Born in Rio de Janeiro, he has lived in São Paulo most of his life. Cardoso is married (wife Ruth Cardoso) and has 3 children. Trained as a sociologist, he is a Professor of Political Science and Sociology at Universidade de São Paulo. He was President of the International Sociology Association (ISA), from 1982 to 1986. He became a member of the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton), a honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and penned several books.
He was also Associated Director of Studies in the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris and then visiting professor at the Collège de France and later at the Paris-Nanterre University. He also lectured at American universities including Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley.
Cardoso founded the Party of the Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB), in 1988 and lead this party in the Senate until October 1992. He served a minister of foreign affiars from October 1992 to May 1993. From May 1993 until April 1994, he was minister of finance.
Fernando Henrique Cardoso won his second presidential election with approximately 53% of the vote, while his closest challenger, Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT), had about 32%.
Cardoso was succeeded in 2003 by Lula da Silva. In his third run for the presidency in 2003, da Silva won in a historic landslide against Cardoso's handpicked candidate José Serra. Da Silva's election has been seen as a sign of Cardoso's growing unpopularity in his second term.
FHC (as he was sometimes called) was elected with the support of a heterodox alliance of his own center-left Social Democratic Party, the PSDB, and two center-right parties, the Liberal Front Party (PFL) and the Brazilian Labor Party (PTB). Brazil's largest party, the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), joined Cardoso's governing coalition after the election, as did the center-right PPB, the Brazilian Progressive Party, in 1996. Party loyalty is weak, and deputies and senators who belong to the parties comprising the government coalition do not always vote with the government. As a result, President Cardoso has had difficulty, at times, gaining sufficient support for some of his legislative priorities, despite the fact that his coalition parties hold an overwhelming majority of congressional seats. Nevertheless, the Cardoso administration has accomplished many of its legislative and reform objectives.
Before, he was elected Senator of the state of São Paulo for the former MDB, Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Brazilian Democratic Movement), in 1978. Re-elected in 1986 for the PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), which substituted MDB after brazilian re-democratization.