Last updated: April 7, 2006 2:53 pm

Real politics

THE ACCIDENTAL PRESIDENT OF BRAZIL: A Memoir
by Fernando Henrique Cardoso
translated by Brian Winter
PublicAffairs $26.95, 304 pages

It must be irksome at times for Fernando Henrique Cardoso to see how the world has fallen in love with his successor as Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. It was, after all, former President Cardoso who in the 1990s cured Brazil of its inflation disease and stabilised the economy in the face of bitter opposition from none other than Lula da Silva and his leftwing Workers’ party.

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In office, Lula da Silva has embraced the policies of his former opponent, is basking in the international acclaim, and is preparing to contest an electoral campaign that could launch him into a second successive term.

Cardoso, now 75, has meanwhile had time to reflect on his public life: first as Brazil’s most well known sociologist, then as a prominent democracy activist and, finally, as only the second democratically elected president in half a century to hand over office to an elected successor.

His book, The Accidental President of Brazil, is a crisp, incisive and beautifully translated volume of memoirs that interweaves autobiography with a persuasive and accessible account of Brazil’s recent 20th- century history. For those familiar with Brazil, Cardoso’s book offers fascinating behind-the-scenes insights into its recent history. For those new to the country, it serves as an excellent introduction.

It reads like a thriller, reminding us how convulsive Brazil’s 20th-century history has been. Cardoso’s path to the presidency was indeed strewn with accidents: his most recently elected predecessor, Fernando Collor, was impeached; and Tancredo Neves, the leader elected before that, died without taking office after suffering seven stomach operations in 38 days.

Looking further back, the Brazilian presidency seemed to have been cursed. In the 1950s, one president shot himself through the heart. A decade later another was overthrown by the military, while one eccentric leader - a man who wore a kimono as a campaign prop and installed traffic lights outside his presidential office once elected - simply walked away from the job and took a boat to Montevideo.

“People forget this: back when the job fell to me, who in their right mind would have wanted to be president of Brazil?” writes Cardoso.

In some senses the book’s title is inappropriate. Although Cardoso initially preferred academia to political campaigning, his background, experience and ideas always made him a likely leader. For a start he was born into exactly the kind of powerful Rio de Janeiro political family from which Brazil has traditionally selected its leaders. Cardoso’s grandfather was a general who conspired to force Brazil’s last king out of office at the end of the 19th century; his father was a soldier intimately involved in politics. Cardoso’s childhood home in Rio de Janeiro was abuzz with political gossip.

Sociology - his chosen career - provided ideal terrain for Cardoso to bring his cerebral personality into contact with day-to-day realities. In the 1950s, Cardoso and colleagues from the University of Sao Paulo conducted painstaking studies in slum areas, and their conclusions challenged the myths of “racial democracy”. Their research also brought home the enormity of the socio-economic changes resulting from the historic migrations that brought millions of Brazilians - like President Lula da Silva himself - from the rural north-east to rapidly growing cities.

Exiled by Brazil’s military rulers, Cardoso proved to be a pragmatic campaigner for democracy. Cardoso’s writings on dependency - the theory that poor countries are held back by their relationship with richer ones - may have influenced a generation of Marxist activists, but as a practical politician Cardoso turned his back on ideology. “It was surprising how often a dilemma could be solved by taking an honest, objective look at different groups involved and then imposing the fairest solution for everyone,” he says.

The same pragmatism helped Cardoso deal with hyperinflation, which was running at 2,500 per cent per year when he was offered the finance job in 1993. Cardoso responded with spending cuts and a new currency called the Real. “The obvious solution... was for the government to stop spending so much money,” he says.

Cardoso’s presidency was plagued by seemingly endemic financial crisis on international markets. “No matter how far I travelled from Brazil there was no escaping the constant drumbeat of crisis,” he says. President Lula da Silva has enjoyed better luck, with low international interest rates and high commodity prices improving Brazil’s prospects. It is doubtful, though, whether he would have got very far without Cardoso’s earlier efforts.

Richard Lapper is the FT’s Latin America Editor.

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