The Dark Side of Brazilian Conviviality

Perry Anderson writes about the recent election and what preceded it

Brazil today has a larger population and gross national product than Yeltsin’s Russia. Yet, against all reason, it continues to occupy a curiously marginal position in the contemporary historical consciousness. In 15 years it has left virtually no trace in these pages. Popular images, despite increasing tourism, remain scanty: folk-villains on the run, seasonal parades in fancy-dress, periodic football triumphs. In cultural influence, while the music and literature of Latin America have swept round the world, Brazil has receded. The rhythms of salsa have long eclipsed those of the samba, and the list of headline novelists conspicuously omits any name from the land of Machado de Assis, the most ingenious 19th-century practitioner of the form outside Europe. Today Northern readers are more likely to get an impression of Brazil from Peruvian bombast than from any native fiction.

If the largest society in the Southern hemisphere remains mentally off-screen, part of the reason lies in its recent political history. Since the Sixties, there have been four major dramas in Latin America that have caught the attention of the world. Three of these were either by-passed or aborted, and the other took a peculiar form, in Brazil. Internationally, the continent became news for the first time in the wake of the Cuban Revolution, when the spectre of guerrilla movements haunted Washington. Brazil was never in the forefront of this turbulence. Compared with Venezuela or Colombia, Peru or Argentina, its episodes of insurgency – largely urban – were brief and soon extinguished. Military dictatorship, on the other hand, arrived earlier – already in 1964, nearly a decade before Pinochet or Videla – and lasted longer, for over twenty years. The Brazilian generals were always the most adroit of the region, presiding over record rates of growth in the Seventies, and opening a carefully calibrated re-democratisation in the Eighties, in a process whose outcome they controlled nearly to the end.

In 1984 huge demonstrations for direct elections broke out in the big cities, as a domesticated Congress prepared to pick a new President under guidelines from the High Command. The regime did not yield. But fear of popular retribution split the civilian élites that had hitherto supported it, as many of the landed notables of the North-East – the core of its system of political alliances – defected to the opposition. The military held off the pressure from the streets, but at the cost of losing control of Congress, where a ‘liberal front’ of retrograde landowners and local bosses, hitherto pliable henchmen of the regime, switched from the official candidate to a moderate politician, Tancredo Neves, running as a symbol of constitutional principle and reconciliation.

Although Neves had never been an especially outspoken opponent of the dictatorship, and would not have won a competition under direct elections, his indirect adoption by Congress as the new President was nevertheless consecrated by public opinion, amid enormous expectation, as the final victory of democracy over praetorian tyranny. His sudden death, on the eve of his inauguration, punctured all euphoria. A leading ornament of the dictatorship, José Sarney, a belletrist oligarch from the latifundia of Maranhão, whom Neves had chosen as his running-mate, took his place. The ideological anti-climax was acute. Brazil shuffled into the era of democratisation, common to Latin America, bewildered and dispirited. There was no sharp discontinuity of institutions or persons, comparable to the fall of the Junta in Argentina or the rejection of autocracy in Chile.

Trying to make good his lack of popular legitimacy, Sarney formed a government that was actually somewhat less conservative than the administration envisaged by Neves – a characteristic Brazilian move. But his Presidency remained weak and erratic. When he came in, annual inflation was running at over 200 per cent; when he went out, a series of misfired shock treatments and emergency plans left it rising towards 2000 per cent. The late Eighties were a time of economic recession and growing social tension. In 1988 a new Constitution was adopted, with more democratic safeguards than hitherto, but otherwise unwieldy and incoherent. When the first direct elections for President were held under it in 1989, the result was a tight contest between the Left, represented by Lula – Luis Inacio da Silva, former auto-worker and trade-union leader – and the Right, in the shape of a playboy demagogue from one of the oldest and richest political families in the country, Fernando Collor e Melo. Thanks to stentorian backing from the Globo television empire, commanding 70 per cent of all viewers, and his own charismatic appeal to the unorganised poor, Collor won by a narrow margin. His inaugural address – drafted by José Guilherme Merquior, the most talented liberal intellectual of his generation, well-known as a diplomat here in London – promised a sweeping demolition of state controls, and release of the spirit of freedom and individual enterprise, with due concern for the least advantaged. The hour of Latin American neo-liberalism, chiming with the arrival of Salinas in Mexico, Menem in Argentina and Fujimori in Peru, seemed now to have arrived in Brazil.

Once more, however, the experience typical of the continent short-circuited in Brazil. Collor did start to reduce tariffs, privatise public companies and cut bureaucratic payrolls. But his bid to beat down inflation by freezing bank deposits proved even more chaotic than Sarney’s efforts, antagonising the well-off without achieving any stabilisation. Then a family quarrel in his fief of Alagoas suddenly revealed a trail of monumental malfeasance, even by tolerant local standards: slush-funds of $200 million, extorted for political clientage and personal ostentation. Since Collor had based his electoral campaign on promises to root out corruption, such brazen looting stunned even close followers. As the charges mounted, Collor went on television and called the people to demonstrate their patriotic support for the President, in his battle against an élite conspiracy, by sporting the green and yellow colours of the nation. The next day the cities were decked in black. Within a fortnight he was out of office. Democratisation had issued into ambiguity and confusion: liberalisation ended in farce. By 1992, when Collor was ejected, the country appeared to have missed the trend of the time again. While Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Mexico, were posting much-touted economic recoveries under neo-liberal discipline, Brazil was still floundering in an inflationary morass, apparently rudderless.

Two years later, the scene suddenly looks different. In and through the inflationary spiral of the past decade, and the deep recessions of 1981-3 and 1988-90, the Brazilian economy continued to diversify. Unobtrusively, capital stock was modernised, productivity rose, and exports increased, from about $3-4 billion a year in 1981 to some $25 billion this year, yielding a positive trade balance and substantial reserves. By the mid-Nineties, the objective weight of the country in the new global order had altered. Richer and more orderly than a derelict Russia, Brazil is within sight of achieving the rank of a major power, to which it never – despite much over-blown rhetoric – came near in the past; and for the first time in its history, the country has acquired a ruler capable of putting it unmistakeably on the international map. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, when he becomes President next year, will arguably be the most intellectually sophisticated head of any contemporary state.

In Latin America, from the time of Sarmiento or Nabuco onwards, writers and scholars have traditionally played a major role on the political stage. Vargas Llosa’s ambition to govern Peru is a recent episode. Rómulo Gallegos, another novelist, was Venezuela’s first elected President after the war. The current Foreign Minister of Argentina, Guido di Tella, a distinguished economic historian, is a long-time fellow of St Antony’s. Cardoso, co-author of the most influential single work of South American social science in the Sixties – Dependency and Development in Latin America, written with Enzo Falletto – in one sense fits a regional pattern. His rise to power even has a wryly appropriate national touch. Brazil was the only country in the world where the inventor of sociology as a discipline, Auguste Comte, inspired the founders of the Republic, firing young officers to overthrow the Empire in 1889 and bequeathing the motto – Ordem e Progresso – that still unfurls across the national flag. A century later, on the same soil, Comte’s dream of the sociologist-ruler seems to have come true.

There is, however, more than one irony in its fulfilment. For the kind of sociology that made Cardoso’s name was the antithesis of positivism. His work represented a Marxism whose point of honour was a dialectical understanding of society. In the Latin America of the Sixties and Seventies, that might seem commonplace. In fact, however, it emerged from an exceptional milieu, which is the key to Cardoso’s early career. He was the son of a nationalist general at a time when the Brazilian officer corps was sharply divided between anti-Communist and left-nationalist factions. In the early Fifties he studied at the University of São Paulo, where he soon got a teaching post. At that time – this is not something the Brazilian press, protective of the Presidential candidate, cared to mention till after the elections – he was a Communist. The PCB was then the only significant organisation of the Brazilian Left, so there was little unusual about the choice. He left the Party around 1954, but for another ten years remained informally close to it – part of the linha auxiliar, as such sympathisers were called. More formative than this affiliation, however, was the institution at which he worked.

The University of São Paulo was founded in 1934 by a group of liberal oligarchs, led by the scion of the city’s newspaper dynasty, Julio de Mesquita Filho. At the time German and Italian cultural influence was strong in Brazil – reflecting not only the importance of the two immigrant communities, but also the growing prestige of European Fascism, which was to inspire the creation of the authoritarian Estado Novo by Getulio Vargas three years later. The paulista liberals, resolved to create an institution with high intellectual standards, wanted European lecturers for it. For mathematics, natural sciences and classics they were willing to engage Italians and Germans. But for the social sciences and philosophy, where political issues were at stake, they contracted with the French state, whose teachers – they felt – could be relied on to uphold democratic values. The arrangement bore historic fruit in the series of great French names who, before they were known in the world at large, came to the Faculty in São Paulo: Lévi-Strauss, Braudel, Pierre Monbeig, Roger Bastide, Claude Lefort, Michel Foucault. The deepest local imprint was left in philosophy, where a set of outstanding instructors trained a generation of thinkers, vividly memorialised in a recent work by Paulo Eduardo Arantes as Um Departamento Francês de Ultramar. By the late Fifties this was – not unexpectedly – an intellectual milieu increasingly interested in Marx. In 1958 a group of young intellectuals from different disciplines – it included Cardoso from sociology, Paul Singer from economics, José Artur Giannotti from philosophy, Roberto Schwarz from literature – started a seminar on Capital that became a legend, lasting five years and affecting the atmosphere of the Faculty for ten.

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