Autumn of the Patriarch

He was perhaps the last of an older breed of Brazilian politicians: an oligarch who dominated public life in the northeastern state of Maranhao, eventually going on to become president as the country transitioned from military dictatorship to democracy in the mid-1980s. As this interview makes clear, Jose Sarney sees his political legacy as the emphasis on social justice that has molded Brazil’s economic development in the generation since he left power.

After 60 years of a political career in which he occupied every possible seat in Brazilian government, including the Presidency, José Sarney, 84, retired last June. Sarney received us for an interview inside the Palace of Lions, seat of government of the State of Maranhão, run by his daughter Roseana. Idolized by his peers and hated by the opposition, Sarney is one of the key figures in 20th century Brazilian politics, and is considered by his adversaries as the last living example of the great political oligarchies that have always governed the Northeast region of Brazil.

When you left the Presidency, in 1990, did you expect Brazil to follow the path it did?
I believe that the return of democracy provoked a fundamental change in Brazil, because the country started to focus more on social issues. Historically, Brazil has only cared about economic issues. Even Juscelino Kubitcheck, (president of Brazil during 1956-1961), whose government instilled a developmental mentality in Brazil, didn’t focus on social issues. With the new 1988 Constitution, the population gained social and civil rights that did not exist before in the country. This new way of thinking has led us to achieve something extraordinary on one hundredth anniversary of 100 years of Brazil’s existence as a republic: while the words “revolution” and “revolt” dominated the international scenario by the end of the 20th century, we managed to elect a blue-collar worker as president (Lula). And, to add more to the wave of change, when Lula left office he managed have himself succeeded by a woman. My legacy as president is that I helped transform a dictatorship into a democratic society, a society where citizens gained rights they had never had, like universal healthcare.

What do you view as the worst things that have happened since you left the Presidency?
We’ve come a long way; we’re always moving forward. And proof of that was the impeachment [on corruption charges]of President Fernando Collor in 1992. Our institutions were strong enough for us to face those problems using the instruments of democracy. The military returned to their barracks, and today we are the second biggest democracy in the world, with 160 million voters living in an egalitarian society.

How would you evaluate the 12 years of the Worker’s Party [PT] in office up until now?

They were good. The PT gave more solidity to some social programs that were created by me. We went through a period where the world’s economy was favoring us, and we definitely took advantage of it. We see that today in the considerable drop in poverty rates here, and with programs like the Bolsa-Família, which insures a minimal income for every Brazilian citizen.

Do you see yourself nowadays as leaning more towards the left than you did in 1960? Your political views are not exactly aligned with the leftist populist views of PT…
My views were never completely aligned with those of the PT; I’ve always been a social democrat. Every politician from the Northeast is concerned with social issues to some extent. I was the first politician in Brazil to argue that development should be carried out, but that we should never forget the issue of social justice in the process. Even during the dictatorship I was always looking for a democratic way of solving thins, a social democratic way.

Which role do you think former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) had in this process??
Fernando Henrique was a good president. Once the Military left office, and democracy was established, FHC was a leader in Congress when I was president. During his term, he consolidated some institutions, he started some social programs, and Brazil finally reached monetary stability with the new currency, the real. […]

Her reelection campaign has been more difficult expected for Dilma Roussef. What do you think is hindering her victory today?
This election is being carried out after the tragic accident that killed Eduardo Campos [a leftist candidate for the Presidency who died in a plane crash while campaigning]. That accident changed everything; if it weren’t for that, I believe Dilma would have easily won the election in the first round. […] The tragedy gave strength to Marina Silva [who was running for vice president along with Eduardo, and after his death became the presidential candidate for her party], because all of those citizens who are not content with the actual government gathered around her.

Do you think that voters are tired of the Workers’ Party government?
This is one of the characteristics of a democracy: if you’re in office for too long, people will want to see the tables turn sooner or later.

Do you agree that the PT’s economic politics has led Brazil to stagnancy, and that the country’s current economic situation will crash in the long run?
No, the current government had a clear priority, which was social justice. Most of the money that could have been invested in infrastructure was invested in order to improve the quality of life for the average Brazilian. The poor and miserable population dwindled, as did the hunger; but, at the same time, such a policy meant fewer resources for infrastructure, and that’s one of the biggest choking points for this government.

Given the current economic situation, do you think those social programs will survive in the long run?
Yes, for they are irreversible. The proof of that is that the candidate from the opposition [Aécio Neves], is constantly saying he will improve those programs rather than extinguish them. […]

Which do you think is the biggest obstacle to Dilma’s reelection?
She is not as charismatic as Lula was with the population; and her relationship with the political class is not the best. Brazil is in need of a political reform. Our political party system, with its political fidelities, is an utter chaos. The proportional representation system is tragic for the country, because it hinders the creation of new parties, deforms political activities and leads to corruption.

Congress has been discusing the political reform for over 10 years? Why haven’t they put it to action?
I’ve been discussing that for years. Soon enough Brazil will have to face this reform. Given Brazil’s dimensions, I believe a parliamentary republic should be our system. Half of our political problems would vanish if we simply put an end to the proportional voting system. Brazil is the only country that adopts the uninominal voting system; here, you vote for one person and that person almost becomes their own party, and the result of that is a multiplication of political parties. We now have 39 different parties, and, on the senate alone, there are senators from 18 different parties: this leads to ungovernability. In order for governments to have some governability, they are force to make malign alliances with Congress, which, in turn, is often accused of horrible things that turn out to be true. Why won’t they carry out the necessary reforms? Because the ones supposed to start the reform benefit from the fact that the same reform never happens. It is a vicious circle, and our Congress is the fruit of this terrible system. […]

Last June you announced your retirement from politics, and your political image is rather controversial. Do you think history has been unfair to you?
It’s all politics. I’ve paid a high price for having supported Lula, and that price was the damage made to my image. Brazilian politics is basic, primary; it is not made of ideas, of respect. There have never been any concrete accusations against me in over 60 years. The proof of that is that I’m always called to help out when Brazil faces any challenge. I didn’t ask for Lula’s support; he came to my house and asked for my support. At the time I thought I could help him, and so I did. That made the opposition think that I was Lula’s rock somehow, and a whole defamation campaign started from that.

Do you regret the support you gave Lula?

No, I helped give Lula some governability through difficult times, and his terms as president were good. He’s the most popular leader Brazil has today. Even on the international scene there aren’t many leaders as popular as he is.

You say politics has a front door, but not a back door. What are your plans for now?
I’m finishing my memoirs, which will be published next February. I’m the politician with the most long-lasting political career in the whole history of the Brazilian Republic; I’ve occupied every office possible, which is why my memoirs are so long. I’m also writing a small book of short stories from a long life. And I also plan on writing a novel. I’ve already started it, but I need more time to develop the story.

Manuel Carvalho Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard