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Boris Fausto

Boris Fausto: History just for pleasure

With a new book, a professor shares memories of modern-day Brazil

Boris-Fausto_EDUARDO-CESAREDUARDO CESAR It was with resignation that he heard: “‘Ah, Boris Fausto. I know you. You were the one who wrote that book A Revolução de 1930 (The 1930 Revolution)’. I wrote it in 1969. It’s like I haven’t written anything since then,” jokes the historian Boris Fausto, recalling his “discomfort” when he is approached, every now and then, by people who associate him solely with his first book. However, there is an undeniable dose of “fate” in this connection: Boris was born in the same year as the theme for his book, which was his entry ticket to a career as a historian. “A lot of people think that I was always connected to history, but that wasn’t the case. I did a law degree at USP’s Largo São Francisco Law School and I became a lawyer. I spent a fair while as a legal advisor with the University of São Paulo (USP) and it was only when I retired that I began work as a Professor in the Political Science Department. I have been a historian as well as a lawyer,” he recounts. This explains the title of his latest book, Memórias de um historiador de domingo (Memories of a Weekend Historian) (published by Companhia das Letras, 2010), which is the second volume of his autobiography that got underway in 1997 with Negócios e ócios (Business and Leisure) (also published by Companhia das Letras).

The “weekend” reveals his relationship with history for a long time, as something he did an in his “free time.” “I’m much more interested in history itself than in history as a career. I spent many years not wanting to be a teacher,” he confesses. Encouraged by his wife, the educator Cynira Fausto, Boris, who was 32 at the time and already an established lawyer, went back to USP to do a degree in history. There were personal reasons other than his love for the subject: many of his intellectual friends were among those teaching the more prestigious social sciences courses, and Boris felt embarrassed at the thought of becoming one of their students. However, the choice produced results and a lot of other books in addition to A Revolução de 1930: trabalho urbano e conflito social (The 1930 Revolution: Urban Employment and Social Conflict) (1976); Crime e cotidiano (Crime and Daily Life) (1984); História do Brasil (History of Brazil) (1994); Fazer a América (The Making of America) (1995); Brasil e Argentina (Brazil and Argentina) (2005); Getúlio Vargas: o poder e o sorriso (Getulio Vargas: the power and the smile) (2006); O crime do restaurante chinês (The Chinese Restaurant Crime) (2009); and, along with others, he was one of the organizers of the collection História Geral da Civilização Brasileira (General History of Brazilian Civilization).

After having done groundbreaking work in terms of social studies, Boris had a strong impact on research regarding labor movements and trade unionism. More recently, he has shown his restless curiosity about history, guided by so-called micro-history, working on everyday themes, as in his latest, newly launched book. “If God hadn’t rested on the seventh day, he would have had time to finish the world,” mused the writer Gabriel García Márquez. Boris Fausto agrees. Read segments of his interview with Pesquisa FAPESP, in which it becomes clear that he is more interested in talking about the present than about the past.

What’s it like for a historian to write the story of his own life?
I was careful to link the facts of my own story with those of Brazil’s history: if you are going to compare a country’s history to that of an individual, you have to have this perception of the past. More or less like a psychiatrist does when recalling the facts from a patient’s life. People need this yardstick. History has long been a passion of mine. I studied law, but I was never really that interested in the profession, which was just a way to earn a living. My wife, Cynira, encouraged me and I did a degree in history after having worked as a legal advisor at USP for a number of years. A lot of people think that I was always a historian, but I have been a historian as well as a lawyer. I was an exception among those of my generation, because the teaching profession was becoming more professional and people were taking post-graduate courses and becoming teachers. I was more like the historians of the past, most of whom were not teachers. That gave me the freedom to write what I wanted to write, because I wasn’t worried about a career as a professor. It also brought me closer to São Paulo, because I couldn’t do my research outside the city. Another thing that had a major impact on me was my grandfather, who was blind; I used to read the Estadão newspaper to him when I was a boy. Back in those days, the newspaper had a lot of international headlines and this sparked a growing interest in history, on my part.

How did you become interested in the Revolution of 1930?
The Revolution of 1930 interested me because I wanted to do a version of the story from a different angle, something other than the revolution of Brazil’s middle class. Additionally, I was not in a professional position that would enable me to travel and so I thought about approaching the subject from the point of view of an interpretation of the revolution rather than a project based on archives. After a while studying this I wanted a new theme and I began to read about crime, which forced me to do a substantial amount of archive based research and ended up in my writing Crime e cotidiano (Crime and Daily Life).

In the past there were intellectuals who thought about Brazilian culture as a whole. Nowadays, history is more restricted to just a few specific problems. Is this better or worse?
It was a big leap from stars such as Gilberto Freyre, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, Caio Prado and others to the academic history of today. These minds that looked at the whole picture are sadly missed, but history nowadays has greater technical rigor. Many studies are being carried out whereas in the old days there were few. The good thing about history is that it always has a concrete side: you can record the history of your hometown and you’re creating something innovative. It’s hard to do something new in other fields.

What are the aspects of Brazil’s history that still have a major influence on the present?
I tend to see history as something that is in motion rather than stationary, but undoubtedly, slavery was a key factor both in the Brazilian colony and in the empire. The slave-based system is gone, but the marks of slavery are still with us today. They have been transformed of course, but they are permanent. This system underscores the country’s entire history. Another thing that, let?s say, has had a marked impact is patrimonialism. I mean, Brazil is a country without convictions, in which the elite, in particular, but also the masses, if they could become the elite, lack deep-rooted convictions regarding the role of the citizen or of the state, about the idea of what is public and what is private. So the idea of what is public and what is private is jumbled up and when one is in a dominant position one treats public things as if they were private; these distorted conceptions affect our ideas of right, of individualism, of citizenship. All you need to do is to look at recent examples. All of this is still very clear in Brazil. We are a country of big mistakes and big successes. Look, I am well aware that the historian Evaldo Cabral de Mello, for whom I have the greatest respect, is totally against what I am going to say. I regard Brazil’s construction as being a positive thing. In kind of a bumpy way, the way that we’re used to, but the construction of a unified Brazil in the nineteenth century was, I think, a positive moment in Brazil’s history. Was abolition a positive thing? Yes, it was. However, it didn’t go far enough, and it came very late, which is a bit like someone who says “I made it, but I got here very late.” You could not say that it’s such a positive moment. Getting closer to our days, you had mobilization for Direct Elections. I feel that this is an extremely positive moment in the country’s history. And on the economic front, I’m convinced that the Plano Real’s success was the key factor in changing Brazil’s economy and the most important financial system. There’s a lot of negative stuff. Slavery itself, which was abolished very late in the day; patrimonialism, which I have already spoken of; the enormous social inequalities, the scandalous nature of the contrasts, which show up in parties, social columns, events, cars, everything imaginable. The social inequality is really a very negative aspect of Brazil. The low level of education, despite the improvements, is a very negative factor in the life of the country. If you want some more negative items: the New State and the military regime, for all their economic success, created a bad mentality, caused a very marked degree of damage, especially from the political point of view and the point of view of the emergence of citizenship.

EDUARDO CESARBecause of the lack of belief in the institutions?
I think that this is very dangerous, a type of step backwards in terms of what has been achieved from the point of view of democracy. This has already happened and is still happening. For instance, the construction of the privatization process went hand-in-hand with the establishment of regulatory bodies, of regulatory agencies, but there was an almost deliberate intention that they would not work. I see a real risk here. And the great mass of the population plays no role whatsoever in this. It’s a waste of time to think that the great majority are concerned about this. When you look at Lula’s popularity, he’s certainly an example. The great bulk of the population has a rather conservative personal project, which is to improve their lot in life. I am not saying that “this is absurd,” However that’s the way it is, it’s not at all revolutionary, it’s conservative. To climb up the ladder and consume. I think that most of the population has this type of view. Now, all this could also change, this stuff isn’t cast in stone or anything like that. If there were an inflationary imbalance or a major international scare or if Brazil’s situation were to become more complicated, then all these opinions and even people’s view might change. Another important point is that politics has lost a great deal of its importance. The problem is that we need politics; however, we need to recognize that it has lost a lot of its strength. There’s a positive aspect to this: it has become less ideologized, given that we no longer have confrontations like we used to have between the supporters of the União Democrática Nacional (National Democratic Union) and those of the Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro (Brazilian Workers’ Party), or the divide of the Cold War, with the nationalists on one side, and those who wanted to sell-out on the other. All of this grew old, became out of date and this is a benefit. Unfortunately, this non-ideological process that developed in the western world in a number of forms has resulted in the political parties not being very representative. Without idealizing the past. For example, what are the principles and the targets of the PMDB, which is after all a strong party and one that is in power? Nobody knows. Nobody knows, because there are none. I am just giving you one example. However, all the other parties suffer from this to a lesser extent. The PT is the party that suffers the least, but it also has this problem and the trend is for it to become a very strong political machine. How can we get out of this quandary? It’s a tough question. Education, for instance, is not a magic wand, but it is absolutely necessary. The possibility of developing citizens that at least have the time to read the newspaper, to surf the web, to educate themselves in this sense. The lack of all this means that the population’s level of representativeness is very low and that politics has lost a lot of its value. Improving politics would mean all of these things. You no longer have the clear ties that bring together a social network, NGOs, demonstrations, and expressions that are important, but which are not transferred or are transferred only with great difficulty to the decisive field of politics. We lack recipes for this, we have some attempts at remedies, such as a district vote combined with a mixed vote, but I think that there is already a problem and it’s getting worse all the time.

What are the consequences of no longer having a real idea of what politics is?
We are torn between leaders who are saviors and the “sea of mud.” There is a significant trend towards leaders who are saviors in most societies, with variables. Look at Latin America. Who is Argentina’s savior, according to a chunk of the population? Peron. Even though half the population is fighting against Chavez, he too has been both hero and savior and has enjoyed extremely high popularity ratings. For the right wing Uribe: savior. So I think that there is something inherent in this trend of constructing figures while also allowing oneself to be governed by larger than life characters. This also appears in other countries, but the trend is very strong in environments where democracy has difficulty in getting a firm hold. For instance, what’s more important in Brazil: Lula or the PT? Lula. Who gets things done? Is it the PT, the party? If you listen to popular opinion: it’s Lula. The other fact is that people get the part and the whole confused. To some extent, they’re right, because the negative part is very big. As a result, politics is seen as something dreadful. From many angles, it is indeed dreadful; the problem is that we can’t do without systems of representation, without political parties, and last but not least, without these forms of democracy, which need to be rebuilt. If we had an alternative that was not authoritarian, dictatorial, it would be “great, let’s take a look at this alternative.” The rural commune or any other of these alternatives. However, there aren’t any.

You talk a great deal about the “loosening of ethics.” Has Brazilian corruption grown or is it just more visible?
I think that it has both become more visible and grown. It has grown because the country has become a lot more complex. I mean today you have a business network, a financial network, a network of entities that invest in health, so summing up you have a society with a level of complexity that induces or facilitates the advance of corrupt practices. I am not saying that everybody is corrupt, but it makes it easier. At the same time it shows up a lot more than it did in the past because the corruption is on a greater scale, the sums involved are huge. It comes to light because those who are in power are made to feel uncomfortable by the Brazilian press, which for all its flaws is an antagonistic medium that as far as possible tries to be independent. It’s necessary to punish
crime.

In one of your books, Crime e cotidiano (Crime and Daily Life) you discuss this question and say that the State used punishment as a form of social control. Has this changed?
It has changed a bit, but now we coexist with a lack of social control. The idea of any kind of control, of a reasonable society with punishment ideally aimed to rehabilitate young offenders, is now gone. I think that the laws, the criminal system, none of this takes into account that there has been an evolution accompanied by new things, such as the increase in violence and, in particular, the growth of the drug trade, which, it should be made clear in passing, lacks in Brazil the structure it has Colombia or in Mexico, but which causes the problems that it has led to. If there’s one thing that has clearly deteriorated, it’s the issue of personal safety, to which not much importance was attached at the outset. From this point of view, our cities today are worse than the cities of the past, which were smaller.  However, there are new facts, such as this invasion of the Morro do Alemão, in Rio de Janeiro, which was a positive thing. Was it violent? Yes it was. Was the violence excessive? Yes it was. After all, part of this operation was carried out by a police force that we know is highly corrupt. However, the operation had a very positive impact and the efforts made are innovative, such as using the police as peacemakers, etc. I know that there is now talk of the drug trade returning to the Morro do Alemão. Of course crime is going to return, because it is a problem that has not been solved. However, I think that for the very first time measures were taken that were supported by a fairly large percentage of the population of the shantytowns. I am cautiously optimistic.

And the issue of the police?
Nothing’s gained by saying “the police are poorly paid and because they are poorly paid there are all types of temptations within their grasp and they end up becoming corrupt.” There are a lot people who say “if any of us had the chance they have to swipe some drugs and earning the salary that they earn, we’d behave in the same way.” Obviously improving their salary is important, but it’s not enough. I think that we need to do what they’re trying to do. First, end all this rivalry and create a unified police force, getting rid of the rivalry between the different police forces in so far as possible and defining jurisdiction and assessing jurisdiction as necessary. You have to improve the level of the members of the police force, and yes, this is linked to salary, but it is also connected to education and training. If you compare the São Paulo and the Rio de Janeiro police forces you will find that here we have a corrupt police force, but one that is much better. The drop in the state’s homicide ratios indicates a real improvement.

EDUARDO CESARLet’s talk a bit about the elections. A lot of people say that Brazil has broken the mold in its recent choices of president.
I think that they were important. The people took a long time to accept the idea of an ex-factory worker as President of the Republic. Although Lula was elected on his fourth attempt and had changed his tune a lot to get there, he really did represent a change. The fact that we now have a woman in power reflects the fact that nobody in Brazilian society can say that “women don’t understand politics, women can’t take office.” What has been said is that “this woman doesn’t have political experience.” In this sense, Dilma’s victory is a novelty, because it’s the first time that we have a woman as the President. However, obviously, the way that this happened, I mean, a president with an 87% approval rating interfering at all levels in order to ensure her victory, significantly weakens the argument that “this woman was recognized as being capable of governing.” What has been recognized is that “our leader Lula could choose a man, a woman, or whoever he wanted and we’d vote for them, because the conditions in the country have improved, because my life has improved.” Now, however, all of this imposes changes, because nobody is going to argue that a woman can’t be president or that you can’t elect someone who has a low level of education. The political elite have undergone a change. For the better or for the worse? I think for the worse. It was inevitable, but this current phase is for the worse. It has worsened in terms of quality, because there is a much greater level of corruption in this elite. However, this is an almost unavoidable phenomenon. In the past, we never had a trade union elite like you see today. And with a controlling force, there is often a very marked trend towards abuse of power. If Serra had won, I think it would have been a relationship made in hell; no matter what his failings or successes as president, almost every step his government took would have lead to a sort of war. This is something that arose out of a vital class interest. In the case of Dilma’s government, the trend, due to its roots, is for support. Now this might clash with certain interest groups. For instance, if public spending cuts reach the point where they compromise certain advantages, if the position that the union leaders currently enjoy in the background begins to change, it could lead to friction. I think that this is a force which is there and which represents an obstacle to the project of some people of making the best of what there is in the new, reconstructed version of the PSDB compatible with the best of what is left in the PT. I think that this force is the union sector, which is vetoing this. Lula went as far as talking about it, but without meaning it, because all the union leaders, except for the least representative ones, worshipped the ground he walked on. The greatest example of this is Paulinho of the Força Sindical union.

Do you think that the Brazilian union movement might go back to being a progressive force like it used to be or do you think that there’s no way back now that it’s come to power?
I would not dare to make any predictions; I cannot say. I think that it has come to power with structures that date back to the time of Getulio Vargas, coupled with the structure of the large pension funds. New leaderships will have to be developed, but it’s very difficult; the pattern has changed once and for all. It is not just by chance that so little is said regarding the working class and so much is said about the masses, but what masses, in the alphabet soup: A, B, C, etc., and D has climbed to C. This is curious after we have had a worker as president. However, one must recall that Lula was never a representative of the working class. He is not the workers’ leader who rose to power and who identifies with the working class. Very much to the contrary. He says that the factory floor is an awful place to work. When he says that he was ecstatic when he bought his first car, he changed fast from a limited to a high level of consumption. Where is his identification with working class? He knows how to speak to a great mass, but class identification, in the way that people thought of in the past, no longer exists, and neither did he want to produce this. The “non-identification” of class was one of the cornerstones of his victory. I think that he realized this a long time ago and it’s the PT that has carried on with its class-based ideology.

How would you analyze the evolution of the PT?
I think that the PT has changed a lot. If you take the PT that refused to vote on the text of the Constitution, that expelled those congressional representatives who wanted to sign the text of the Constitution, that expelled Erundina because she assumed a position of power and compare it with the PT that officially applauds any alliance that favors the party, there is a very clear difference. The party has undergone a radical change. Those who left the PT, for example, are people of great dignity who have been unable to construct a party. The PSOL is small and is insignificant. Nowadays people talk of “refounding,” because creating parties is complicated.

And what is the PSDB’s situation?
It’s in a bad state, isn’t it? What was Getúlio’s secret for staying in power, what the secret to his prestige? He won the support of the working masses. It was an absolutely key factor for his prestige, particularly during the latter part of his second period in power, although his end was very dramatic. Now, if I had to come up with a way, with a strategy, there is one factor right now that you can’t really get around. As an organization, the PSDB is very flawed. Out of necessity in the political spectrum, it is very relevant, even though its conduct is often improper. Why do I say this? Because 50 million Brazilians did not vote for the government’s candidate. And a great many of these supported the PSDB. The party has ruled São Paulo for the last 20 years. So, what’s the PSDB initial task now? It’s to try to become a party, to be a coherent opposition that is not only after votes. It has already lost many elections trying to be a bit of a “chameleon,” a little bit pragmatic, denying what the party stands for. The initial objective is to win over this large middle class that has come into existence in Brazil. It needs to find some common ground with this class without abandoning the popular sector, but it has to think about how to do this. Undoubtedly, if the PSDB doesn’t give up certain habits, if it doesn’t make a real effort to get closer to this group, then there won’t be any way for the party to establish a dialogue with a large mass of people, which is not good. I am not saying that these people have to be PSDB supporters. Ideally, this mass should have more alternatives and more links.

What is your assessment of the Lula government?
On the positive side, I am simply going to repeat what everyone is saying: the incorporation of very large sections of the population into the middle class, even though we are still unsure whether or not it is consolidated. There’s also the success of the Bolsa Família (Family Benefit Program), with all of its assistance related aspects, though it’s not set in concrete. Then there’s the real increase in the minimum wage, started during the Fernando Henrique administration. The cautious handling of the economic area, contradicting everything that the PT used to think in the past. Now, the Lula era has meant a trivialization, a debasement of the figure of the president of the Republic and this is a very negative thing. The office of the President represents the head of state, an indicator of how to behave, a parameter for the people in relation to citizenship. I think that this loss of the rituals of presidential power, this “demoralization” of the president’s power has very negative consequences. It because of this and because of the disregard for the institutions, because of the alliances at any price, because of the pragmatism that has abandoned any shred of principles, that I feel that the Lula government was a step backwards versus the previous government. I am not one of those people who are saying: “No, the country grew, the masses have improved their lot, and that’s what matters.”

And concerning Dilma’s administration: what are you expecting to see?
From the social point of view, it’s hard to say exactly what’s going on, but the signs of risk have been left for her. This is her cursed inheritance. Inflation is frightening. There’s also a world that has not entirely solved the problems resulting from the crisis, which leaves a question mark hanging over what Dilma’s administration can do on the economic front. I don’t want to guess. After all, who would have predicted that Lula’s administration would emerge relatively unscathed from the global crisis? It was not the “little wave” that he spoke of, but Brazil came out of the crisis in reasonably good condition. From the political point of view, in terms of the make up of the ministries, there are a few positive names, although it is still riddled with the need, deeply ingrained in the Brazilian political system, to make deals with the strongest party, which is the PMDB. All of this imposes a set of ministers that is not always the same as the person who takes office might wish for. This happened with Fernando Henrique. And now it’s happening with Dilma. On the one hand, there are some things that I look upon with fondness. Such as Brazil’s decision to abstain in the UN vote criticizing Iran in the case of the stoning of Sakineh. What is a different thing entirely is the change in emphasis, a government that is less sensationalist and a bit more cautious, which does not use showmanship as its major weapon, as the Lula government did.

You are a big fan of soccer. What does soccer tell you about Brazilians?
I am disenchanted with the level of commercialization. How do I view this passion, in spite of everything? This passion has become a global phenomenon. Because you can have marketing, but there?s the beauty of the game, its simplicity, an element of emotion and of passion and this is what football gives us. The Brazilian team going to play in Haiti and it was as if the gods themselves were arriving. For people like that who are deprived, seeing Brazil provides some emotion, some passion. It’s the same thing in the case of Brazil. For me this is something that dates back to my childhood. Now that I am unavoidably at the end of my life, my passion for football has returned to the same level as it was when I was a 12 year-old boy who was fighting at school because of the Corinthians team. I have always been a rational and deliberate person, someone who keeps his promises, a good student, a good lawyer (and I hope a good writer): the irrationality of soccer has an immense positive effect. When you look at yourself, you are someone else. And that’s really good.

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