"I came here to honor a great, great friend of Portugal, President Lula, a great friend," Cavaco Silva said in 2011 before the ceremony in which the former Brazilian President was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Coimbra.
Fernando Henrique Cardoso received the same honor 16 years before, with former Portuguese President Mário Soares as his patron, strengthening a friendship that dated back to the 1980s. When the Portuguese President died in 2017, Henrique Cardoso wrote in the Brazilian newspaper O Globo: "We wrote together, we talked for decades, sometimes we disagreed, but we never lost our friendship, and I never lost my admiration for him."
José Sarney, who also wrote that his great friend "Mário Soares had a great love for Brazil, requited by Brazil's great love for him," was one of the key players behind the creation of the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (CPLP).
Another Brazilian president, Itamar Franco, was appointed Brazilian Ambassador in Lisbon after offering his resignation.
For decades, Brazilian and Portuguese leaders have maintained personal ties outside the protocol relationships required by their offices. Long-standing political relations have nurtured personal friendships. Lula and José Sócrates kept visiting each other as friends, both in Portugal and in Brazil, after leaving office. Henrique Cardoso attended Mário Soares' 90th-anniversary luncheon, an exclusive and intimate event.
It is usually at the top of social hierarchies that bridges between the two countries are built. Relations between Portuguese and Brazilian elites have never been mirrored by those at the bottom of the pyramid. The vast majority of Brazilians know nothing about Portugal, not even about the two countries' shared history, whereas Portuguese perceptions of Brazil are still shaped by tired prejudices.
What is the relationship between Brazil's presidential candidates - the inheritors of a vast web of personal and professional relationships - and Portugal?
Over the last few months I have talked backstage with 14 aides (or former aides) of the five leading candidates - Geraldo Alckmin, Jair Bolsonaro, Ciro Gomes, Fernando Haddad, and Marina Silva. I worked several years with Alckmin as a member of his cabinet. But to write this article I never tried to talk directly to the candidates, as their confessors' version is often truer to their sins. I purged the text of the official Luso-Brazilian narrative, the one that always evokes the idea of a sibling relationship and of the two countries' shared history. While writing 'The Emperor' - a book about the fall of the magnanimous Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie - Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński also preferred to interview Selassie's assistants. That was my inspiration.
Alckmin, Bolsonaro, Ciro, Haddad and Marina
"Personal connections of Marina [Silva] to Portugal?" - these words were muttered repeatedly by one of her senior aides during one of the commercial breaks of the presidential debate held by TV Gazeta and Estadão, in São Paulo, earlier in September. "Nothing, I think. I don't remember ever hearing Marina talk about Portugal."
I insisted. A trip? A lecture? The Wikipedia page says she has Portuguese and African origins, is it true?
Two aides in their 50s look at each other for help. "Maybe she traveled to Portugal and gave a lecture there, but I don't remember it. And her family has been living in Acre for several generations - I don't remember her talking about Portuguese origins," said one of them.
Aged 60, former Senator and Minister Marina Silva built her entire career in Brazil, except for a short stay in Argentina, where she studied psycho-pedagogy.
Weeks later, during an event where candidates for the general elections would be announced, I brought up the subject with a friend and former Marina Silva aide with whom she has worked for a couple of years. After thinking quietly for about 20 seconds, he told me "I can't remember anything at all. The only thing that comes to my mind is José Eduardo Agualusa, whom Marina likes to read and quote, but he's not even Portuguese."
I got the same reaction from one of Bolsonaro's main aides. He has never heard the 63-year-old candidate mention Portugal because "both sides of his family descend from Italians from the Tuscany region." The official biography confirms this: he is the son of Perdo Geraldo Bolsonaro (a dentist without a diploma) and Olinda Bonturi (a housewife), both of Italian ancestry. Last year, Bolsonaro even told a magazine that if he loses this election he will consider moving to Italy, his "country of origin."
References to Portugal in the press are almost non-existent. But in 2017 he gave an interview to RTP (the Portuguese state network) where he denied the existence of a military dictatorship in Brazil (1964-1985) and claimed that back then "you could go to Portugal and come back whenever you wanted." He forgot to mention that most such visitors were political exiles, not tourists strolling on Avenida da Liberdade.
In Brazil there are about 30 million descendants of Italians, making it the largest Italian community in the world - larger, in fact, than the community of Portuguese descendants. Brazil also boasts the largest community of Lebanese descendants in the world, numbering about 12 million people. One of the community's most illustrious representatives - along with current President Michel Temer - is the former mayor of São Paulo and now presidential candidate Fernando Haddad (55).
In public, the PT candidate says that one of his inspirational figures is his paternal grandfather Cury Habib Haddad, a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch. He maintains a close relationship with the Lebanese community by attending its official events in São Paulo.
He does not say much about Portugal. As Mayor and Minister of Education, Haddad has officially received several dignitaries from dozens of countries, including Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa (both left a wreath at the monument to the Portuguese founders of São Paulo in 2016) and State Secretary for Portuguese Communities José Luís Carneiro. Two aides have also said that he has a relationship of "personal empathy" and "respect" with sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, with whom he visited former President Lula in jail and attended, back in 2016, a debate in Porto Alegre about urban inequality. A former aide has also mentioned that Haddad told a Portuguese diplomat about his personal admiration for Mário Soares a few years ago.
But people who have worked with the former Mayor confirm that his connection to Portugal is negligible. Yet they emphasize that he actively looked for international public policy examples when he was Mayor. From Colombia and the Netherlands, for instance, came part of his inspiration to build 400 km of bicycle paths across the city. And from Portugal came the praise for Expo 98. Upon taking office, Haddad inherited São Paulo's withering Expo 2020 candidacy from his predecessor, and Lisbon was seen as a distant inspiration.
Other aides also point out that Haddad analyzed Portugal's policy of decriminalizing drug use before launching, in 2014, his Open Arms program, which offered a job and a small sum to drug addicts.
In fact, his drug policy is almost unanimous among Brazilian politicians. In May, former president Fernando Henrique, a long-time advocate of the national drug program, attended a dinner event at the Residence of the Portuguese Consul General in São Paulo with various authorities involved in the drug debate.
Ciro Gomes (60) is also an admirer of Portugal's drug policy, according to an aide I met during the same television debate. He praises not only the Portuguese drugs policy but also the left-wing government coalition led by the Portuguese Socialist Party.
Currently living in Fortaleza, the candidate often flies with TAP (the Portuguese flag carrier) from the capital of Ceará to Lisbon, where he enjoys staying for a few days before reaching his final destination. According to an aide, Ciro "goes to Portugal at least once every year." "Portugal is like a second home to him, he goes there whenever he can," another aide points out. In a recent interview with RTP, Ciro said he visits Portugal 3 or 4 times a year as a tourist.
Ciro and his siblings Cid, Ivo, Lúcio and Lia are the 8th generation of the Ferreira Gomes family in Brazil, a clan whose origins date back to the 18th century when Domingos Ferreira Gomes, a Portuguese migrant born and raised in Leiria, moved to Ceará. The family has been controlling politics in Ceará for several decades. Ciro, Cid and Ivo have served as Mayors of Fortaleza and Sobral (the family's political cradle); Ciro and Cid have served as Governors of Ceará; Lúcio has held several positions in his brothers' cabinets; and Lia is running for state MP, a position previously served by her brothers and uncle. The family has always rejected the idea of an oligarchy.
In an interview with RTP in 2018, Ciro Gomes didn't fail to evoke the aforementioned 'official version', saying that he feels a deep admiration for Portugal owing to the two countries' shared history. Conversations with his aides, however, do not confirm this assertion. Despite the frequent stopovers in Lisbon, three of his aides hesitated about Ciro's proximity to the country.
Geraldo Alckmin, on the other hand, has rarely been to Portugal. Although he has two or three international work trips every year (he never travels on holidays), Portugal is hardly in the picture. The exception was a trip in November 2002, accompanying President Fernando Henrique Cardoso on his last trip to Europe as Brazilian President.
Aged 65, Alckmin doesn't know much about Portuguese politics and economics. Yet he leaves Portuguese politicians flabbergasted by mentioning encyclopedic details about Queen D. Leonor, the wife of D. João II and founder of Catholic charity Santa Casa da Misericórdia. Trained as a doctor, the ease with which he talks about D. Leonor stands in sharp contrast with the difficulties his interlocutors face when trying to navigate a sea of dates and historical events.
In his more than 40 years as a politician, Alckmin has had official meetings with Presidents Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and Jorge Sampaio and with Prime Ministers António Costa, Durão Barroso and António Guterres. The list also includes several Portuguese Foreign Ministers, from Paulo Portas to Augusto Santos Silva. But he does not usually recount these meetings.
Born in the small town of Pindamonhangaba (an indigenous name) in the state of São Paulo, Alckmin has always been elusive about his origins, letting the Lebanese, German and Spanish communities embrace him as their own. But in 2013, while doing archival research for a study I later handed over to him, I found out that his family descends from a Portuguese man who migrated to Minas Gerais in the 18th century. His land of origin? Alcamim, a small village bathed by the River Zêzere, located in Castelo Branco region.
At a time when the country provides Portuguese entrepreneurs with unique economic opportunities, Brazil will have, as of January 2019, one of the least lusophile presidents in its history. Dilma Rousseff maintained the same personal distance, and bilateral relations dropped to Nordic temperatures.
It is possible to find similar situations in the relationship between the UK and the US. Personal relationships between Churchill and Roosevelt or between Macmillan and Kennedy helped prevent international wars and crises and brought an era of prosperity for both countries.
In the long term, the relationship between Portuguese and Brazilian elites is safeguarded. Thousands of qualified Portuguese youth have moved to Brazil in the last decade, taking advantage of the country's economic strength during Lula's term. And thousands of Brazilian university students have been trained in Portuguese learning institutions. Personal and professional links have been created. But in the short term, we will probably face a cool down period. Sarney's and Fernando Henrique Cardoso's generation is moving away from political life and the new generation has not taken the floor yet. During the next decade or more, Brazil - a country with a seriously low political turnover rate - will continue to be governed by the generation that encompasses Alckmin, Bolsonaro, Ciro, Haddad and Marina, all aged 55-65. The four candidates who lose the October elections are likely to continue their political careers for several years. And diplomatic relations between the two countries are likely to continue to be guided by cordiality rather than by ingenuity.
* Rodrigo Tavares is the founder and president of Granito Group. His academic career includes the universities of Harvard, Columbia, Gothenburg and California-Berkeley. He was nominated Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2017.