Friday, February 25, 2011

The accidental President of Brazil- a memoir of Fernando Henrique Cardoso

The credit for the transformation and current boom of Brazil goes to Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) who as President in 1995-2002 laid the foundation for the New Brazil of the twentyfirst century. As Finance Minister in 1992-94 he introduced the new currency Real, arrested inflation and put the economy in shape with his Real Plan. This success opened the doors of the presidential palace for him when he stood for elections. In the book, FHC tells his ¨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¨.

The title ¨Accidental President ¨ is not entirely correct. FHC came from a family of generals and politicians and claims historical descendancy from the time of independence of Brazil. His great grandfather was a Governor of Goias. His grandfather was a General who had helped found the Republic. His father was also a General. Several of his relatives were Generals, Ministers, Mayors and government officials. Politics and history were topics of conversation over dinners. FHC, unlike Lula, had the best education and spoke English and French. With this background and contacts it was not unimaginable for FHC to aspire to become President, unlike in the case of Lula.

FHC starts off his book with an incident in 1938 when he was six years old. When he was on vacation in the beach with his family, his father received a phone call to join the defence of President Getulio Vargas who was being attacked by rebel troops. He rushed out with a gun and returned the next day after putting down the rebellion and told the family that they could resume their vacation. He calls this incident as his political baptism. His father who was jailed twice for joining doomed rebellions, advised FHC, ¨Always try to make casual conversation with jail guards¨. This advice came in handy for FHC later.

What is remarkable is that despite his military-oligarchic background, FHC was centre-left and fought for democracy and social equity. He was fond of books and wanted to avoid the ¨family business¨ of politics. He deviated from the family tradition by studying sociology and becoming a professor in Sao Paulo University. He flirted with communism for a while. He got to know the favelas, poverty and disparity between rich and poor during his field visits and research. He had an opportunity to interpret in Portuguese the speech of the legendary Jean-Paul Sartre and later Simone de Beauvoir. As a liberal sociologist, he became a natural victim of the oppressive right-wing military dictatorship. He was exiled alongwith many other leftist and liberal academics and activists. He went to Argentina as a political refugee and then lived in Chile for four years. There he came into contact with Neruda and Allende and also his fellow Brazilian exiles. He worked in the ECLAC ( Economic Commission for Latin America and Caribbean) and published his famous book¨Dependency and Development in Latin America¨. Later he went on a teaching assignment in France. He had the opportunity to witness the 1968 spring revolution in France which added to his sociological education. His exile made him suffer the saudade ( nostalgia) for his home country. After the restoration of democracy in 1985, the new political leaders could not manage the democratic responsibility nor the economy. FHC was the third civilian President after the end of military dictatorship in 1985. One of his predecessors died before inaguration and the other was impeached for corruption. His sociology background, participation in the struggle for restoration of democracy, philosopher-king image, ideals and vision was like a breath of fresh air at that time when most politicians were seen as corrupt and crooked. This was important for the infant democracy which was struggling to take its roots and establish its credibility.

FHC´s most enduring achievement was in the stabilisation of the economy. When he became Finance Minister, the Inflation was raging at 2500 percent in 1993. There were seven different currencies in the previous eight years. The economy was in shambles undermining the political stability of the young democracy itself. It was at this critical moment that he was made as Finance Minister, a job for which there were not many takers. FHC rose upto the challenge. He introduced a new currency Real as part of his Real Plan. It worked, unexpectedly. This success stimulated his ambition and paved the way for him to become President. FHC carried out more reforms and stablised the politics and economy of the country during his Presidency. He initiated Inclusive Development schemes and at the same time followed pro-business policies opening up the market. He undertook bold land reforms and distributed 44.5 million acres of land to 588,000 landless families. He describes this, ¨I consider this as a testimony to my roots as a sociologist and one of the proudest achivements of my administration.¨ The other revolutionary achievement about which he is proud as a sociologist was his government´s initiative in passing a law to give free access to antiretroviral AIDS drugs. This was the first such move by a developing country which lead to confrontation with the multinational pharma companies and even the government of USA. Brazil managed to overcome the opposition and became a model for other developing countries on the issue of AIDS policies. These new enlightened, mature and pragmatic policies are the foundation of the New Brazil. President Lula, who criticised the policies of FHC and who fought and lost two elections against him, continued the pragmatic policies of FHC administration and added more social inclusion. President Dilma is commited to this policy of consensus, which is the reason for the new optimism about the future of Brazil.

FHC applied his sociology expertise to his work. He was bold enough to recognise and talk openly about the racial inequality of Brazil, although it is a topic of taboo even today. His frankness on this issue earned him the wrath of even fellow Brazilian sociologists. He admitted in his public statements that ¨black in Brazil had equalled poor for too long and that discrimination against blacks, both social and economic, has been one of the biggest problems we face.¨ He lamented that blacks were hardly ever seen among the country´s political, economic and media elite. He pointed out that although blacks constitute 40 percent of the population, there were only 9 black deputies among the 513 congressmen and that there was not a single black career ambassador at that time. FHC had got a survey conducted on the race issue in 1999. He initiated policies for affirmative action against the opposition of many in the Congress and bureaucracy. He succeeded in creating job quotas in some Ministries and awarded scholarships to blacks to train for joining the diplomatic corps.

In the final chapters, FHC talks about his foreign policy achievements. As an internationally recognised intellectual and sociologist combined with his success as a President, FHC certainly made other counries to take Brazil seriously and raised the profile of the country globally. He gave priority to relations with neighbours. In this context, FHC has shared an interesting information. He says that the one who gave a memorable push to this policy was Helmt Kohl, who told him that he hated the French when he was young but realised later that if his hatred continued, his children would go to war as well and the cycle would never end. Kohl told FHC that it was for this reason that he became a passionate proponent of European Union. Giving his example, Kohl had told FHC , ¨you Brazilians have historic responsibility to do the same with Argentina, put your past behind you and make a great Union in South America. ¨

FHC is candid and professional in his analysis of the Brazilian society and the politicians and military dictators who took Brazil up and down. He mentions that sometimes military was used as a tool by the business elite to grab power. He gives his comments on the Presidents and political leaders with whom he had interaction. This includes Lula who supported FHC´s senate campaign in 1978. He found Lula possessing a natural drive and instinctive political intelligence although he was uncomfortable around the academics and artists who collaborated with FHC in the campaign.

Some of the stories described by FHC are funny, as the following would illustrate:
- President Janio Quadros, an acquaintance of his father, banned bikini and miniskirt among his other eccentric policies. Hmmm.. Garotas of Ipanema…without the bikinis…. Impossible to imagine !!
- father of President Fernando Collor, who was a senator, shot dead a fellow legislator on the senate floor. He was acquitted on the ground of self-defence.
- the Brazilian banks profited during the hyperinflation and had a big stake in continuation of high inflation.
-The Brazilian newspapers published fotos of a carnival queen Lilian Ramos without her underwear when she was cozying upto President Itamar Franco at the VVIP balcony in Rio Sambadrome. Financial Times described it as ¨naked ambition¨.

Bill Clinton has written foreword to FHC´s memoirs calling him as ¨my friend¨. Unlike Clinton, FHC was not charismatic. His campaign managers had to work hard on his professorial manners and create a new image in the election campaigns. FHC confesses that his first political speech literally put the audience to sleep because he lectured like a sociology professor. When he used quotations in English and French he was considered as a snob. He confesses, ¨Sometimes I was so eager to see Brazil with a sociologist´s eye that I was shy with the use of power. This was surely one of the biggest flaws of my Presidency. On some occasions,when the country needed a President, I was still too much of a sociologist.¨

FHC ends his memoir with a modest but profound sociological comment, ¨as someone who arrived in the presidency thanks to no small amount of luck and circumstance, it would be arrogant for me to take all the credit. The Brazilian society which had the courage to elect an inexperienced , former university professor as President also deserves credit. In that sense, perhaps, I was not such an accident after all.¨

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tagore honoured with Uruguayan stamp

The Uruguayan postal department has issued a stamp to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore. The stamp was released today by Vice President Danilo Astori along with Indian Ambassador R. Viswanathan in the presence of Foreign Minister Luis Almagro at a ceremony in the Foreign Ministry at Montevideo. Uruguay is the first country in Latin America to do so.

From right to left: Ambassador Viswanathan, VP Danilo Astori, FM Almagro, Directors of postal department.
Mr Danilo Astori, the Vice President of Uruguay is visiting India from 21 to 27 February. This is the most important bilateral visit in the last twelve years. He is accompanied by a 50-member delegation which includes 26 businessmen and 24 officials as well as by the Minister of Industries Mr Roberto Kreimerman.

Mr Astori will meet the Vice President of India and the Speaker of Lok Sabha and will have another meeting with Mr Anand Sharma Minister of Commerce and Industry. He will address the business seminars being organised by FICCI on 24 February and another one by CII on 25 February.

An Agreement for the avoidance of Double Taxation and another one for cooperation in New and Renewable Energy will be signed during the visit.

Mr Astori will inagurate the TCS building in Siruseri near Chennai on 23 February. This 250 million dollar building complex which will have 30000 staff working in it, has been designed by the famous Uruguayan architect Carlos Ott.

Mr Astori will have meetings with Indian business groups such as Tata, Essar, Birla as well as with EximBank of India in Mumbai on 21-22 February.

India´s exports to Uruguay in 2010 were 69 million dollars and imports 14 million. There is enormous potential for increasing the trade.
TCS has a Global Delivery Centre in Montevideo which employs 900 Uruguayan staff. This was the first centre of TCS in Latin America established in 2002. Another Indian IT company Geodesic has a software development centre with 40 Uruguayan programmers. More Indian companies have shown interest in investment in Uruguay in sectors such as agribusiness, mining and pharmaceuticals.

The Ministry of Commerce of India is considering a proposal to set up a bonded warehousing facility in Montevideo from where Indian goods such as handicrafts, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and engineering items could be distributed to other countries of South America.