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Brazilian First Lady Battles Poverty, Supports Youth in Her Native Country

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs
Posted March 1, 2000

Ruth Cardoso isn't all that comfortable with the title "First Lady of Brazil." In Latin America, she says, the wives of presidents are traditionally called by their own names. But the American ideal of "the first lady" is slowly influencing Latin culture, said Cardoso.

"The expectations of the first lady in Brazil are much different than in America," she said. "For me the role is much more flexible. There is no one idea or set of criteria for what I have to be."

Which is a good thing, since Cardoso, a visiting scholar at Berkeley, wears many hats in her native country -- professor, scholar, policymaker and social activist. She helped create the Conselho da Comunidade Solidária, a community service council that works to alleviate such problems as illiteracy, hunger and poverty.

Imagine Hillary Clinton trying to pull that off. Her attempts to organize health care reform during the president's first term were lambasted by citizens and politicians alike. She has kept pretty quiet since then.

"It's a pity how things worked out for her," said Cardoso. "I agree with her issues, and I think she could have played an important role in health care reform. I learned a lot from her experiences."

Born in Araraguara, São Paulo, in 1930, Cardoso said she was expected by her family to go to college, not a normal route for most women of her generation. While studying at the University of São Paulo, she met her husband, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and they married in 1953. Both became academicians, she an anthropologist focusing on political participation and youth in Latin America. He went on to become president in 1995.

During her month-long stay in Berkeley, a guest of the Center for Latin American Studies, Cardoso is teaching a class, giving public lectures and participating in a conference on Brazilian issues.

When asked to compare Brazil to the United States, Cardoso pointed out the dramatic cultural differences between the many regions in her native country. "Here, the different parts of the country seem more or less the same."

But the two countries share many of the same social issues, she said, such as health care, the environment and education.

But one of the greatest challenges for Brazil is it's crippling poverty, said Cardoso. According to the Brazilian census bureau, 35 percent of children between the ages of 7 and 14 live in poverty.

"Brazil is a rich country," she said. "But at the same time we have widely disparate income levels."

This chasm is part of the reason Cardoso created Conselho da Comunidade Solidária. The program brings together government, civil society, universities and businesses in an effort to organize communities and improve the living conditions of Brazil's poorest.

Cardoso talks more about her work and the challenges Brazil faces in the accompanying Q&A with Fabrizio Rigout.



What are the main themes you will cover in your course at the Center for Latin American Studies this semester?




This course will be an opportunity to discuss the youth question in Brazil and Latin America as a whole. I propose the examination of aspects such as the demographic situation in our countries, that is, the pressures on the labor market and on educational institutions. There exist analyses that correlate the size of the young population and moments of rebellion, such as 1968 and other moments of youth activism. I'd like to begin a discussion of the conditions under which this activism appears. For that it is necessary to aggregate other analytic perspectives that include the socioeconomic situation of this segment, the variety of living conditions in our country, limitations and opportunities that are not equally distributed among youth. It is also necessary to include the cultural perspective. The main feature of young people in the contemporary world is their capacity to create and consume a culture of their own.




One of the founding principles of the Conselho da Comunidade Solidária, the community service council you helped organize, is the diffusion of citizenship, encouraging the participation of poor people in the advocacy of their rights, and also helping them intervene directly to better their living conditions. How much resistance has the program encountered in trying to break with the tradition of assistance-based policies in the fight against poverty? What is the recipe for creating lasting programs that continue to be run democratically at the local level?




Indeed the Conselho da Comunidade Solidária has as its main objective promoting participation and the development of communities. We are trying to achieve results by means of programs especially tailored to these objectives. Since we regularly evaluate the performance of the programs we sponsor, I can affirm that we were able to organize the communities and support local leadership.


Resistance to this type of work was once stronger. Today we have conquered legitimacy because of the results achieved, and because of the partnerships we established with several actors who, on local and national levels, support our initiatives.


Aid-based policies had already been subject to much criticism in Brazilian society, and the institutions that supported them are no longer legitimate. For that reason, one of the first acts of this administration was to close down LBA [Brazilian Assistance Legion], a prototype of social assistance whose policy guidelines were marked by very little objectivity. Its extinction did not elicit significant reaction: society expected it.




In rural areas and small townships in the countryside of Brazil, one would expect local power to oppose community mobilization. Would you say that the tradition of participation is weak in those areas? What have been the challenges and achievements of Comunidade Solidária's programs in the backlands?




The challenges we face in the rural areas are not so different as those of the urban areas. Municipal governments are strong because of the power of local politicians, but they also face, in different degrees, communities in which mobilization has occurred (such as the spreading grassroots associations), and many embrace them. One must remember that these municipalities are very poor and that any program that treats them with dignity instead of arrogance will find support. When they realize that the criteria for selection and implementation of a program are objective rather than political, legitimacy and cooperation are guaranteed.




Urban violence affects especially the poorer population residing the outskirts of Brazilian metropoles, where infrastructure is precarious, recreational possibilities restricted, and where organized crime, particularly drug trafficking, has the upper hand. In the case of these communities, the state, be it in its role as executor of social policy, be it as a guarantor of public order, is oftentimes absent. For the people living in these areas, "citizenship" is quite an abstract concept. Do you agree with this portrait of the way poor urban dwellers see the state in Brazil? To what extent can the organization of these communities break the structure of oppression without the state also taking the initiative of changing its posture?




I take urban violence to be one of the main problems of our country and of many other countries as well. Whereas well-known social problems such as education, health, housing, etc., benefit from a large stock of intellectual reflection and many proposals for their solution, the action against violence is still a challenge. A complex and multifaceted phenomenon does not admit simple solutions. I agree that the absence of police control or its abuse are fundamental causes of the dissemination of violence. Moreover, this results from a long period of authoritarianism and from the posture of a society that, in the face of violence, requires even more penalization and toughness towards those whom it considers criminals. The state's task is to impose more control over police, but it is up to society to disseminate a less bellicose, more tolerant vision.


There is no doubt that the expansion of drug trafficking had an active role in the increase of violence, and that it must be repressed; however, we all know how difficult and ineffective this has been. In Brazil, the federal government created a new institution for the repression of drug-related crime working in coordination with the Federal Police, which also underwent changes. But this is a long-term task that may begin with gun control, a proposal that is met with much resistance in civil society. I hope the proposed gun control law currently debated in Congress is approved so we may see a reduction in violent offenses. But even this first step, albeit extremely important, is hard to take. And the risk of indiscriminate use of weapons affects especially the poorest strata, as you stated.


I believe that the institutions entrusted with the control of violence (police, judiciary, etc.) are failing or functioning erratically, which leaves all social classes devoid of protection, since violent acts affect all. Impunity and the expansion of illegal activities affect all of society. A joint action between government and society can impact this situation, which must be fought urgently.


The improvement of public policy and the betterment of living conditions among the poor is imperative so that Brazil may develop, but it won't have immediate effect on the statistics of violence because one cannot, and should not, establish mechanical relations between poverty and violence. If poverty actually caused violence, we would have had higher rates of violence in the past. Blaming the poor for illegal acts, from my point of view, is a violence against them. If some join criminal networks, thousands of others fight for a decent life and do not want to be taken for bandits. The uncontrolled expansion of cities, the precarious conditions of living are realities that cannot be ignored and must be transformed so that those who are now excluded may have access to the benefits to which they are entitled for their work.


To what extent is the organization of local communities able to break through this situation? This is a hard question because it points to a process rather than to a univocal relation. Some conditions are necessary for the organization of communities and they are increasingly present in the country, as a result of the actions of nongovernmental organizations, the churches, and public institutions that created popular councils and other forms of participation. Nonetheless, whereas this communitarianism is an important weapon for claiming better living conditions, it has limited power to control violence because its enemy is hidden behind illegality. To achieve this objective, without a doubt we need a partnership between state and society, in a convergence of actions. Each one has its task and cannot shy away from it, because the disruptive power of violence threatens us all.




Brazilian youth bear the burden of the new competitive social order in Brazil, in which schooling is a prerequisite to obtaining quality jobs. The country is undergoing educational reform and evaluation of school performance across the board, trying to improve the public schooling system, which suffered from serious lack of investment in the past, especially during the authoritarian period. What are, in your opinion, the public policies that affect most directly the Brazilian youth today?




For the reasons indicated in the question, I consider the most important public policies aimed at the Brazilian youth to be those that offer them training and new skills. I include among them governmental and non-governmental policies, but all of them policies that offer from minimal skills such as literacy (which many lack) to computer skills (there are several initiatives in this area, by the way). These initiatives are numerous, but still insufficient. The programs for educational acceleration [aimed at students that fall behind or return to school at an older age], carried out primarily by the governments but also by the third sector (non-profits) are examples of youth-targeted programs that cater to the needs of the majority. Obviously young people also need programs in the areas of health, culture, sports, work. Some of these policies already exist, some must be modified, and others must be created with the help of youth themselves.




You taught at Berkeley in the early 80s for a semester. What memories do you have of those days?




My recollections of the time I spent at Berkeley are excellent, and I am very happy to have had the opportunity to return. The university welcomed me warmly, and I left behind good friends I hope to see again. It was great to teach Latin American themes having to adapt the bibliography to an English-speaking readership; I learned a lot, and I hope to learn more this time, from my colleagues, students, and friends.




What lessons have you learned from your experience as wife of a head of state?




I wouldn't say I have learned lessons while living the role of wife of a head of state. I'd say I have been living new and unforeseen experiences, but these are fleeting. Rather, the opportunity to put into practice some ideas emanating from my previous research, and which already had a political aspect to them, is what this rich learning process has been about. All new and unexpected situations are difficult, but are opportunities for renewal as well.



March 1-7, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 23)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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