Fernando Henrique Cardoso became the top elected official in his country in the mid-1990s. Trained as a sociologist, Cardoso is credited by many with creating the foundations that have made Brazil one of the largest- and fastest-growing economies in the world. On Tuesday, he was awarded the prestigious $1 million Kluge Prize by the Library of Congress for his study of “the social structures of government, the economy and race relations in Brazil” that helped transform the country “from a military dictatorship . . . into a vibrant, more inclusive democracy.” Cardoso, 80, spoke with the Style section about the tea party, the economic crisis in Europe and how he became “the accidental president of Brazil.”
Q: What motivated you as a young man?
(Library of Congress) - Scholar and former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
A: Young people have dreams. My dream was to learn how to devote my time and my energy in creating a better Brazilian society. At the time, probably I was confusing sociology with socialism. Then when I entered the university and I started to receive lessons, I was a bit disillusioned because it was so theoretical, my training. You know — what would I do with that? It took some time for me to realize the necessity of having a better understanding of how society works and then to try to change society a little bit.
Q: Much of your academic work focused on economic development — in a way that differed from so many others in Latin America who advanced ideas of wealth redistribution and government takeover of industry.
A. Without development, it’d be impossible to solve problems. My main concern was on development as a tool to transform society. But development alone is not enough. . . . In the 1970s, the rate of growth in Brazil was very impressive. We used to speak about the “Brazilian miracle,” but if you look at data on income, you would see that income and inequality were worsening for some segments of Brazilian society. So it’s necessary to complement development with some measures of social justice. So you also need access to land for those who need land. And also a tax system that is less regressive than the system you normally have. And education. But, of course, since I believe in a capitalist society, we need to train people to have more skills and be able to compete. What’s important is more opportunities and try to use state power to become more egalitarian.
Q: This country also is struggling with income inequality and lack of opportunity. At what level of inequality does a democracy risk serious destabilization? Is there a tipping point?
A: The tipping point comes not only with what is going on materially, but also with the horizons of opportunity for the future. The lack of dreams, the lack of horizons. When you don’t see possibilities of moving ahead and the situation is worsening, then you have the possibility of a serious crisis.
Q: One of the most striking parts of your life is when you were a professor in Brazil and you were censored, threatened and essentially ostracized by the military dictatorship.