Eulogy for Carlos Lessa

Luiza Nassif Pires | June 5, 2020

I have translated this eulogy on behalf of the Economics Institute of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, where I have spent many of my years of economic formation. Carlos Lessa is part of a generation of brilliant Brazilian economists that have shaped the public debate and the discipline in Brazil. This is an effort to pay homage and make more visible the work and life of scholars whose writings are hardly ever translated into English but who are extremely important to our education.

This Friday June 5th at dawn, Carlos Lessa, Professor Emeritus of the Institute of Economics and former Rector of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) has passed away. This is a time of mourning for our community. Lessa was a brilliant professor and for several decades has been systematically considered by students as the best in class. As an intellectual, he was a big interpreter of Brazil and especially of Rio de Janeiro, a city that for him was the epitome of what is best and worst in our country . In addition to his many classes, he was a man of his time and a brilliant speaker, known for his very influential and extremely popular talks and speeches. His hundreds of lectures, from a world before the existence of the internet, are of immeasurable importance and impact, particularly in the most difficult years of our history, during the military dictatorship regime, when the circulation of information was often restricted by the fear and action of censorship.

Lessa was not a typical academic; he would not spend his time locked in an office talking only to his peers. Some of his works, especially his books, were immensely popular. His Introductory Economics manual, written together with the brilliant and deeply missed Antônio Barros de Castro, was, together with the famous The Economic Growth of Brazil by Celso Furtado[1], one of the best-selling economics works in all of Brazilian editorial history. His book Quinze Anos de Política Econômica (Fifteen Years of Economic Policy) perhaps his main academic work, showed his strength as a historian. His book Rio de todos os Brasis (Rio de Janeiro of all Brazils) is an example of another aspect of his personality: the admiration and love for the city he was born in. For him, Rio, the city that represented the country’s potential, became a testament to the national socioeconomic imbalance and distance and to the demographic of poor quality of life.

In addition to being a professor and academic, Lessa was a defender of democracy and an activist for the renewal of economists’ thinking. He was one of the founders of the Instituto dos Economistas do Brasil (Institute of Economics of Brazil) and president of the Conselho Regional de Economia do Rio de Janeiro (Regional Council of Economics of Rio de Janeiro). At UFRJ he occupied several important functions over the decades: he was director of the Economics Institute, he was dean of CCJE (Center for Economic and Legal Sciences) and was Rector of the University. He actively participated in party politics and in the movement for the democratization of Brazil. He was director of the Brazilian Development Bank[2] (BNDES) during Sarney’s presidency and President of the Bank during Lula’s first year of presidency.

Lessa was an enthusiast and defender of the public university. He recognized the importance of the institution in national formation, in the production of knowledge and reflection about the country. In addition, he emphasized the important role held by the public university in creating opportunities for talented young people whose alternatives were often limited by obscene and persistent social inequalities in Brazil. He proudly taught and trained many undergraduate and graduate students in action — having been awarded honorary titles during graduation ceremonies by many classes throughout his teaching career.

Lessa was a nationalist and patriot in the classic sense, not to be confused with the vulgarity and superficiality with which these terms have been recently used in Brazil. His nationalism implied a generous view of the Brazilian people and its profound democratic conviction. He wanted Brazil to become a cosmopolitan society, but one that would dialogue with the world from its own perspective, elevating its roots and affirming its interests and qualities. He recognized us as the heart of Latin America, where the people of the world would meet. And hoped — and fought — for our society to overcome its history of inequality and economic and social backwardness. Lessa is one of the last historical developmentalists. He is part of Brazil’s legacy, one that brought to the world modernist projects and cultural innovations. The Brazil of Oscar Niemeyer, Glauber Rocha, Clarice Lispector, João Celso Martinez Correa, João Gilberto, Antônio Carlos Jobim, Milton Santos, Celso Furtado, Antônio Barros de Castro, Maria da Conceição Tavares and others.

We, members of the Economics Institute of UFRJ, pay our tribute to this great professor and provide our solidarity and sentiments to his family for the loss. This is a particularly heavily felt loss, at a severe moment of our history, where people with knowledge and contagious love for our popular culture and national history, commitment to democracy and optimism and energy are deeply missed.

[1] The economic growth of Brazil is one of the few Brazilian economics books that has been translated into English. Celso Furtado was the author of several books, one of the founders of the Brazilian developmentalist school and a prominent scholar of ECLAC. He was a professor of Lessa and Barros de Castro and of huge influence to their work.

[2] In Portuguese, the full name literally means National Bank for Social and Economic Development. The bank was founded in 1952 and was originally called BNDE. Lessa was one of the defenders and most responsible for adding the S, in 1982, to its name, making explicit its commitement to social development.


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