me stories about his family, protagonists in key episodes of history going back to the 19th century. Since that time, Brazil had gone from a monarchy to a republic to a democracy to a dictatorship and back to civilian rule. But through it all, there had never been a true rupture. Revolutions were frequent, but usually bloodless and of limited lasting consequence. The same group of people, broadly speaking, remained in charge of the country, often passing money and influence seamlessly from one generation to the next.
Consider, for example, that when Cardoso’s grandfather helped lead the revolution against Brazil’s monarchy in 1889, not a shot was fired – and Emperor Dom Pedro II was allowed to go peacefully into exile. President Getúlio Vargas, for whom Cardoso’s father worked in the 1930s, arrived and left office (the first time) via nearly bloodless coups. Cardoso himself sought exile after a 1964 coup – but was allowed to return four years later, even though the military was still in charge. In the book we produced, The Accidental President of Brazil, numerous figures, from Tancredo Neves to Janio Quadros to Ulysses Guimarães to José Serra, fall briefly out of favor – only to return to power in the course of political careers that last 50 years or longer.
What does one call this peculiar national attribute? In the book, Cardoso described it as a “penchant for compromise,” which he called “the most necessary trait among Brazilian politicians.” It could also be called a fear of direct confrontation, a political motto of “Live and let live” – or, alternatively, rank elitism that fosters impunity and numerous other ills. Also true. But as seen from Brasília, at least, this tradition has helped the nation avoid the traumatic episodes that have often torn its neighbors apart – the turbo-polarized, often violent swings of politics in Argentina and Chile, or the political disenfranchisement that fueled the rise of guerrilla groups in Colombia and Peru. Politics at the very highest level in Brazil has been about avoiding the harsh solution, accommodating or co-opting as many different interests as possible and doing what is necessary to hold an inherently fragile country together.
I’ve thought about this a lot lately as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who succeeded Cardoso as president from 2003-10, awaits his fate in a court ruling set for next week. If a panel of three judges upholds a previous sentence for corruption and money laundering, Lula could be barred from running for president again in this October’s election and possibly sent to jail. Lula, at age 72, remains an almost mythical figure in Brazilian politics, especially among his working-class base. Polls suggest that if the vote were held tomorrow, he would win by a healthy margin.
Cardoso and Lula have been bitter rivals for decades. Yet Cardoso, now 86 but still involved in politics, has raised eyebrows by repeatedly expressing his dismay at the possibility Lula might be jailed. “It would be bad for the country,” Cardoso said in late 2016. “I hope it doesn’t get to that point.” In December, he told a party conference: “I’d prefer to fight (Lula) at the ballot box than see him in jail.”
That was enough to enrage even some longtime Cardoso supporters. “In real democracies, what matters is the rule of law,” one right-wing blog retorted. Some even accused Cardoso of trying to influence the judges’ decision. But I suspect his declarations were simply a nod to the old way of doing things – a philosophy still echoed behind closed doors by much of Brasília’s establishment, which is overwhelmingly in its sixties and seventies. Jailing an icon with a double-digit lead in polls would risk social unrest and maybe violence. It would disenfranchise millions. It would hang like a pall over whoever does eventually become president. It is not the Brazilian tradition.
Of course, that’s also precisely the point. Lula is caught up in the same corruption investigation that has resulted in the jailing of numerous previously untouchable figures in politics and business. Like nothing else in Brazilian history, the “Car Wash” probe has awakened hopes that the impunity of old will die and a new, more rules-based order will take hold. Today’s Brazilians are better educated, better informed and more polarized – in sum, less tolerant of the erstwhile “penchant for compromise.”
Which side will prevail?
Several legal analysts have emphasized that even if the Jan. 24 decision goes against Lula, he will have numerous opportunities to seek injunctions and other rulings that could keep him both free and viable as a candidate. In a recent Estado de S.Paulo article, some even predicted the uncertainty could last until Election Day itself. Brazil’s extraordinarily complex legal code – another consequence of its tradition of continuity – means in practice there may be at least some individual discretion in interpreting the law. Brasília remains a place where judges regularly socialize with senators and sometimes the president, and the most powerful people speak in private of stability and reconciliation. Many of them insist that, on that count, Lula remains in a class of his own.
To me, it adds up to Lula somehow being allowed to run in October – although it will be a close call. Either way, it may prove to be the last stand of the old, genteel Brazil.
Tags: Brazil, Elections 2018, Lula