Tullo Vigevani: In pursuit of autonomy

The first researcher to head the National Institute for United States Studies discusses current challenges in international relations

Léo Ramos Chaves

Tullo Vigevani was born in Parma in 1942. Shortly after he was born, his parents fled to Switzerland from Nazi persecution of Jews in northern Italy. His family separated, fearing the risks of crossing the border, and would only be reunited in February 1944 when the boy arrived in Switzerland. After the war, his family decided to join his maternal grandparents in Brazil. Vigevani arrived in January 1951.

At the age of 17, after gaining admission to the Polytechnic School at the University of São Paulo (Poli-USP), his attraction to Trotskyism led him into activism at an organization “that fought for democracy generally, and for democracy for workers in particular.” Although he never engaged in armed struggle, he soon suffered from political intolerance. In 1964 he went into hiding. It was during his time in the underground that in 1969 he married Maria do Socorro de Carvalho, a translator.

His subsequent arrest prevented him from witnessing the birth of the first of his two children. “My wife, who had also been arrested, was allowed out of prison only to give birth, in January 1971,” he says. The couple managed to leave the country a year later thanks to the efforts of his mother, Iolanda Armar Vigevani. “She appealed for intervention to the Italian government, including Deputy Prime Minister Bettino Craxi [1934–2000], who would later become prime minister.”

In Italy, Vigevani was helped, among others, by Senator Lelio Basso (1903–1978). “He was the first secretary of the Italian Socialist Party and was a member of the Italian Constituent Assembly of 1946. He created a foundation that bears his name and the International League for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples,” he says. At the foundation, he helped to organize the Russell Tribunal II, which investigated serious human rights violations in Latin America, and helped to draw up the indictment against the Brazilian government. The Brazil session took witness statements from the Vigevanis themselves and from other political exiles, such as Fernando Gabeira and Miguel Arraes. He remained active in solidary support for Brazil until his return from exile, made possible by the passing of the Amnesty Act in August 1979, and continues to do so today as a researcher at the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CEDEC). In July 1985, after a long wait, his application for citizenship was finally approved, and he officially became a Brazilian citizen.

In 1987, Vigevani, then 45, was given a post at the School of Philosophy and Science at São Paulo State University (UNESP). Now a professor emeritus at the institution, where he continues to lecture in graduate programs, he is one of the founders of the National Institute of Science and Technology for Studies on the United States (INCT-INEU) and of the San Tiago Dantas Graduate Program in International Relations run jointly by UNESP, the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), and the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP). In this interview, in addition to political activism, he discusses his more than four decades of international relations research—which has been published in Spanish, French, Italian, English, and Chinese—his interest in the United States, and his love of science. “Social scientists deal in topics that can provide insight both into debate and into the real world.”

Age 75
Political Science
São Paulo State University (Unesp) – Marília Campus
Bachelor’s Degree In Political Science From The University Of Rome (1978), Phd In History From Usp (1990)
Authored Or Coordinated Approximately 170 Scientific Articles, 19 Books, And 86 Book Chapters

You began your academic career in an exact sciences program. How did your interests turn to the humanities?
My life story, not a deliberate choice, was what determined my academic interests. I was admitted to the Polytechnic School at USP in 1961, but left on March 31, 1964. Like other of my classmates who were politically active during this period, my time was not entirely devoted to studies. I completed the second year of my undergraduate program at the Polytechnic School. I still lacked training in methods and mathematics.

Did your political activism begin as a student?
Yes, in the first year of university. Not only in the student movement, but also in the labor movement. As is customary in the international left, and in some leftist organizations in Brazil, I took a job at a company. I worked for six months as a tire fitter at Pirelli. My goal was to raise awareness and build a grassroots union movement. I was 21 and my activism had long-term implications for my career.

What were these implications?
Leftist organizations generally had important international links. In addition to already having a keen interest in political affairs and having studied political history, this international framework of economic, social, and political relations ultimately influenced my long-term interests.

Were you ever arrested because of your activism?
I was arrested on three occasions. The first in 1962, when left-wing forces were mobilized in defense of Cuba against the Bay of Pigs Invasion. I spent a few hours in jail. Congressman Cid Franco of the Socialist Party intervened, and all the activists who had been arrested were released. During the military dictatorship I was arrested on January 20, 1965 in São Paulo. As a member of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers Party (PORT), I became wanted by the police on April 1, 1964 when an order was issued for my arrest. I was released two months later under a habeas corpus.

What was it like in prison?
I spent 15 days in solitary confinement. I was arrested a third time in August 1970 and spent a year and a half in prison. The first 15 days were extremely violent at Operation Bandeirantes [OBAN], followed by another month and a half at the Department of Political and Social Order [DOPS]. My wife, Maria do Socorro, who was pregnant with our first child, was arrested and forced to witness the torture sessions to which I was subjected. I, myself, witnessed terrible rapes and murders at the DOPS. My activism ended with my third arrest. But that is not to say I renounced my views. Rather I started thinking more about the issues. At the time, 80% of inmates were people linked to academia, ranging from intellectuals to political activists from student movements. At the Tiradentes prison in São Paulo, where I was incarcerated, there was a group that discussed political economy. The lectures I attended by Jacob Gorender [1923–2013] and Regis Stephan de Castro Andrade [1938–2002] had a profound influence on me as an engineering student. The OBAN and DOPS wanted to keep me in prison to, among other reasons, prevent me, as an Italian citizen, from denouncing the dictatorship internationally. My father died while I was in prison, but my mother approached the Italian government and was able to mobilize the embassy and the consulate to demand protection for me, my wife, and my son. After being released on February 3, 1972, I went to Italy.

And what did you find there?
I found an atmosphere of solidarity with Latin American refugees, which was further strengthened after the 1973 coup in Chile. It was this solidarity that enabled me to find employment within the context of a party alliance—known as the Historic Compromise—between the Communist Party, the Christian Democrats, and the Socialist Party. These parties had created a publicly funded, private-law institute called Istituto per le Relazioni tra l’Italia e i paesi dell’Africa, America Latina e Medio Oriente (IPALMO), which was subsidized by the Italian government and published the journal Politica Internazionale. Almost by coincidence, my new employment fit well with my intellectual interests, which had been shaped by my life experience and my activism in international affairs. In addition to IPALMO, I worked at the Inter-Press Service, a news agency reporting from the perspective of the third world. My academic career was defined by my decision to major in political science at the University of Rome in 1973, at age 31. My laureate thesis, the equivalent here to an undergraduate monograph, was on Brazil-US relations during World War II.

You began publishing while still an undergraduate student.
Yes, in Politica Internazionale and Terzo Mondo I published articles on Brazil’s new approach to foreign policy, called responsible pragmatism. The new policy, developed during the Ernesto Geisel [1974–1979] administration by Foreign Minister Antônio Azeredo da Silveira, quickly gained prominence and required a new conceptual explanation. It was odd that a policy that purported to be one of national autonomy, of independence, and explicitly at odds with the US, was developed by a dictatorship that had been put into place with the approval of, and even support from, the US. There were several possible explanations for this. After the Brazilian miracle, many sectors of society, and especially the military political elite, saw an opportunity to raise the country’s profile on the international scene. China was then beginning to reintegrate itself into the international community following visits by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon [1913–1994]. At that time I also published in the Mexican journal Coyacan.

The working classes can also see their interests accommodated in a perspective of development and autonomy

When did you decide to return to Brazil?
It’s not that I decided to go back to Brazil. I never ceased longing to be in Brazil. I returned on December 25, 1979, with my wife and 8-year-old son, born during my last term in prison. My monograph was recognized by PUC-SP as equivalent to a master’s dissertation and I took a job at the municipal Planning Department. Since I had applied for a doctorate in France in 1978 under Jacques Vernant [1912–1985], editor of the journal Politique Étrangère and a leading authority on international affairs, I simply transferred the doctorate here intellectually. In 1982 I applied for a doctorate in history at USP under Carlos Guilherme Mota, and began lecturing at PUC and at the Methodist University in São Bernardo do Campo. I continued to do research on Brazil-US relations during World War II.

What sparked your interest in US affairs?
I chose the US because of its importance in the international system. I believed that studying Brazil-US relations could provide an understanding of the underlying motivations of Brazil’s own foreign policy, which has always been a backdrop to my academic work.

What, specifically, were you looking to understand?
There were issues that were well framed in my doctoral thesis. In dealing with the national question, a classic theme of political theory, there is one concern in particular that permeates the intellectual world: do national interests and autonomy represent only the interests of the ruling classes and the bourgeoisie, or do they also reflect the interests of people and workers? That question is on the front page of my thesis. And there you will also find the links between the different chapters in my life story. They are all rooted in questions linked to my activism since I was 16. The answer given in my thesis, based on a review of the writings of political thinkers, is that national interests and autonomy are not the interests of the ruling classes alone. And even if they are, the ruling classes will not necessarily advocate them at all times. Indeed, they often do not—such as when they become absolutely internationalized, as is the case today in Brazil. This realization came as no surprise.

What are the interests underlying autonomy and national interests? Under protectionist policy, for example, which can be interpreted within the concept of “estates of the realm,” there are segments of the State that each pursue their own national development ambitions. These ambitions are not directly identifiable with the interests of the working classes. But what I contend in my doctoral thesis is precisely that the working classes can also see their interests accommodated in a perspective of development and autonomy. The main finding of my thesis, supported by a novel interpretation of the literature, and contrasting to what much of the literature suggests, is that Brazilian foreign policy—even when Brazil was formally in alliance with the US—sought to maintain independence and to use this alliance within a perspective of autonomy.

The crisis is not a matter of foreign policy, but has a direct influence on it

Your name always comes to mind when speaking of the development of the field of international relations in Brazil. What are the major issues today in this field?
In the case of Brazil, there is currently a fundamental problem in foreign policy, which is the institutional crisis and the consequent economic crisis. This is an extremely important issue in the field of ​​international relations. During the Fernando Henrique Cardoso [1995–2003] and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva [2003–2011] administrations, Brazil had a reasonably important position in international relations, perhaps outweighing the country’s economic and military power in the international system. This was partly as a consequence of the values ​​that the Brazilian government sought to advance in the international system, such as fairer trade that takes the interests of developing countries into account. During the Lula era, those values included the eradication of hunger, the defense of democratic values, ​​and human rights. Also important was the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992, during the Fernando Collor de Mello [1990–1992] administration. This all created a ripe environment for Brazil to grow in importance in the international system. Today, the institutional crisis hurts the credibility of any ambitions Brazil may have. Although the crisis is not strictly a matter of foreign policy, it has a direct influence on it. Both are connected. Until Brazil has succeeded in reorganizing its institutions and economy, it cannot aspire to have any weight in international affairs. It is today a country that is struggling to have an active voice.

Given your assessment, what is the main issue facing Brazilian foreign policy today?
Pursuing an autonomous and independent foreign policy that advances economic development.

In the 2009 book Brazilian Foreign Policy in Changing Times: The Quest for Autonomy from Sarney to Lula, you and Gabriel Cepaluni present the concept of “autonomy through diversification.” How was this concept developed?
We built on, and applied to the Lula administration, an idea that was originally formulated by Gelson Fonseca and Celso Lafer during the Cardoso administration when exploring the difference between autonomy through distance and autonomy through participation. Autonomy through distance referred to Brazil’s engagement in the international system from a stance, if not of conflict, at least of opposition to hegemonic countries and especially the US. This was the policy of the Geisel administration, for example. Autonomy through participation, which is what Fonseca and Lafer advocated, is a policy in which Brazil subscribes to international frameworks and the values prevailing in the international system, while seeking to have an active voice within the organizations that formulate those frameworks so it can shape them in a manner that is favorable to Brazil and developing countries. It was under this policy that Brazil subscribed wholesale to international mechanisms, such as human rights. There has been criticism of this construction of autonomy through diversification, but through it we have attempted to explain why a country, in seeking autonomy, elects to neither adhere to all hegemonic international regimes nor to be overtly critical of them. This was the policy of the Lula administration, which cannot be characterized as a policy of autonomy through distance, and hence has been framed as ​​autonomy through diversification. Diversification, that is, of partners. Without breaking ties with the US and international organizations, Brazil has partnered with Africa, China, and broader South America, with a focus on regional integration.

Speaking of regional integration, this has been known to be one of your pet subjects. Why?
It interests me because it has to do with strengthening autonomy and achieving economic development through integration at a regional level, increasing the creation and, potentially, the distribution of wealth.

Autonomy is a concept that is ubiquitous in your work.
I am not an advocate of autonomy in the abstract. I see autonomy as an instrument by which people can decide their own destinies. This is what interests me. The idea of ​​freedom and the possibility of economic planning for development. To what extent is a country able to determine its own destiny? This is not a problem outside time and space. In a society with equal rights for all, autonomy is no longer necessary. It is only necessary in an unequal society. And between unequal states.

What is Brazil’s situation in terms of autonomy today?
In an institutional crisis and in severe political crises such as the one we are experiencing today, a nation’s ability to decide its own future is probably undermined. There has been talk about fully engaging in international regimes. I have my reservations about this because it would mean accepting, without the opportunity for adequate negotiation, regimes that may or may not be in the nation’s interest. In political science this is called bandwagoning, a term popularized by Kenneth Waltz in the context of international relations.

Brazilian foreign policy—even when Brazil was formally in alliance with the US—sought to maintain independence

This is one of the themes of the recently launched book Poder e comércio: A política comercial dos Estados Unidos (Power and trade: US trade policy), which you coauthored with Filipe Mendonça and Thiago Lima. Could you tell us a bit about it?
The book is the result of a study carried out by a group of researchers more than a decade ago, largely at INEU and with support from CNPq [Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development] and FAPESP. Our interest reflects the weight that the US and its policies carry, in many ways, in the international system. In it we explore US trade policy from the perspective of the construction of its institutions. The book covers the entire twentieth century up to the Clinton administration [1993–2001], but also covers the Bush and Obama administrations in the policy scenarios, and the Trump administration in the conclusions. There have been different phases in US trade policy, and an understanding of the institutions that formulate and execute international trade policies is helpful in understanding the changes that are taking place.

Could you give an example?
When we look at the fair-trade policy broadly advanced during Ronald Reagan’s second term [1985–1989], we find the roots of the current policy of hard bargaining that Trump is seeking to implement. Although a hard-bargaining policy has always existed, including under Democrat administrations, the way it has been used has depended on the political situation in the US. It is from this policy that Trump has taken inspiration in requiring reciprocity by US standards. He wants to impose fair trade, which is a contradiction in terms.

And that brings us back to the notion of autonomy. Can there be autonomy in the face of major powers like the US?
There can, but it depends on the political capacity of states to deal with the issue. China and the European Union, for example, have already promised to stand up to the US and retaliate. To what extent do individual states have the capacity to confront this? It is difficult to tell. History tells us that, in the end, an agreement will be reached. That’s what happened during the Reagan administration. Brazil is currently at risk of coming to a compromise with the US outside the international framework governing foreign trade. All countries are appealing to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which has, however, been considerably weakened. If it fails to act with rigor they will be compelled to resort to direct, bilateral or multilateral negotiations. What the upshot will be is currently unknown. There may be a trade war. It will all depend on how the negotiations evolve.

Your personal experience is marked by issues that have continued to challenge science, such as forced migration, political persecution, and repression of freedom of assembly and expression. What is the role of a political scientist in dealing with these issues?
Conflict in society occurs, and becomes unresolvable, if it is not dealt with through politics. And politics is the art of negotiation, it is about solving problems by reconciling differences. In this I am referring to the classic politics of John Locke [1632–1704], of liberalism. The art of negotiation is absolutely necessary. And the humanities can provide valuable scientific knowledge about society. Different interpretations and opinions can and should exist, but they must be anchored in in-depth, structural knowledge of the nature of relations in society. The role of the social scientist and political scientist is not to offer solutions, but to build scenarios. It is then up to society and its representatives, including, and especially, the State, to arbitrate solutions.