A dispatch from the labyrinth of Brazilian bureaucracy

Bureaucracy in Brazil is notoriously inefficient. The World Bank estimates it takes 80 days to start a business here (landing between Somalia and Eritrea, at 70 and 84 days, respectively), and ranks Brazil 126th out of 190 countries for ease of doing business. In fact, an entire industry has sprung up around helping people navigate all the paperwork you need to buy a house or register your car or something.

But at the same time… things get done. A Canadian professor at UCS is fond of remarking that in Brazil, “nothing works and everything gets resolved.” For better or for worse, in one way or another, people figure things out.


Caxias at night, as seen from the Pavilhoes Da Festa Da Uva—which my host mom twice jeitinhoed our way into by sweet-talking the guards

Brazilians even have a term for this ability to get things done: jeitinho brasileiro, or literally “little Brazilian way.” It refers to any creative or unconventional solution to a problem. This can be innocent enough (sticking frozen water bottles in front of a fan for some DIY a/c), but it can also be illegal (tapping power lines) or downright reprehensible (government kickbacks on a truly massive scale). Jeitinho brasileiro is thinking outside the box—whether it be a conventional or social or legal one.

Jeitinho brasileiro extends to bureaucracy as well. When requirements are arcane and processes opaque, it seems like the only person who enforces anything is the functionary you’re working with. And if this functionary also thinks that the bureaucracy is unnecessary—or, you know, he or she doesn’t face any consequences for circumventing it—then he or she is your key to getting things done. You just have to find the right way to ask.


The Federal Police in Iguatemi Mall, Caxias do Sul

My first brush with bureaucracy in Brazil was registering for my SUS card, which allows me to access Brazil’s healthcare. I thought it would be simple: other ETAs in Caxias had gotten their cards by just showing up at the hospital with their passports and waiting for a couple hours. But for Barbara and me, the process took over a week:

  • When we first went, the hospital told us we needed an additional paper from an external immigration agency (I don’t know why)
  • When we drove to this agency, we learned this paper literally just stated our name and address—which we didn’t need to show any proof of
  •  When we returned to the hospital the next week, we were told the SUS system was done and they didn’t know when it would come back up
  • The system remained down for a couple days, but at least we wised up and learned that by calling ahead
  • Later in the week, when the system was finally back up, we were finally able to get our card—but only after being helped by workers so apathetic that Elaine complained to their manager about them

My other big encounter with bureaucracy, registering with the Federal Police, was a lot more involved—and even that was with a guide from Fulbright and some help from UCS:

    • When you apply for a visa—surprisingly, the easiest visa-application process I’ve ever been through—you get a form stapled to your passport that you need to bring to the Federal Police
    • Fulbright also recommended I bring to Brazil a notarized copy of my birth certificate—which thankfully my parents had, or else I would’ve had to pay out the nose to have it shipped from my birthplace in the middle of Minnesota
    • The International Exchange Department at UCS was kind enough to register us online with the Federal Police—printing each of us an appointment form and payment form
      • Except the appointment was after our 90th day in Brazil, our deadline for registration—so we needed to go individually to the Federal Police (located in a shopping mall outside the city) to reschedule.
        • Elaine looked online and saw they opened at 8. So we went at 8. They turned out not to open until 10. When we were finally seen, we were given new appointments and told to return the following week.
      • And my appointment form had my mother’s name spelled wrong, which I was promised wouldn’t be a problem.
      • The payment form needed to be paid in cash at a bank. There’s a bank at UCS—but I learned the hard way it is only staffed from noon to 3:00PM.
        • I also realized that the form had a deadline I had missed, necessitating another trip to the International Exchange office before I could return to the bank during the proper hours.
    • Fulbright told me the Federal Police needed a 3x4cm headshot (smaller than a standard passport photo, and costing about US$5 for a set of eight) and authorized photocopies of every page of my passport with something on it
      • I actually had to return to pose for a second sets of photos, because I didn’t pay close enough attention to Fulbright’s original guidelines and had my photo taken with glasses and a smile, like a fool
      • Getting authorized copies of my passport entailed waiting in line at a cartorio and then paying about US$20 to for copies of the eleven (!) spreads of my passport that have personal information, visas, or stamps on them
    • Hand over your passport with the form stapled inside, your updated appointment form, your payment form with the receipt of payment stapled to it, and one of those 3x4cm photos
    • Wait while the attendant fills out a series of physical and virtual forms with what looks like the exact same information.
      • The attendant did indeed notice that my mom’s name was misspelled, but she just corrected it in pen without a word. Good thing I didn’t need that notarized birth certificate I went through all the stress of finding.
    • Get fingerprinted
    • Ask the attendant if she needs your fancy expensive passport photocopies—which she doesn’t, because the Federal Police have their own copier
    • Get told to return in at least two months to pick up your residence card

Clearly, I didn’t need all the preparation I put into this Federal Police registration… but at the same time, when I could be turned down for any number of petty reasons, I wanted to be as thorough as possible.


I registered at that empty desk on the right

Putting aside the rampant corruption it inspires, I don’t know how I feel about a culture of jeitinho brasileiro. I appreciate the ingenuity it often displays, and I’m drawn to its meritocratic trickster-tale sheen. But at the same time, the arbitrariness of some of my encounters with Brazilian bureaucracy—including the Fulbright Commission’s shifting stance on its vacation policy—is incredibly frustrating, and it strikes my US-conditioned self as patently unfair.

But regardless of my feelings: jeitinho brasileiro is part of the culture of Brazil. And as long as I’m here, I’m going to be grateful I don’t need to start a business or register a car or take out a mortgage. But for those other encounters with bureaucracy, the ones that I can’t escape, I’ll just have to find some jeitinho to deal with it.

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