Brazil’s former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso delivered a wide-ranging masterclass in changes to political science over the centuries.
Speaking without notes in a 40 minute address at the University of Salamanca, a relaxed and fluent Cardoso painted an ambitious canvas that stretched from Portugal’s colonial discoveries in Latin America through to the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The former Sorbonne professor of social and political sciences, now 80, made it clear that the key to understanding future political and social change in complex urban environments and societies in transformation, lay in communication and social media. He warned political scientists that they needed to understand how grass roots movements are being formed using modern internet based communications, and the processes by which such movements could become institutionalised, or wither away.
Interpreting centuries of political change for Brazil through the lens of social science and an understanding of how convulsive popular movements linked to economic crises have forged the country’s history, Cardoso described in macro terms the political changes of the late 1980s and early 1990s that resulted in his own accession to the presidency of Latin America’s largest country in the period 1995-2002.
The speech was one of those rare instances where a politician of international stature himself turned scientist and critic to offer up a modest yet definitive view of his own place in history. Cardoso skipped lightly over his own administration’s achievement in controlling endemic inflation and bringing stability to the country, placing it in the meta-context of urban movements and social disturbance in the 1980s, following Brazil’s lengthy transition to democracy after military rule.
Around the conference held at the University of Salamanca, Cardoso has been showing himself as a statesman as well as academic. In response to questions about European austerity programs and planned cuts to higher education budgets in Spain, he replied: “Societies in future will be based on knowledge and communication. To compromise the future of universities is to compromise the future.”
He also emphasized that Europe’s leaders need to bring hope to beleaguered populations. “Any policy based solely on austerity and with no chance of investment or growth is one in which people will no believe. We all need to have hope.” By coincidence, Cardoso was speaking just minutes after Spanish academics from the University of Salamanca were addressing local journalists to lodge their formal protest to the Madrid government’s austerity package designed to win favor from the European Union. Once consequence is a cut in spending on higher education estimated to be around 50%.
A two-page spread in the country’s leading daily newspaper, El Pais, entitled “Crisis in Science,” reviewed the fortunes of Spanish academics departing for Australia, the US, Canada and the UK.
On domestic political matters, Cardoso also voiced his concern with the progressive concentration of power by Brazil’s powerful executive branch under successive presidents (including himself), and the steady enfeeblement of the country’s congress, which has tended to rubber-stamp government proposals.
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