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Fernando Henrique Cardoso, one of the leading scholars and practitioners of political economy in recent Latin American history, received the 2012 John W. Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the study of humanity in a special ceremony Tuesday at the Library of Congress.

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington presents the 2012 John W. Kluge Prize to former Brazil President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. / Abby Brack Lewis

“I feel honored, and humbled, to receive this most prestigious prize. I must confess to you that I also feel a bit nervous, perhaps overwhelmed,” he said in his remarks. “This may sound slightly ridiculous, coming from someone who was the president of Brazil for eight years, and who spent many decades lecturing at universities in the United States, France, Latin America and in my own country. But I insist that it is true.”

Much of Cardoso’s legacy has been one in defiance of conventional wisdom, whether with respect to race relations, the relationship among key structures within the economy, or integration into the world economic system. Under his presidency, he transformed Brazil from a military dictatorship with high inflation into a vibrant, more inclusive democracy with strong economic growth. Perhaps the strongest evidence of his intellectual accomplishment is that his successors have continued so many of his policies and ensured his legacy as one of Brazil’s greatest leaders.

“How did this transformation occur? How did Brazil and other emerging countries overcome many of their problems, and give rise to a new order?” he asked in during his remarks. “How did a sociology professor born in Rio de Janeiro, into an impoverished and overwhelmingly illiterate country in the grip of a Great Depression, come to stand before you tonight – in these hallowed halls of the United States Congress?”

At 17, Cardoso admitted he already wanted to change the world and, more modestly, Brazil. He went on to become a sociologist, researching and working on issues of race in Brazil.

“In ensuing years, the topics of my research would change. But the objectives never did: I wanted to understand what was happening in contemporary Brazil,” said Cardoso. “I wanted to tear down myths and expose truths – on both “left” and “right.”

His political career began as a deputy senator for Sao Paulo, then as senator until his election as president. During his tenure, he confronted inflation by introducing another new currency, called the “real,” implemented compensatory policies to address racial inequalities and progressive policies on AIDS prevention and land distribution that would address the needs of the poorest members of society, broke monopolies and privatized some state companies, and made progress in the areas of universal education and health care.

“Looking at the world today, the challenges and problems facing all of us are in many ways familiar to me,” Cardoso concluded. “Experience has taught me to be optimistic. Brazil’s example shows that even a country deemed ‘hopeless’ can reverse its fortune quickly. I hope that people will look at the Brazilian experience and realize the importance of tolerance and diversity.”

You can read the rest of Cardoso’s remarks here.


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