Buarque graduated in mechanical engineering from the Federal University of Pernambuco (1966). At that time he engaged in student politics becoming a militant of the Ação Popular, a group of the Leftist Progressive Church. After the 1964 coup, he was persecuted and took exile in France, where he earned a PhD in economics from the Pantheon-Sorbonne University, Paris I, (Paris), in 1973. He worked at Inter-American Bank of Development (IDB) in Ecuador, Honduras and the United States from 1973 to 79. He was the first elected rector, by direct vote, of the University of Brasilia in the wake of the military regime, governor of Federal District, Minister of Education and currently senator, elected in a historic landslide. Author of ten books with several published articles. He worked as a consultant for several national and international bodies under the United Nations (UN). Presided over the University for Peace Council and participated on Food Presidential Commission, formerly directed by late Sociologist Herbert "Betinho" de Souza.
Buarque is a member of Institute of Education of UNESCO and of the Council of the United Nations University. He created a NGO Mission Child, which sponsors an income transfer program for thousands of families and is funded by private enterprises. He was awarded the Jabuti prize of Literature in 1995, in the “Humanities” category. He is a staunch defender of the “revolution… through education”, a line of thought touted by important Brazilian intellectuals, as Anísio Teixeira, Darcy Ribeiro and Paulo Freire. However, his stance on this subject should not be confused with that of those other thinkers, who – especially Freire – also envisioned a "revolution in education". Buarque’s approach is much more conventional, uncritical of traditional education.
Buarque is also a proposer of an alternative class analysis of modern capitalist societies. According to him, in modern capitalism, the increasing substitution of human labour for automated machines tends to make employed workers a privileged caste, while a new layer of “excluded” people – those who have no jobs, no insurance, no health care – is formed, whose members are the real victims of social inequality. As this new underclass, however, does not have the ability to effectively counter its exploitation by capitalism, Buarque’s thought constantly tends towards some kind of substitutionism, in which political action by wide masses is replaced by government or institutional action on their behalf.
His term as Governor of Distrito Federal was marked by strong tensions with the Workers’ Party (PT), and particularly with the unionist base of the party, as he strove continuously not only to maintain his independence from party directives, but also to influence intra-party political struggle through State power. In that, he achieved evident success in subduing the party to his policies, at the high price of demobilizing most of the PT activists.
The project Bolsa Escola, implemented in the Federal District during his term, was awarded in Brazil and other countries. Albeit its 58% of approval in a research made by the Datafolha institute, carried through to the end of his term (being classified as the most popular state governor ever), he was unable to attain re-election, being defeated by Joaquim Roriz (PMDB) by a small margin of votes. Buarque attributed his defeat to his opponent’s promise to grant a large wage increase for the public servants of the Federal District. The promise was not fulfilled by Roriz.
Bolsa escola assures a minimum wage to every poor family in which all children between the ages of 7 and 14 are registered for public school. The criteria to receive it are:Per capita income monthly of the family must be equal or inferior the half minimum wage.
All the children of the family must attend a minimum of 90% of classes.
The family must have resided in the Federal District for at least five years.
If some adult member of the family is unemployed, he or she will have to be enrolled in the National System of Employment (SINE).
In 1997, the program reached 44 382 children of 22.493 families, with an expense of R$32 million, or in other words less than 1% of the budget of the Federal District. Under this program, truancy, which in 1994 had been about 10%, fell to 0,4%.
Works as one programs to complement to Bolsa escola, aimed at diminishing school evasion and failing rates. The pupil scholarship holder, to each year where he is approved, has deposited in a special account the value of a minimum wage, that will be applied in the Fund for Solidarity of the Federal District (Funsol). After completing the fourth and the eighth year of school, the pupil will be able to draw half of the value deposited in the savings account. In the conclusion of as the degree, the balance is set free integrally. If the pupil flunks two consecutive years, he/she will be excluded from the program and the saving account's balance reverted for the government. The program costs 10% of the annual average cost of a pupil in the public net, what it makes with that, when reducing significantly the school failing rates (dropped from 29.8% in 1994 to 16.45% in 1997), represents a considerable economy for the government, beyond the social and educational profit.
The families benefited for this program regularly receive the visit from health teams, trained to give to basic services in the area to all the members of the family, diminishing its necessity of displacement to the hospitals and centers of health. Each team, headquartered in a Unit of Health in House, is composed for a doctor, a nurse, three nurse aid, four communitarian agents of health and one to assist of general services, and has covered a region with about a thousand families. This program already is implanted in eleven regions reaching, through the 101 teams of the Secretariat of Health, about 800 thousand people.
Consists of mini-libraries (box-bookshelves), installed in residences of Communitarian Agents of Reading, for book loan to the neighborhood. Each domiciliary library has a quantity of about 150 volumes, made up of: didactic books and of infantile, Brazilian and foreign pertaining to school support, literature. The books are loaned per seven days. To each two months, the box-bookshelves are changed, giving new options of reading. The program already has five hundred “luggages of the book” reaching a universe of about 50 a thousand people.
Its main objective is to democratize the access to the credit and the services banking, being benefited microproducing agricultural and urban, as craftsmen, feirantes, small rendering of services and workers of the informal sector, as well as cooperatives and microcompanies. The ceiling of the financing value is of R$5 000 per person and R$25 000 in the case of collective forms of production and work. These resources are destined to the purchase of machines and equipment as well as the o working capital financing. The quick program also enterprise assessorship and promotes courses for the qualification managemental technique and of the benefited ones. To stand itself to the credit, the necessary interested party to inhabit in Federal District has at least five years, to have experience in the profession or enterprise the one that if applied of, not to have no type of cadastral restriction and to present a guarantor in the same conditions. When one registers, an agent of credit of the Secretariat of the Work goes to visit the candidate to verify the conditions of production, the product quality/service and the expectations of job generation. After the visit, the Committee of Credit approves or not it request, on the basis of the finding presented for the Secretariat of the Work. In the foreseen dates, the benefited one deposits, in any agency of the BRB, the value of the parcel of the loan. When quitting a financing, all that one that paid in day will be able to get a new credit.
Initiated in 1995, the “Popular Seasons” takes to all the cities of Federal District, during the months of January and February, local and national artists. In one year, 220 spectacles of music, theater and dance had been presented, with admission tickets sold at R$8.00 each, that had been attended by 100 000 people.
Program of education in traffic that drastically reduced the number of accidents in the Federal District and in the capital Brasília, that was one of the Brazilian cities with more occurrences of traffic accidents.
In 2005, after the denunciations of corruption involving the Worker's Party (PT), he left the party. He said:
I did not leave PT, it was PT that left me. This is the great crime of the PT. The party is composed of honest, but accommodated people. Only some petistas are corrupt.
After considering staying in Senate independently, he decided to enter the Democratic Labour Party (PDT), with which he had old affinities, having participated of the campaign of Leonel Brizola to the presidency in 1989. His proposal to transform the education into great national priority is a continuation of the ideas of Darcy Ribeiro, an important formulator of the educational politics of the PDT.
Cristovam Buarque ran for President in the elections of 2006 for the PDT, having the senator Jefferson Peres as vice-president. The main flag of his campaign was federalization of basic public education (preschool, basic and intermediary education), considered a prerequisite for solving many Brazilian problems in the medium and long run. To reach this objective, he considered the federalization of some aspects of the area, such as the definition of minimum standards for educational infrastructure (buildings, equipment etc.), curricula, teacher training and with a minimum monthly wage of R$800,00 for teachers. He was fourth in the first round, behind Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Geraldo Alckmin and Heloísa Helena, having received 2,538,834 votes, or 2.64% of the valid votes. Celebrities as Juca Kfouri, José Trajano, Caetano Veloso, Fernanda Torres, Ricardo Noblat and Manoel Carlos had declared that they had voted for Cristovam.