AS BRAZIL’S finance minister and then its president from 1995 to 2003, Fernando Henrique Cardoso slew inflation and modernised his country’s economy by privatising state enterprises and opening up to foreign trade and investment. He also began some of the social programmes that would be massively expanded by his successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. It was Mr Cardoso’s misfortune that in his second term Brazil was buffeted by instability that swept through emerging markets, from Asia to Argentina. He waited too long to allow the real, his new inflation-busting currency, to float, and left office bereft of the popularity he had once enjoyed. Though unfair, Lula’s remorseless attacks on the “cursed inheritance” bequeathed by his “neoliberal” predecessor—in fact a moderate social democrat—had an effect.

At the age of 84 Mr Cardoso is enjoying a renaissance of his reputation. Speaking to Bello at his institute in downtown São Paulo, he seems relaxed and says he no longer has political ambitions, but admits to enjoying “a lot of political and intellectual influence”. He is the unofficial leader of the opposition to a weak and unpopular government, that of Lula’s chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff. While investigations into a vast web of corruption based on Petrobras, the state oil giant, lap ever closer to Lula, Mr Cardoso enjoys respect as an elder statesman. And as Brazil sinks into what threatens to be its worst recession since the 1930s, his government’s economic record looks much better.

He has two new books out. One is a collection of articles and speeches, many criticising Lula’s second government and that of Ms Rousseff. The other, published on October 29th, is the first of four projected volumes of transcriptions of tape recordings he made every two or three days during his presidency. These reveal his frustrations, often with friends more than foes, and his thoughts on government. He had originally intended these tapes to be made public only after his death. Why did he change his mind? The chance to highlight the contrast between Brazil’s current plight and the progress and lack of big scandals in his government was clearly too tempting to miss. “People are starting to re-evaluate what we did,” he says. “The book reflects that [contrast]. You have to have values and to show them.”

He thinks that, for the sake of maintaining its hold on power, the governments of the left-of-centre Workers’ Party (PT) to which Lula and Ms Rousseff belong lost sight of a clear policy agenda. That led party officials to use bribes to strike alliances with smaller, retrograde parties.

Mr Cardoso concedes that Brazil’s failure to curb the proliferation of parties in Congress (there are now 28) has created a “model of ungovernability”. Even so, “everyone still looks to the president”, he adds. “If you have the capacity to talk to the country and an agenda, Congress falls into line. When you have neither, it doesn’t.” That is Brazil’s current drama: Ms Rousseff is jeered whenever she talks, and is half-hearted in backing the fiscal reforms the country needs.

Unlike much of the opposition, Mr Cardoso does not support Ms Rousseff’s impeachment (“You have to have legal cause as well as society pressing”). Instead, he thinks she should resign. This could be an act of “grandeur” if it is a means to “a new consensus” on a minimum agenda of three or four points, including political reform and limits to public spending and debt. She shows no sign of agreeing.


As president, Mr Cardoso persuaded Congress to approve no fewer than 35 constitutional amendments, most rolling back the corporatist state established in the mid-20th century. His aim, he has often written, was to equip Brazil to flourish in an era of globalisation, through innovation, technology and competitiveness. Lula at first followed this path. But after 2007, laments Mr Cardoso, Brazil reverted to a “regressive Utopia” of statist protectionism. It missed an opportunity that may not come again soon.

He thinks the political conditions and leadership are not yet there for a fresh drive to carry out the fundamental reforms the country needs, of pensions, labour markets and public finances.

For that, Brazil needs a “new focal point and a new leader”, he argues. It is striking that, according to the polls, the opposition has failed to profit from the weakness of the government and the PT. He thinks his own Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB), informally known as the tucanos (toucans), should take bolder positions. His critics argue that he failed to encourage the PSDB’s renewal, through primary elections for example. But his role as a thinker is more important than ever.