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Lourdes Sola: The transitions of democracy

A pioneer in Brazilian political science, the researcher speaks on the relationship between politics and economics

Léo Ramos Chaves

“I have experienced two coups d’état,” recalls political scientist Lourdes Sola, a retired professor from the Department of Political Science and a senior researcher at the Center for Public Policy Research and the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo (USP). She left Brazil in 1969—five years after the 1964 military coup—and began her international academic career, involving postgraduate studies in Chile, leaving for England when General Augusto Pinochet (1915–2006) seized power, in 1973. In the UK, she obtained her PhD from the University of Oxford. Sola went on to become president of the Brazilian Political Science Association and, later, president of the International Political Science Association (IPSA).

Having studied social sciences at USP, Sola specialized in the relationship between politics and economics, especially in times of crisis and regime transition. Her PhD thesis—the first thesis about Brazil ever defended at Oxford—studied the economic stabilization plans that preceded the 1964 military coup. Influenced by historical institutionalism and the work of German-American economist Albert O. Hirschman (1915–2012), Sola was one of the founders of the IPSA International Political Economics research committee, which she coordinated until 2019.

For the first time since the early 1980s—when the solutions proposed by economists for major public issues were in vogue—Sola claims to see an increased interest in the writings of political scientists. However, she warns that this “return to politics” may pose a risk for researchers: “Politics are loaded with values. Political scientists must translate their knowledge into clear ideas without cheapening it, leading people on, or suggesting solutions they cannot provide.”

Age 82
Field of expertise
Political economics, state structure and transformation, international politics
University of São Paulo (USP)
Educational background
Undergraduate degree in social sciences (1961) and master’s degree in sociology (1966) from USP, master’s degree in political economics from the Institute of Planning at the University of Chile (ESCOLATINA, 1973), and PhD in politics (1982) from the University of Oxford
Written works
46 scientific articles, 28 book chapters and nine books authored or organized

Your career began during your undergraduate years at USP, where you also obtained your master’s degree under the advisory of Florestan Fernandes (1920–1995).
Florestan was the head of one of the sociology chairs, a few years before the departments were established. Under his chair, Fernando Henrique Cardoso established CESIT [Center for Industrial and Labor Sociology]. In my third year as an undergraduate student, I began working there. In other words, my first job was as a researcher. We investigated how industrialization took place in Brazil; we conducted interviews in several companies. And then came the 1964 coup. Florestan urged his four assistants—Fernando Henrique, Maria Sylvia de Carvalho Franco, Octavio Ianni [1926–2004], and Marialice Foracchi [1929–1972]—to accelerate the process of obtaining their PhD degrees and ensure their stability. And to us, the young people working at CESIT, he said: “I will have to throw you in the water, and you will have to learn to swim.” So, at 23, I found myself in charge of teaching the Sociology Research Methods and Techniques course. I obtained my specialization there; back then, it was not yet called a master’s degree.

Were you ever arrested after the coup?
I was arrested in 1968, a week after AI-5 [Institutional Act 5, the fifth of seventeen major decrees issued by the military dictatorship]. We supported the student movement and the Osasco strikes; I was arrested while smuggling a factory worker and a student. I spent one night at the DOPS [Department of Political and Social Order], amid rats and cockroaches. The next morning, I was interrogated by an old guard police chief, who asked reasonable questions and released me provisionally. There were two tables in the interrogation room. One belonged to [Sergio Paranhos] Fleury [a dictatorship-era police chief known for engaging in torture during interrogations; 1933–1979]. The other, to this gentleman. Fleury was at the DOPS Christmas party, one floor down. As my mother would say, my guardian angel is amazing.

When did you decide to leave Brazil?
At certain points, you do not have much of a choice. They began looking for me at my parents’ house and at my apartment. When we learned intellectuals, teachers, and students were being tortured, my then husband Ruy Fausto [1935–2020] and I decided to leave. This was in March 1969. We chose to go to Uruguay, where I had been offered a job. But we were denied a visa. Chile had a Christian-democratic government. We were advised to move there.

How was your arrival in Chile?
The Chileans were very welcoming. I was asked to give a series of lectures at the School of Economic Planning and teach a graduate course at the School of Economic Studies for Graduates (ESCOLATINA), at the University of Chile. In the end, I thought it best to take the course as a student for three years while teaching at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Sociologia (FLACSO) to support myself. I was terrible at microeconomics, but I was very comfortable with macroeconomics. When I lived in Chile, I never came to Brazil, but I did visit France twice for personal reasons. There I began a collaboration with Celso Furtado [1920–2004].

There is always a redistribution of punishment and privileges when it comes to so-called economic reforms.

When did you move to England?
In 1973, right after the coup in Chile. I have experienced two coups d’état. On the day of the coup, we were summoned to the workplace, so I went to FLACSO. The Chileans, after decades of democracy, would deny the evidence; they would say: “En Chile no pasa nada.” [There is nothing going on in Chile]. The Brazilians, on the other hand, would say: “What are you doing here? Leave, go home.”

What were the most decisive consequences of this period for your career? 
I joke that we owe the military for the Latin-Americanization of a generation. And I owe Chile for experiencing democratic politics in a context of growing polarization. During our democracy, we learned that economic development lays the groundwork for democratic institutions, as in the case of the United States. But in the 1970s, with the so-called economic miracle, Brazil’s economy took off in the context of an authoritarian regime. In Chile, I learned what real inflation is. At that time, there was distrust from investors, capital outflows, denial of the fiscal and financial crisis. Nothing was indexed, both inflation and the dollar were extremely high. Due to the truck driver strikes, we were asked to help the Ministry of Finance distribute food. Several well-known economists helped plan this distribution. Then I understood how the market works and the importance of price stability, especially for the poor.

Why did you choose Oxford for your PhD?
I had studied economics and developed a taste for empirical research, thanks to Florestan and Fernando Henrique. When the Chilean coup happened, I was supposed to attend a meeting at Windsor Castle; I had my tickets and everything. Then my home was invaded. The practice of repression was terrifying. On the radio, you would hear: “Ladies and gentlemen, please report any foreigners.” I spent 15 days helping acquaintances take refuge in embassies. My trip to the airport was by military truck. I had originally picked Cambridge. Celso Furtado was there and was willing to advise me during my first year. But then my young Brazilian colleagues at Oxford asked me to present an essay on Brazil. I realized that Oxford would be better for me, because it had a Latin American center that was closer to sociology and politics. In Cambridge, I also got an important piece of advice from Celso: “Study monetary theory, because it’s very important and my generation knows nothing about it.” I got a scholarship from Ford Foundation International, for which I am still incredibly grateful.

In the social sciences, you were the first researcher to defend a thesis about Brazil at Oxford.
That is correct. As soon as I got there, I looked for anyone with an interest in political economics to advise me. Only one professor would advise Brazilian students, but he was a sociology theorist. I had some reading and speaking skills in English, but I was not very fluent. I liked Rosemary Thorp—an English economist who specialized in stabilization processes in Latin America—and a politics professor, Laurence Whitehead. I had no desire to study theory; I wanted to analyze Brazil from a transdisciplinary angle, integrating economic issues and political analysis. I sought out Whitehead, who agreed to be my advisor. We continue to work together to this day. He suggested co-advising me with Thorp. For my PhD, I wanted to understand the transition that led to the 1964 coup. During my research, I presented an article contesting the widely held image of the indexing process in Brazil. The Brazilian “miracle” was attributed to indexation, to monetary correction, while not enough attention was paid to the fact that the indexation criteria were different for wages and financial assets, and that there was a distributive policy behind the indexation criteria.

Personal archives In Uruguay, between Roberto Schwarz and her then husband, Ruy Fausto, in March 1969Personal archives

How was your thesis received?
Very well. During the research, I talked often with Celso Furtado. Roberto Campos [1917–2001], then-ambassador in London, gave me three interviews. They were both fully aware of the limitations of their science: where economics ends and politics begins. At Oxford, theses are defended without an audience. Candidates wear a kind of uniform: a white shirt and a black toga. Their friends then add a red carnation.

When did you return to Brazil?
I returned in 1978 to do the research I needed for my thesis, defended in 1982. While researching and writing, I taught at PUC-SP [Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo] and, later, at UNICAMP [University of Campinas]. Eventually, a USP employee let me know I could return to the university, because my employment had not been terminated even according to the military regime Constitution. I could not have been completely terminated when I left the country. So, at the end of 1980, I was reinstated to USP, where I continued teaching and researching.

You were the first woman to head the Department of Political Science at USP (1994), and you were president of the Brazilian Association of Political Science (ABCP) and of IPSA (1996–98 and 2006–09, respectively). What was that like?
At ABCP, recently refounded during my presidency, I represented the institution at IPSA meetings. For six years, I was part of their committees and learned how they worked. When the next president was elected, he shocked me by asking me to be the first vice president, which meant I was his informal successor. I had the support of the women—particularly the American women, who were the most incisive. The German, Chilean, and Italian representatives also encouraged me. The French were undecided because the other candidate was a Turkish intellectual; at the time, they wanted to integrate Turkey into the European Union. In the end, political scientist Ilter Turan generously offered me his support: “I want to be the first to sign the list supporting you.” As soon as I was elected, I asked him to be part of the committee to plan the next international conference. We are friends to this day. Years later, he was elected president.

What is your assessment of your time managing IPSA?
I was the second woman to occupy the role in IPSA’s first 60 years. When I left, I was happy with the results, but I still thought I could have done more to streamline its structure. I helped those who succeeded me in making it more efficient. It is the former president’s job to help their successor for three years. I had many jobs, including continuing to promote the contribution of women in IPSA. My most significant contribution came later. The department of international relations and political economics did not exist yet. At the request of representatives from France, the United States, and the United Kingdom, I continued to work with IPSA by establishing, in 2012, Research Committee 51, an international political economics group that focuses on emerging market democracies in the process of democratization or political regression and economic liberalization. I am also proud that, during my tenure, I established the Summer School on Political Science Concepts and Methods at USP, supported by the Department of Political Science and the Institute of International Relations.

Personal archives In an IPSA meeting with former presidents Helen Milner (left) and Carole Pateman, and current president, Marianne Kneuer (right)Personal archives

In your work, you often refer to Albert O. Hirschman’s work. Could you elaborate on this intellectual influence?
A good theory holds up and becomes a classic when it forces you to refer to it, even when the circumstances that gave rise to it change. This is what I call inspirational literature. Hirschman’s work was recommended to me by Thorp and Whitehead. The relationship between economics and politics, as well as the dynamic interactions between these two spheres, permeate his intellectual work, highlighting the crossroads that emerge in times of crisis and/or profound transformation. The challenge is unraveling and demonstrating, with rigor, the interaction mechanisms between these two spheres, which vary according to economic and political context. A good example of Hirschman’s quest to identify general patterns is the concept of the tunnel effect, central to those who study the issue of distributive efficiency. It stems from a paradox observed at the time: how to explain the phenomenon that, during phases of accelerated growth—when income inequality tends to increase, in relative terms—the tolerance for inequality is greatest. This is explained by the mistaken expectation, by the sectors left behind during this growth phase, that their income will be increased at a sustainable level in the future. In short, it explains the link between accelerated growth and social mobility as a mechanism of both political validation for those in power and reducing discontent. This also happens—albeit in the opposite direction—when the economy slows down, stagnates, or goes into crisis.  When the people become more aware and less tolerant of inequality, they challenge it, which ultimately leads to demand for redistribution reforms. Therefore, we are speaking of a political dynamic interacting with the economic cycle.

Was the transition from the economic to the political view ignored at the time?
There were few theories on this. In my thesis, which became my book Ideias Econômicas, Decisões Políticas [Economic Ideas, Political Decisions], I use the concept of tunnel effect to highlight the specificity of Brazil when compared to other Latin American countries, especially Argentina.  And also to integrate the way in which, in Brazil, the process of accumulation, reforms, and unrest had unfolded, culminating in a specific type of redistributive reforms—considering the dominant institutions and socio-political coalitions.

Throughout your career, how was this analytical framework developed?
It has been a cumulative process. It is a continuous learning process, given how the approaches to political economics have evolved in terms of theory, methodology, and the new governance challenges. Initially, I sought to analyze the dual crisis—political and economic—of the 1960s, and how the accumulation and distribution of wealth, as well as political delegitimization, interact, ultimately culminating in a change of political regime. Part of the so-called “economic miracle” was the result of the monetary, fiscal, and tax reforms of Roberto Campos, but they were socially regressive in nature. There is always a redistribution of punishment and privileges when it comes to so-called economic reforms.

Is this framework appropriate for our current reality?
Yes and no. No, because these analyses precede globalization and the third democratic wave, which affected Brazil.  Let me highlight three inflection points: a change in the way countries are included in the international system, in response to the economic globalization agenda; the establishment of a democratic agenda, still in progress; and the 1988 Constitution. A triple transition, requiring profound economic, political, and legal adjustments. In addition, the 1982 Latin America crisis coincides with the beginning of the democratic wave. The challenge of democratic governance is twofold: internalizing the economic globalization agenda and adjusting it according to a democratic agenda under construction in the new legal framework. In principle, this is a common challenge for emerging market democracies, but the specific challenges of democratic governance vary from country to country.

You work with political economics. How do you define this area of knowledge?
It means analyzing democratic governance challenges in the context of a country’s political economics—that is to say, in the context of the various interested parties, political and economic institutions, and the ideas behind a country’s defining decisions. As an area of study, at the international level, it is a kind of hub where jurists, sociologists, economists, and politologists come together to figure out problems with a strong economic dimension. Hirschman strongly suggested and practiced the idea of crossing from one area of study to another in relation to identified problems, without losing its technical baggage.

In Brazil, we are currently facing a democratic governance challenge that spells out a critical juncture

Where do you stand on the different institutionalist currents?
Since the 1990s, there have been three dominant currents: historical institutionalism, rational choice, and sociological institutionalism. All three share the assumption that institutions are endogenous to the political and economic process. I gravitate toward historical institutionalism, since I approach politics as a process structured in time and space, as defined by Peter Hall, one of its icons. But I am always open to incorporating advances in other currents, depending on the problem to be investigated.

The concept of critical juncture appears often in your work. What is this about, exactly?
It is one of the key concepts of historical institutionalism; the subject of debate and theoretical developments over the last 20 years. They are situations that represent decisive inflection points, which allow for choices between alternative paths. The critical juncture can also arise as a constellation of domestic and international factors that require a decisive inflection in the responses from policymakers. What defines me as a historical institutionalist is that I approach these responses not simply in their technical dimension, but as an object of political dispute between sociopolitical coalitions that compete for dominance or survival. There is a distributive conflict, especially in situations that impose reforms, because this always means a process of redistribution of punishment and privileges—a political choice. This means there needs to be trade-offs between conflicting objectives. In Brazil, we are currently facing a democratic governance challenge that spells out a critical juncture: the tension—exacerbated by the pandemic—between fiscal dominance and distributive justice.

Is this the current focus of your research? 
I currently run a team of seven researchers on a large comparative project promoted by the IPSA research committee, involving a variety of emerging market democracies, including Brazil. Its goal is to analyze the critical junctures of the 21st century. We want to identify public policy responses from two fields of observation: political and economic formation, and climate/environmental policy. From there, we want to develop a political explanation of the patterns we observe.

What kind of political explanation do you seek?
There are several aspects to it. First, we take seriously the notion of distributive conflict—through power or political dominance—as inherent in the formation of public policies, identified in terms of coalitions that compete amongst themselves. Secondly, it is a matter of integrating the strong technoscientific component that should characterize economic or climate/environmental policy decisions, but without reducing them to their exclusively technical dimension. There is always a political choice and a normative dimension underlying decisions that have a strong technical component, with losers and winners. Is there room for compromise? They should be made explicit, as this is a requirement of the political accountability inherent to a democracy. Thirdly, it is a matter of identifying the political actors, whose support was decisive for the implementation of a certain public policy in response to a certain critical juncture. They are the central groups, that is, those whose support was decisive for the adoption of a policy or for the establishment of the appropriate trade-offs.

Where is Brazil in this?
The Asian crisis of 1997 and its effect on Brazil exemplifies this, as it led to changes in the economic policy: the “tripod”—a floating exchange rate, inflation targets, and the primary surplus target. What is the origin of the tripod? What dilemmas and forces explain its adoption? Who are the losers and who are the winners? More recently, in 2013, we experienced a small critical juncture. Since 2016, we have been experiencing one long critical juncture. Nowadays, the challenge in resolving the economic and political crisis highlights the political dimension of the reforms. It is quintessentially a political choice, which takes center stage.

What does politics mean to you?
This is a difficult question. I could simply say that it is an area of knowledge that aspires to be a science, with an intrinsic, specific challenge, which increases in mass democracies. As it is an essential dimension of life in society, it requires the participation and involvement of the voter-consumer-taxpayer. At the same time, as an area of knowledge, it requires specialized training and is a science of observation; therefore, it requires training. The challenge is building bridges with this citizen, which means expanding their access to political, civic, and even financial education. It also forces scientists to act as public intellectuals. They must translate their knowledge into clear ideas without losing meaning, leading people on, or suggesting solutions they cannot deliver. It is both a risk and a temptation. Scientists must substantiate their answers and know when to say, “I have no answer; such a problem can only be solved through collective and constructive action.”