Excerpts from Letters to my Mother: News of the US, 1964–1965

by Edmar Bacha

The following excerpts have been edited for brevity. A revised version of the will be published in Portuguese as part of Bacha's memoir: Segunda Chance: Família, Formação, Governo. Rio de Janeiro: Selo Vida Real/Editora Intrínsica, 2020. To access the full text of Bacha’s letters and other materials from the EGC historical archive, email your request to egc@yale.edu.


A group of young men in New Haven in the 1960s.
In a photo from March 1965, Edmar Bacha (far left) stands with his peers on Hillhouse Avenue – from left to right, John Ofosu-Benefor (Ghana), Mario René Gomez (Guatemala), Guillermo Calvo (Argentina), Clóvis Cavalcanti (Brazil), Masamichi Funaoka (Japan), Frank Thompson (Trinidad and Tobago), and Roy Clarke (Barbados).

On August 29, 1964, my mother and my cousins Ana Elisa and Sergio Gregori took me to Galeão airport, where I left for New York on a Pan Am flight. My excitement was enormous. As a single 22-year-old I made my first international trip. I was on my way to New Haven, Connecticut, to receive a master's degree in economics at Yale University.

My mother had come from Belo Horizonte to say goodbye to me. She stayed at my cousins' apartment in the Laranjeiras’ neighborhood 1. Since January, I was in Rio de Janeiro studying at Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV). It was the first time I had left my mother’s house.

After my father's premature death in 1951, we moved from Lambari, the small town in the south of Minas Gerais where I was born, to Belo Horizonte. My mother had seven children. I was the youngest in the family with nine years old. My brothers and sisters got married over the years, so when I started the School of Economics (FACE)2 at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) in 1960, it was just me and my mother. We lived in a house on Rua Congonhas, in the Santo Antônio neighborhood – previously so cramped, now so spacious.

I majored in economics in the end of 1963 eager to conquer the world. The path in front of me was clear. Other ex-students from FACE  had done the same. I would go to the Center for Advancement of Economists (CAE) at the FGV in Rio de Janeiro for a six-month program designed to prepare recent graduates in economics to go to a graduate school in the US with USAID scholarships.  

When I got accepted in the selection process in 1964, I moved to Rio de Janeiro. At CAE, I came across Mario Henrique Simonsen, who taught mathematics, micro and macroeconomics – almost all subjects in the program. It was amazing. I thought to myself: he was an exceptionally intelligent fellow; he had a proficiency in mathematics that I could never aspire to! 

In the months I spent in Rio, I wrote regularly to my mother, I visited her in Belo Horizonte, and I called her whenever I could (there was no phone in the apartment I rented). In the US, I knew there would be no visits (they were too expensive) and calls were only for special occasions (international calls were also expensive and needed to go through telephone operators, which involved long waiting times). Hence, I promised my mother to write her two letters a week. My mother kept them and, after her death, they returned to my hands. I filed them without reading for a long time. But now, taking advantage of the quarantine caused by Covid-19, I returned to them. I immersed myself in its reading and became surprised with its content: a true diary of my first year in the USA.

My mother, Maria de Jesus Lisboa Bacha, was an extraordinary person who raised seven children by herself in Belo Horizonte with great affection and dedication. She was cultured and politically aware. After graduating as a normalist 3 in Colégio Sion de Campanha in southern Minas Gerais, she was the headmistress of Lambari’s primary school, where I learned to read and write. She came from a family of politicians and intellectuals; the poet Henriqueta Lisboa was her sister4. We were very close and I felt free to, in my letters, speak freely about the course, the professors, the university, and the life in the US.

Before I get to the letters, I must explain how I got to Yale. I did well on the CAE program and was approved to go to the USA. Yale seemed like a good option, both because of the reputation of the university and its economics department, and because it had a specific gateway for foreign students. In addition, Professor Werner Baer, who was a Yale professor, was doing research at FGV that year and strongly recommended me to go there.

I kept my promise to my mother and kept constant correspondence with her. Now rereading the letters of the young man I once was, I extracted excerpts that naturally took the form of the three chronicles that make up this book.

The first chronicle, A Brazilian Student at Yale, reports my experience in the Master's, its requirements, courses and teachers. The letters reflect my concerns about obtaining the Master's degree and advancing to the Ph.D. program, and my happiness when I saw these goals fulfilled.

Like me, my mother was a fan of Celso Furtado. He spent a year as a Visiting Fellow in the Yale economics department after having his political rights suspended by the military dictatorship. I transcribe in the second chronicle, Celso Furtado: Tales of a Young Admirer, the numerous references to my personal, political and professional relationship with him. They are a tribute that I pay him in celebration of the centenary of his birth in 2020.

The third chronicle, Impressions of the Megalopolis, brings my reactions and comments about life in the USA. More precisely, about the Boston-Washington Megalopolis I visited that year. I was impressed by many things. The technological advances, the contrast between racial conflict and the relative well-being of black people, the equality and respect for individual freedom, the electoral clash between Democrats and Republicans, the affluent society, the peculiarities of the American family, and the dating rules at an almost entirely male university. I made minimal grammatical and style corrections in the excerpts. The selected excerpts give unity to the subject of the three chronicles like fragments of a mosaic ordered in temporal order. I added notes in brackets and footnotes help to understand the context of the narrated situations and episodes.

The chronicles cover the period from September 1964 to July 1965. They end with my arrival in London as an intern at the International Coffee Organization. I met my mother afterwards, having visited Lisbon, Madrid and Paris with her. I returned to Yale to do my Ph.D. in September 1965. From that period onwards, letters to my mother are less frequent, some have been lost, and those that remained do not have the flavor of these enthusiastic reports of a young man for whom the world had just opened up.


June 26-27, 1964

The problem is that I would like to choose my courses from a practical point of view, based on my future professional interest. But it is impossible to decide on this now. The International Trade course will help me a lot if I’m successful and decide to work in international organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund, United Nations or the World Bank. If I return to Brazil to work at SUMOC [embryo of Brazil’s Central Bank], in some private bank (Sérgio [Gregori, my cousin, who had relations with Citibank in Brazil] already talked to me about this possibility) or at BNDE [Brazil’s National Development Bank], the Money and Banking course is obviously better. And all these options (and some more with the Graduate School where they plan to turn CAE into, plus two or three more in Belo Horizonte) are concrete opportunities (how concrete, naturally, depends on my performance here). The choice is obviously difficult from a purely rational objective point of view.

Monday, in any case, I will decide. In the morning, I have the first class of Money and Banking. Then, I will talk to Mr. Triffin, the instructor of the second semester of this subject. He happens to be arguably the best-known world authority on international monetary affairs. Hence, I will have a good idea of the course structure and decide for good. Of course, if I stay here for the Ph.D. this problem ceases to exist and I can take both courses, but I will not know if this is possible until next year.  

September 18, 1964

I just read the Economic Report of the President5, which I really liked. I think it was the first time I saw practically all theoretical economics teachings applied (masterfully) to economic policy. It’s amazing to see how the thing really works, when those who do the studies and expose the results understand economics. Also, it is a beauty to work with the amount of empirical data that American economists have. Nothing like being super-developed to have good statistics!

October 13-14,1964

Today, after my 4-6pm class at Professor Ruggles' house – this class is very fun because it takes place in a living room, with the teacher comfortably installed in a reclining leather chair and us spread around the room, sipping a cup of coffee (with “cream”) – I went to see Milton Friedman’s lecture on “The Goldwater Economic Policy”. I wanted to see how someone could put it in rational terms. This Friedman fellow is Goldwater's [Republican candidate for president] main economic advisor. He is ultraconservative, of course. But in any case, he is a skilled and intelligent economist, reminiscent of Eugenio Gudin. At least I am convinced that, if Goldwater’s candidacy has its rationale, it’s decidedly 19th century.

November 4, 1964

Today was sunny, with the radiant sun saluting the victory of Johnson [in the presidential election]. There is also no class because the instructor [possibly Lloyd Reynolds] must have invited the members of the econ department to his apartment yesterday to follow the results on television and drink to them. Here in New Haven, 3 out of 4 votes were for the Democrats and, in Connecticut, Democrats won overwhelmingly, both the Senate and the six representative seats. So today is an ideal day for me to prepare for the first International Trade exam tomorrow – I hope to review the whole subject; what was understood in the first reading will be taken for granted. In the meantime, I will finish the readings I didn’t have time to do. Tomorrow, I also deliver my first paper for the same course, which has a pompous title: The changing pattern of Brazilian imports: a suggested approach, but it is pure “journalism”. I just hope that's what the instructor wanted.

December 18, 1964

In fact, Wednesday was extremely intellectualized. I was invited for lunch at Berkeley College by two English undergraduate students in economics. We discussed England's balance of payments and inflation problems in Brazil. At night, I invited an Indian colleague to have dinner here at the apartment. He told me India’s main challenge was to implement birth control, and explained to me the difficulties involved. At the Christmas party, a chat with a Norwegian economist and an Iceland expert – what a paradox, to them the problem is how to increase the population because there is a tremendous lack of workers. Naturally, the issue is easily solved by the long nights of Winter...

February 1,1965

While the Statistics instructor does not arrive, I will take the opportunity to engage in our biweekly chat. As expected, I did quite well in Economic Analysis and in International Trade. I got the best grades in both courses. In Economic Analysis I was tied with two other students and in International Trade I was tied with one other. I got honors-minus in Analysis: he gave me honors-minus for the Socialism paper and I had a perfect score in the final exam. Between us, he could have just given me honors. He considered the final exam with a much higher weight for others. In any case, my 187 points in the two tests were the highest in the class. In International Trade, [Gerry] Helleiner gave me honors and even complimented me on the “very good” exam.

February 15, 1965

This is absolutely unbelievable! “This was, I think the best paper in the class – very original and good throughout. I hope you will be able to stay here for further work toward the Ph.D. Honors. Lloyd Reynolds” – and Reynolds happens to be the Executive Director of the Economic Growth Center, the second in command in the Department of Economics – isn't it great?

But my exam was pure gibberish, nobody can convince me otherwise. Only this time I nailed the instructor’s psychology. He vibrated- “very true!” – with my talk that economic planning like what we do in Brazil gets money from the World Bank or USAID but is not really useful. But the biggest observation was the one he made to my response on to what I would change in  traditional economics (“Western economics”) if I were to write a textbook for students from underdeveloped countries – that was pure idle talk, but he said “very interesting analysis – I may use it myself!”. Feel free, but don't tell anyone!

March 16, 1965

I received an invitation to work on the Committee of the Nine of the Alliance for Progress in Washington, DC, in the summer. Díaz, my instructor, wants me to help review Venezuela's plan, which includes the opportunity to go to Caracas. If I want stay in this position definitively, I can earn 8,000 or more dollars a year, free of income tax. This enters 3rd place on my priority list...

March 19, 1965

I went on vacation today for two weeks. These last three days have been of intense activity. On Wednesday, Furtado spoke at the Latin American Interdisciplinary Seminar on agrarian problems in the Brazilian Northeast. The man is a legend, mom! On Thursday I have Mathematics and Trade in the morning. In the afternoon, Shane Hunt [assistant professor at the Economics Department] will speak at the Latin American Economic Seminar [both L.A. seminars are coordinated by Werner Baer] about the external sector in Peru. In the evening. [Harvey] Leibenstein, professor at Berkeley, will give a lecture on  Welfare Economy Criteria. Today, I have Development in the morning and Leibenstein again on the afternoon. He will talk about the role of entrepreneurship on development.

April 2, 1965

Wow, now I must hope that Mr. Otto Eckstein is in a good mood when reading my paper, fingers crossed. He is the editor of the Review of Economics and Statistics, one of the most famous specialized journals in America. Díaz read my paper today and said I just had to attach a table of statistics and send it to the journal because he didn't see any changes he could make on what I had written. He wanted me to send it today, but I preferred to wait for Clark Reynolds [department professor, who had written a book about Mexico in the series of country studies of the Economic Growth Center] to take a look. Maybe Díaz is more excited than me about this because he was so closely involved in the process of preparing the paper...

April 26, 1965

I was discussing with Werner Baer the other my favorite topic for the thesis: “Why stabilization plans fail in Latin America”. An analysis of attempts to stabilization in Chile (1955-56), Argentina (1959) and Brazil (1964). I have the intuition that the best way to approach this problem is to focus it from the point of view of the private entrepreneur – the farmer, the industrialist, the trader. The problem are the sources of information, as usual – the overall inadequate statistics.

May 11,1965

At the end [of dining at Celso Furtado's], it was just me and [Carlos] Díaz [Alejandro] – and Furtado was on fire. It was one of the most fun conversations I’ve ever had. About the Edict of Caracalla6, Epithet philosophy, and others of the sort, motivated by the [American] invasion of the Dominican Republic. And the most recent theory of Helio Jaguaribe (who is at Harvard), is that the Pax Americana that foreshadowed the continent represents for Latin American intellectuals what Pax Romana meant for Greek philosophers.

1 [Translator's note] Middle-class neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro.
I attended FACE benefiting from its Scholarship Program, an extraordinary initiative by Professor Yvon Leite de Magalhães Pinto, as reported in: Claudio de Moura Castro, A Mágica do Dr. Yvon. Belo Horizonte: Benvinda Editora, 2016
[Translator's note] A student at a normal school, which was a high school intended at the training of primary school teachers. Normal schools existed in Brazil from 1835 to 1971.
 I wrote the article “Os Lisboa: fragmentos de memória” about my maternal uncles in 2017. 
Annual report of the Council of Economic Advisers of the President of the United States.
In 212 d.C., the emperor Caracalla decreed that every free man inhabiting the Roman empire was a Roman citizen.