A Year at Yale: Celso Furtado’s political exile in New Haven

By Lisa Qian

March 25, 2021

The famed Brazilian economist Celso Furtado had just been stripped of his political rights when a New York Times correspondent delivered an invitation to him.

It was April 1964, and a new military government had seized power in a coup d’état and removed Furtado from his government post, labeling him a communist. The invitation the journalist delivered was from Yale’s economics department, proposing that Furtado come spend the first year of his exile in New Haven as a visiting professor and scholar at the Economic Growth Center (EGC). Faced with the prospect of arrest for any public activity in Brazil over the next ten years and knowing that many of his former employees had already been detained, Furtado accepted Yale’s offer.

Early life and career in Brazil

4 men standing outdoors near lake

From left to right: Celso Furtado, Clóvis Cavalcanti, Edmar Bacha and David Barkin in September 1964. Furtado had just arrived at Yale. Photo courtesy Clóvis Cavalcanti.

Furtado is often described as one of the most prominent Latin American economists of the 20th century, known both for his policy work creating economic development programs in Brazil and his academic work theorizing the evolution of Latin American economies. Although his time at Yale was short, the impact he had on his students and colleagues extended far beyond his year in New Haven.

Prior to the 1964 coup, Furtado had been the director of SUDENE, a government agency he had founded in 1960, which promoted an innovative regional economic development program in Brazil’s poorer Northeast region, and Minister of Planning in the deposed government. By some accounts, he was responsible for convincing President Kennedy to commit $131 million dollars in Alliance for Progress funding to the Northeast.

As director of SUDENE, Furtado met Werner Baer, an assistant professor at Yale and the Economic Growth Center. Baer lived in Brazil for a year as part of the EGC’s Country Studies Program, which sent young professors into the field to research the economies of developing countries. Upon learning of Furtado’s dismissal as director and the terms of his political exile imposed by the new military government, Baer pushed for the EGC to extend an invitation and encouraged Furtado to accept the offer.

Join Edmar Bacha & Ana Cecilia Fieler in a virtual event on April 9

Edmar Bacha, IDE MA '65, Yale Economics PhD '68, and Ana Cecilia Fieler, Visiting Assistant Professor of Economics will discuss "The Economy of Brazil, 1980 to Present: Problems and Possibilities", as part of the celebration of EGC’s 60th anniversary celebration and 65 years of the International Development and Economics (IDE) Masters program.

Furtado is often described as one of the most prominent Latin American economists of the 20th century, known both for his policy work creating economic development programs in Brazil and his academic work theorizing the evolution of Latin American economies. Although his time at Yale was short, the impact he had on his students and colleagues extended far beyond his year in New Haven.

Prior to the 1964 coup, Furtado had been the director of SUDENE, a government agency he had founded in 1960, which promoted an innovative regional economic development program in Brazil’s poorer Northeast region, and Minister of Planning in the deposed government. By some accounts, he was responsible for convincing President Kennedy to commit $131 million dollars in Alliance for Progress funding to the Northeast.

As director of SUDENE, Furtado met Werner Baer, an assistant professor at Yale and the Economic Growth Center. Baer lived in Brazil for a year as part of the EGC’s Country Studies Program, which sent young professors into the field to research the economies of developing countries. Upon learning of Furtado’s dismissal as director and the terms of his political exile imposed by the new military government, Baer pushed for the EGC to extend an invitation and encouraged Furtado to accept the offer.

Two men sitting on a panel.
Celso Furtado (left) and Clóvis Cavalcanti (right) in Recife, a city in the Northeast region of Brazil in 1977. Furtado founded SUDENE, a government development agency that sought to reduce poverty in the Northeast region. Photo courtesy Clóvis Cavalcanti.

Furtado’s time at Yale and his contributions to development economics

This was a low point in Furtado’s life –  soon after he arrived in New Haven in September 1964, he wrote in his diary “new life, no job, small children.” However, Furtado soon began to view this transition period more positively.

“The first place where he could feel safe was Yale,” Clóvis Cavalcanti M.A. ’65 said. Cavalcanti had worked with Furtado as an intern at SUDENE prior to the coup and arrived at Yale at the same time as Furtado, but as a part of the program that offered Master’s degrees in development to international students.

Another new Brazilian graduate student in this program, Edmar Bacha M.A. ’65 M.Phil. ’67 Ph.D. ’68 eagerly anticipated Furtado’s arrival. As an undergraduate, Bacha had read one of Furtado’s books, The Economic Formation of Brazil, a book he still has to this day.

“I could barely imagine that in a short time I would live for a whole year with the author of this classic of Brazilian economic literature,” Bacha wrote. “I could barely contain the desire to meet him in person.”

Cavalcanti remembered that Lloyd Reynolds, the director of the EGC, at his first lecture of the year, spoke warmly to the Center about welcoming Furtado’s structuralist perspective, as it was called. As a structuralist, Furtado believed that historical conditions, social relationships and institutions determined the trajectory of development. One of his key contributions was theorizing that poorer countries were not in a phase in their economic development evolution, but rather, that their poverty reflected specific historical processes which could keep the country underdeveloped.

At EGC, Furtado’s duties included teaching a weekly seminar and research. Together, with assistant professor Andrea Maneschi, he researched a theoretical model of Latin American economic development. By better understanding the stagnation that countries like Chile and Argentina states had faced, their goal was to improve the nations’ economic prospects.

“I think it was a very productive interlude for him, just to be able to interact with all these young economists,” Maneschi said.

Furtado’s influence was similarly productive for his colleagues and students.

“We spent many, many, many hours talking about different approaches to analyzing regional development,” David Barkin M.A. ’63 Ph.D. ’66, a graduate student at the time who befriended Furtado, said. “That enriched and fed my commitment to do my PhD research on a regional development project in Mexico.”

Of Yale, Furtado had good things to say in an April 13, 1965 interview with the Yale Daily News, at the end of his stay.

“I have had the best impression of American schools,” he said. “In relative terms the American university is a more liberal force than the European. It has a more provocative role, a more progressive approach.”

After departing from Yale

After his year at Yale, Furtado moved to France, where he spent the rest of his exile save for a stint at the University of Cambridge. He returned to Yale once more, in 1972, to participate in an Economic Growth Center seminar series. When civilian government returned to Brazil, he was named the Brazilian ambassador to the European Economic Community and later, from 1986-1990, he was Brazil’s Minister of Culture. His later writings focused on addressing Brazil’s debt crisis in the late 1980s and inequality among regions of Brazil. In addition, he questioned the very idea of economic growth, pointing out the ignored costs of environmental destruction and depletion of natural resources. At a time when growth was widely viewed to be inherently positive, his ideas were visionary.

Furtado died in 2004, in Rio de Janeiro.

“Furtado was a major theoretical stalwart in the Latin American school of economic development,” Barkin said. “He was an extraordinarily insightful analyst and re-interpreter of economic history.”