Jeitinho Land

Jeitinho Land

In cases where regulations have to be confronted, Brazilians pride
themselves on being especially creative in their array and variety of gambits suitable for
bending rules. Some veteran despachantes seemed to have magical powers. Passports
for which mere mortals had to wait on line for hours, then return to wait a second, third,
or fourth time at the Federal Police headquarters, were issued in minutes. Documents not
available at all by legal means materialized the same way.
By Robert M. Levine

During most of the twentieth century, Brazil’s political culture diminished the
status of citizens. Part of the problem stemmed from the swollen bureaucracy at all levels
of government. Everyday life in Brazil necessitated constant interaction with bureaucratic
regulations, government officials, public agencies, and other representatives of
authority. The system treated individuals differently according to who they were. The
poorest Brazilians often were excluded entirely from the system and the social benefits it
provided because, as marginals living below the thin safety net provided for salaried
workers, they lacked proper papers. This problem was severest during the military
dictatorship, when police frequently stopped people randomly and arrested them or beat
them if they were found to be without papers. "Without identity documents," a
large billboard in downtown Rio near the bus station proclaimed in 1969, "you do not
exist." In the interior of the country, patronage politics maintained almost complete
control of social and economic exchange.

Ordinary Brazilians living documented lives spent untold time entangled in the
bureaucratic labyrinth. Some cases of hopeless dealings stretched out for years. For those
who could afford it or who possessed political influence, however, an antidote soon
emerged in the person of the despachante, a professional facilitator able to cut
through red tape. Sometimes bribery was involved, or small favors, but usually despachantes
simply got things done (for a fee) faster and without hassle because they knew the
right people on the inside. Some veteran despachantes seemed to have magical
powers. Passports for which mere mortals had to wait on line for hours, then return to
wait a second, third, or fourth time at the Federal Police headquarters, were issued in
minutes. Documents not available at all by legal means materialized the same way.

Most people had no access to these agile geniuses, but they used other devices to beat
the system. M., a maid working in an affluent condominium complex in São Paulo, at age
twenty-four married a seventeen-year-old young man and had a child. When her mother-in-law
told her that she couldn’t care for the baby all the time, M. sent for an eleven-year-old
girl from the interior, telling people that she was "adopting" her. The girl,
who presumably attended school a few hours each day, otherwise worked without papers (or
wages) for M. as her servant.

What M. did is as much a part of the informal economy as a legal ruse since she did not
have to obtain permission from any civil authorities to bring the girl to her home. In
cases where regulations have to be confronted, Brazilians pride themselves on being
especially creative in their array and variety of gambits suitable for bending rules. Most
of these ploys work best, of course, for those with connections, even as low-level as a
friend of a relative who works in a certain office or department. The system also bends
for those who can throw their weight around. Thus, facing down a policeman trying to write
a ticket on an illegally parked car is easy for someone who is wearing a Rolex and has
been educated in an elite private school, because the weaker party to the action knows
full well that society expects him to back away.

One element in the political culture that is available to almost everyone possessing a
modicum of poise and self-respect is the jeito. The jeito (diminutive, jeitinho),
is the "way" to grease the wheels of government or the bureaucracy, so as to
obtain a favor or to bypass rules or regulations. Jeitos fall halfway between
legitimate favors and out-and-out corruption, but at least in popular understanding they
lean in the direction of the extralegal. Favors, in addition, imply a measure of
reciprocity, a courtesy to be returned. One never pays for a favor, however; but a jeito,
which is often granted by someone who is not a personal acquaintance, must be
accompanied by a tip or even a larger payoff.

Peter Kellemen’s 1963 tongue-in-cheek Brazil for Beginners offers an example of
how the system worked even within the bureaucracy. A recent graduate of a European medical
school was applying at the Brazilian Consulate in Paris for a visa to emigrate to Brazil.
When he appeared, the Brazilian consul changed the applicant’s profession from physician
to agronomist. When the candidate protested, saying that he did not want to sign a false
statement, the consul told him: "In that way I can issue you a visa immediately. You
know how these things are? Professional quotas, confidential instructions from the
department of immigration. Utter nonsense!… In any event, this way will make it
perfectly legal." The consul explained that he was helping the applicant by employing
the jeito. After the physician took up residence in Brazil, he understood: he had
immigrated to a country, law professor Keith S. Rosenn notes, "where laws and
regulations are enacted upon the assumption that a substantial percentage will be
disobeyed," and where, quoting Kelleman, "civil servants, be they small or
powerful, create their own law. Although this law does not happen to correspond with the
original law, it meets with general approbation, provided that it is dictated by common

Several kinds of behavior are associated with the jeito. Officials fail to
perform a legal duty (e.g., they issue contracts to the highest briber); persons employ
subterfuges to circumvent a legal obligation that is proper (they may underinvoice import
shipments, or receive part of a purchase price abroad in foreign currency to evade
currency control and taxes on part of their profits); speedy completion of paperwork is
available only in exchange for a bribe or because the official knows the applicant;
officials skirt an unreasonable or economically prejudicial legal obligation (for example,
laws requiring compensating bank balances or deposits at low interest); they fail to
enforce rules or laws because they think the law is unjust or unrealistic (as in the above
example of the visa applicant). The first three cases are corrupt, but the last two fall
into a gray area where public purposes are arguably served by evading legal obligations.
Some applications of the jeito, of course, involve mixed kinds of motives,
combining payoffs or favoritism with a sense that the outcome will be reasonable and even

Jeitos affect everyone. Once I was traveling to the interior of Rio Grande do
Norte, a desolate backlands region with few signs of life. The van in which I was riding
broke down outside a tiny, dusty town. The passengers and driver walked to the town to
attempt to find parts to fix the motor; while we were sitting in a café, waiting, a man
came in and identified himself as the police chief. He wore no uniform and showed no
badge, but everyone in the café showed him deference and we assumed that he was some kind
of official.. He then asked to see our documents. The Brazilians had their federal
identity cards; I had my passport. The official demanded that each of the Brazilians pay
the equivalent of $6 for being given "refuge" in his town, and he
"fined" the driver of the van a slightly lower amount for having obstructed the
roadway. Then he turned to me. He asked me what a foreigner was doing in his town. I told
him. He then asked to see my passport, taking it and thumbing through the papers one by
one. "Why had I gone to Mexico?" he asked me, seeing a visa stamp issued in
Merida. "Venezuela?" "France?" Was I working for the "U.S.
Intelligence Service"?

I assured him that I was carrying out historical research. "Why are you carrying
equipment?" he asked. I showed him my camera and lenses, and my notebook. He then
grabbed my camera bag and my passport and stalked out the door.

More than two hours later, well after midnight, he returned. The van had been fixed and
was sitting with its motor running because the driver was impatient to leave. By then I
had visions of being stuck in this town or even being put in jail. Then the man returned.
With a broad grin, he handed me my camera case and my passport. On one of the blank visa
pages, he had painstakingly entered a "visa" for me to enter his town. It was
handwritten, with various misspellings, and it had a cut-out printed paragraph from what
probably was the state Diário Oficial pasted in—a regulation covering one
rule or another that did not seem even closely pertinent to this case. He then demanded
$140 for the "processing fee." At this point, my Brazilian host interceded,
pulling him aside in conversation. He then hustled me and the others out to the van, and
we drove off. He told me later that he had given the man about $2 and told him that he
"should be honored to have a university professor passing through his

Lívia Barbosa, a Brazilian social anthropologist, has argued that obtaining jeitos does
not depend, at least directly, on elements that make up a person’s social identity, such
as wealth, status, family name, religion, and color. Someone who does not hold a
privileged position in society is as capable of obtaining a jeito as someone who
does, as long as he/she knows how to ask, is a good talker, and is pleasant and charming.
This is so only to a certain extent. Such an assertion ignores the realities of Brazilian
life and insults the poor, unless what is meant as a jeito in the case of a poor
person is something as meaningless as a free cafezinho. Even if it is true that
hapless peoples can benefit from jeitos, there must be an enormous difference in
scale in comparison to the kind of arrangement or special favor a poised, educated,
well-connected member of the affluent classes can manage.

Senator Roberto de Oliveira Campos, an economist, ambassador, and politician who seems
to have obtained more than his share of jeitos during his public career, defined
the jeito as a "paralegal" action, neither legal nor illegal, and
understandable in the light of Brazil’s historical (Latin, not Anglo-Saxon) and religious
history (in Roman Catholic countries, he writes, dogma is rigid and intolerant, so ways
have to be found around things). By granting the jeito legally neutral status, of
course, Campos seems to be justifying it as a forgivable transgression. Without it, he
suggests, Brazilian society would find itself either paralyzed by compliance or exploded
over incompatibilities among laws, customs, and facts of life. For João Camilo de
Oliveira Tôrres, another old-school critic, jeitos are a way of being
"particularly Brazilian." Clóvis de Abreu, examining the results of an
interview survey of twenty people at various bureaucratic levels carried out by a group of
researchers in Rio de Janeiro during the early 1980s, came to some very specific
conclusions about the jeito, calling it, in the end, a "recourse to
power." Some of that study’s conclusions included the following points: that the jeito
system arises as a response to unbending bureaucracies; that jeitinhos occur
anywhere people have to deal with hierarchies; that jeitinhos confirm the duality
of a system that distinguishes between haves and have-nots.

Jeitos, in the end, say more about the system that rationalizes their value than
about the theories spun about them. How far does the system stretch to accommodate sweet
talkers, people who need personal favors or exceptions or exemptions? Anthropologist
Barbosa asserts that according to Brazilian popular wisdom, women are more effective in
obtaining jeitos because their personalities make them better able to twirl people
around their fingers. They know how to charm. They are spontaneous. The need for jeitos,
after all, arises unexpectedly; one cannot plan for them.

Rationalizing the jeito as a flexible tool to expedite action from an obdurate
system implies acceptance of the unfair advantages given to those who know how to bypass
the system or to gain speedy treatment, especially when payoffs are involved. Jeitos that
facilitate the evasion of taxes or regulations drive up prices (since the price of
corruption is passed on to the consumer), and hurt workers for whose benefit the bypassed
regulations have been enacted. The economist Gunnar Myrdal adds: "Corruption
introduces an element of irrationality in plan fulfillment by influencing the actual
course of development in a way that is contrary to the plan or, if such influence is
foreseen, by limiting the horizon of the plan."

Rewards of Incumbency

In Brazil, an underlying thread running from colony to republic in various guises has
been the historical aversion to developing autonomous political participation. Political
decisions have always been made by the elite stratum of professional government
administrators drawn from the classe conservadora—the "conservative
class." As early as 1885, the abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco complained that complacency
had preserved a rotten system by which the state "sucked up all resources and
redistributed them to its clients." For generations, politicians regardless of
ideology saw themselves as members of a "political class," entitled to obtain
patronage and resources for themselves, their families, and their clients. It was never
important whether individual members considered themselves "liberal" or
"conservative." Such distinctions in Latin America usually referred to views on
religion, or on federalism versus centralism; but on most matters, opposing political
views simply represented squabbling within the same family.

Members of this class were traditionally referred to as the gente decente, "the
decent people." They offered little sympathy for the principle of citizens’ rights
because their privilege shielded them. The system presupposed the wisdom of hierarchy and
rationalized its power as a paternalistic duty. Top-level administrators and civil
servants rewarded supporters by bestowing favors—special investment incentives for a
group of industrialists, for example, or the construction of a road or water storage
facility for an important landowner. Business groups received exemptions from import
duties. To the growing urban middle class and to the controlled labor unions, the system
gave patronage benefits in exchange for acquiescence.

The political elite diversified after 1930, extending membership to industrialists,
businessmen, and technocrats as well as large agribusiness interests. It expanded again
still later to take in representatives of multinational firms, retired career military
officers in the private sector, and financiers. Politicians had always taken for granted
that holding an appointed or an elected office carried with it the right to generous
patronage. With the advent of federalism (and the establishment of states as more
autonomous units), opportunities for patronage multiplied. What all these versions shared
was a closed, hierarchical, and elitist outlook dominated by insiders jealously guarding
their prerogative to profit from their control of power. The political process permitted
the ancient regime to survive, even if in new clothing; holders of political power, as
always, agreed to make "concessions to new power contenders" only if they could
hold onto their original privileges and benefits.

Weak central institutions early in Brazil’s history led to the development of informal
systems of local rule as well to informal (and extralegal) forms of enforcement.
Conflicting interests and suspicion of a strong central state in deference to federalist
demands hampered the development of a fair formal legal system. Land law tended to promote
conflict, not resolution, because it set the terms through which usurpation of land was
legalized. The extraordinary ability of illegal institutions to survive in symbiosis with
the political and legal system—the jogo do bicho, for example, the century-old
numbers game intricately tied in with police corruption, protection for racketeers, and
political spoils—undermined efforts to reform the system.

For a country with a tradition of political stability, Brazil has experienced
remarkably few open and direct elections in its history. Authoritarianism has had a long
and unshakable tradition. During the transition from colony to Empire, in the early
nineteenth century, voting rights were limited to literate adult males from
"traditional families" of European background, whose annual income from property
or employment exceeded 100 mil réis or about £10 in 1830. During the course of
the Empire, these income requirements were made even more stringent, and prospective
officeholders had to show even more substantial wealth, although at the same time
participation in the voting process became more widespread. In 1846, illiterates were
allowed to vote, a concession to the rising power of rural coronéis, who
manipulated vote totals and sent mostly fraudulent results to their provincial capitals,
contributing, in turn, to rural overrepresentation within most provinces. Voting rights
for illiterates, however, were stripped away during later decades, and out of 8 million
Brazilians in 1870, only 20,000 held the right to vote. The 1881 Saraiva Law, which
implemented direct legislative elections and was supposedly an electoral reform, retained
the income requirement for voting, although it expanded suffrage rather than contracting

There were many reasons for this reluctance to enlarge the power of voters. During the
nineteenth century, slavery still flourished in Brazil, and elites kept a cautious eye on
free people of color. The Brazilian Empire had been buffeted during 1848 and 1849 by
separatist movements in the North and Northeast relatively analogous to the rebellions
sweeping Europe from France to Hungary during 1848-51. Mountaineers in the Barousse, in
Hautes-Pyrénées, destroyed government registers as well as schoolbooks in a protest
against outsiders. Brazil saw efforts to launch a "Confederation of the Equator"
in 1848 and a socialist-led insurrection in Recife, the Praieira, in 1848-49. In
all cases, the uprisings were suppressed. They never touched the hearts of the ordinary
population, unaware of the larger world.

Down to the present century, political power descended from family to family, anchored
by powerful clans. The Albuquerques traced their lineage back to Jerônimo de Albuquerque
and his brother-in-law Duarte Coelho, first proprietor of Pernambuco. Other powerful clans
included the Cavalcantis in the North and the Prados, the Lemes, and the Buenos in the
South, who were even more powerful when their dynasties merged, as in the case of the
Albuquerque Cavalcantis. Secondary clans, no less powerful, rose to power at the
provincial level during the nineteenth century: the Maltas (Alagoas), the Nerys
(Amazonas), the Aciolis (Ceará), the Leites (Maranhão), the Lemos (Pará), the Rosa e
Silvas (Pernambuco), the Garcias (Sergipe), the Pessoas (Paraíba), and so on. Political
and economic leadership remained over the long term unusually close, at least down to the
eve of World War II. In the Northeast and, especially, in São Paulo, political power
continued to be concentrated in the hands of owners of vast properties, producing a
powerful elite class always looking out for its own interests.

One reason for the power of family clans was the lack of alternative sources of power
outside the landed oligarchy. Brazil had few effective voluntary associations or political
clubs (as France did after the mid-nineteenth century), and the absence of comprehensive
universities delayed the rise of a meritocracy. Access to positions in public life had to
be obtained through direct dealings with the oligarchies and their agents. Newspapers
reflected entirely the outlook of their owners, who invariably were prominent citizens
with interests to protect. Freemasonry did exist across Brazil, but mostly in ceremonial
fashion; unlike European masons, Brazilian masons rarely entertained revolutionary notions
or proposals about democracy or fraternity. There is little evidence that Brazilian masons
were interested in politics. Auguste Comte’s doctrine of positivism was grandly
influential in Brazil among power brokers, who used the philosophy as an excuse to hold
off democratic reforms and to concentrate on material progress and the importation of
foreign ideas. Republicanism, when it was organized in opposition to the monarchy in 1870,
always remained a movement for the rich, although republican clubs superficially looked
like their European counterparts. Republican proselytism reached virtually no one in the
general population, unlike France, where towns and small cities were the centers of the
movement and most republicans petty bourgeois or artisans. Nor were Brazilian republicans
in favor of democracy. They abhorred the idea of reform, preferring to preserve class
distinctions; in Argentina and Chile, in contrast, positivists demanded improved
educational resources to elevate the population at large.

In the late nineteenth century, citizens who had enough money to buy newspapers could
choose from a broad spectrum. In small cities there often were three or four newspapers
from which to choose and in larger cities as many as twenty. The leading newspapers
campaigned furiously for their political allies, and paid minute attention to the ins and
outs of political fortunes. Every time a banquet was held honoring a landowner or a
notable civic figure—and banquets were de rigueur in the years before the
First World War—newspapers published photographs of the guests sitting down to eat,
next to an outline key identifying each person sitting around the table or tables. By
looking to see who was seated where and in proximity to whom at the banquet, readers could
chart status and shifting political fortunes, just as Kremlinologists in later decades
charted the rise and fall of Soviet political influence by analyzing photographs of the
order in which officials stood on their balcony reviewing patriotic parades in Red Square.

When republicanism surfaced in earnest in 1870, its partisans did not advocate
democracy. Rather, they endorsed long-standing notions about the inherent backwardness of
the population and tended to ignore social problems in favor of economic development.
After the fall of the monarchy in 1889 and the Republic’s first elections a half-dozen
years later, although income requirements were removed, fewer than 2 percent of the adult
population voted in presidential elections. The 1891 Constitution gave the vote to
literate males over twenty-one years of age who were employed or possessed certifiable
sources of income. Through 1929, the median level of electoral participation remained at 3
percent. Fewer than 5 percent of the adult population voted in the hotly contested 1930
presidential election, when in any case the results were thrown out by the coup which
placed in power the bloc that had officially lost the election, blighted by imposing fraud
on both sides. From 1872 to 1930, the country’s urban population had grown by more than
450 percent, but the electorate had remained static. The climate had grown more
confrontational: some workers, especially stevedores as well as printers and textile
operators, had become organized into unions, but after a wave of strikes in 1919 and 1920
in large cities that were repressed, labor activity dwindled.

Even after the fall of the First Republic in 1930, dominated chiefly by rural landed
interests, sparsely populated rural areas remained overrepresented, whereas flourishing
urban districts were underrepresented. At all levels of government, voting was
manipulated; many officially certified results were plainly fraudulent. Getúlio Vargas’s
electoral reforms during the 1930s gave the vote to women and expanded the overall size of
the electorate to 1.5 million of the total population of 39 million. However, between 1931
and 1945 the expanded electorate was permitted to participate in national elections only
twice: to elect representatives to the Constituent Assembly in 1933 and to vote for one of
two generals to replace the ousted Vargas in 1945. Women voted in 1945, but not
illiterates or men in military service. The 1945 election saw the Communist Party
candidate, Yeddo Fiuza, win 10 percent of the vote and carry the northeastern state of
Pernambuco. Luis Carlos Prestes, the Communist leader imprisoned since 1935, was elected
to the Senate. Still, the two major postwar political parties, the Social Democrats and
the National Democratic Union, each headed by a general, prevailed, and in 1947 President
Dutra decreed the Communist Party back into illegality.

Under the corporatist Estado Novo from 1937 to 1945, Getúlio Vargas decreed hundreds
of laws and regulations, extending government protection and benefits to individuals and
groups willing to work within the nationalistic framework of controlled, state-sanctioned
agencies. One possible reason for the great attraction of Rio de Janeiro as a pole of
internal migration was that rural people heard about Vargas’s social security system,
which was not extended to rural areas. Not only did the federal government make cities a
mecca for bureaucrats and employment seekers, but it also instructed Brazilians how to
act. Sambas were composed extolling civic virtues as well as punctuality, moral living,
and honest work. The Estado Novo’s 1942 Consolidation of Brazilian Labor Law maintained
the decade-old practice of granting legal status only to unions authorized by the Labor
Ministry, which collected an annual membership fee, the equivalent of one day’s work per
worker, to be used by the unions and their national and regional federations and by the
state. These funds could be frozen if regulations were broken. The labor minister could
remove union officials at will and close down unions entirely. If more than one group
attempted to organize in a given sector, the Labor Ministry could choose one from among
them; the others would have to disband or operate as outlaw unions. The Estado Novo forged
a multiclass alliance shaped by an emerging populist pact based on acceptance of state

The 1946 Constitution enhanced the forms if not the substance of democracy. It
legalized the right to association and implemented a multiparty system on the national
level. This probably was the inevitable result of the shift of the population from a rural
to an urban majority, but electoral power remained disproportionately weighted in favor of
rural areas dominated by large landowners and their patrons. By 1945, the electorate had
grown to nearly 7.5 million. By 1950, when Getúlio Vargas, ousted by the military as
president in 1945, ran and was elected to the presidency, the electorate had reached 11.5
million, about 20 percent of the population, in a system where voting was now obligatory
for those who met the qualifications. In 1960, 15.5 million Brazilians voted, about a
fourth of the total number of Brazilian citizens. By 1970, 30.6 percent of the population
was registered to vote, although by then the military dictatorship rendered voting rights
meaningless. The military also suppressed efforts at independent union organization,
intervening in unions no fewer than 536 times during the 1970s and the early 1980s.
Democracy was being restored nominally, but only under tightly controlled circumstances. A
massive metalworkers’ strike in the industrial region of São Paulo (dubbed the ABC region
because it was centered in Santo André, São Bernardo, and São Caetano), was ruled legal
by the labor court, but under military pressure the decision was reversed. More than
200,000 workers struck despite the ruling, and in retaliation the government ordered the
union closed and arrested 1,600 union activists, including Lula, the union’s president.
Strikers returned to work after forty-one days without winning any of their demands. The
regime was not ready to make any concessions to challenges to its hegemony.

Corruption became more open than ever. City government took on the shape of a top-down
pyramid dispensing favors in exchange for votes, other forms of allegiance, and
acquiescence. The classic example was São Paulo governor Adhemar de Barros, who
maintained widespread popularity despite popular cynicism about his personal corruption
("Rouba mas faz," the slogan went: "He steals but he gets things
done"), a darker version of Chicago boss Mayor Richard Daley’s making sure that
garbage was collected regularly and that his constituents always knew whom on his staff to
approach for favors. Popular wisdom accepted avarice on the part of office-holders; it
seemed simply to go with the system. Some political figures (for one, Getúlio Vargas),
led austere lives, profiting little from their offices, but many went to the other
extreme, flaunting their illicit gains.

At the same time, the growing size of the electorate indicated even more sweeping
changes in the lives of Brazilians. In many ways, the turning point came in 1958. Vargas’s
death had rocked the system and threatened to return it to Old Republic levels of
instability, but the inauguration as president in 1958 of Belo Horizonte’s Juscelino
Kubitschek, a populist politician skilled in cultivating relations with the mass of voting
Brazilians, ushered in considerable change built on the foundation of Vargas’s record.
Kubitschek relied on patronage to buy political support, and counted on his massive public
works projects to provide jobs. External factors contributed to make 1958 a fateful year
as well. The drought of that year was the worst in decades: when President Kubitschek
traveled to the Northeast to survey the calamity—the first sitting chief of state
ever to have done so—he publicly cried about what he saw. The same year saw the
inauguration of the construction of Brasília, not only a nationalistic symbol and a
pork-barrel project of monumental proportions, but the impetus for streams of migrants
from all parts of Brazil to flow to the vacant central part of the country. Brasília was
a new pole of attraction that rivaled the gold rush to Minas Gerais in the eighteenth

The late 1950s also saw the massive influx of foreign investment capital, invited by
Kubitschek as part of the rhythm of national development, and the acquisition by foreign
multinational corporations of a share of domestic industrial production. Reformist
Catholic clergy, drawing from what soon would be called "liberation theology,"
began to organize in favor of massive redistribution of agricultural land. Sputnik went
up in 1958, highlighting Brazil’s need to catch up in its scientific and technological
capacity. Brazil’s internationalization took other forms as well. President Kubitschek’s
daughter made her social debut in France, at Versailles. Brazil’s first supermarkets
opened in 1958, as did the first shopping mall, Iguatemi in São Paulo. Cultural patterns
changed overnight. Men stopped wearing dour black suits with thin black ties—or, in
more traditional places, suits of white linen with black ties—and began wearing
fashions imported directly or copied from Italy and France. Teenagers in the 1960s began
to wear jeans (Calças Lee) and sneakers, to go crazy over foreign music and films,
and to chew gum. Hollywood always had been influential, but now a more generic,
internationalized kind of popular culture soared in popularity, couched in the ambiguity
of captivating affluent urban Brazilian youth wholly while at the same time spawning
trendy anti-Americanism, attacking the United States for what was derided as its
superficial culture and for its imperialist politics and economy. Millions watched the
Miss Brazil and Miss Universe contests—before 1958 always lily-white and usually
blond in the selection of its contestants chosen to represent Brazil abroad, lest
foreigners get the wrong idea, and in later decades almost always white or light-skinned mulata.
Television made a major impact in the late 1950s, giving greater power to skillful
manipulation by handlers of telegenic candidates and ending the hallowed tradition of the comício,
the public campaign rallies at which it was not only candidates who orated; common
people could come up out of the audience and challenge speakers. Carolina Maria de Jesus
did this often, and was known to the mayor and the governor of São Paulo even before her
diary was published. Television and growing reliance on political advertising after 1958
made the comício obsolete.

The abrupt resignation from the presidency of reformist Jânio Quadros in 1961 elevated
João Goulart, his vice president, to office. The getulismo of the 1950s, based on
the personal popularity of Vargas, elected president in 1950 after five years of domestic
exile, had given rise to two distinct but parallel political movements, the middle-class
Social Democrats whose mantle had been assumed by Juscelino Kubitschek, and labor movement
trabalhismo, headed by João Goulart, one of Vargas’s protégés. Under his
presidency, labor unionism grew in strength, reaching even the remote interior. The left,
consistent with its past record, throughout the 1960s crippled itself by splitting into
warring ideological factions. There were the Maoists, the Stalinists, a socialist Leninist
group, and a radical Catholic movement that would ally itself with the Maoists. The
official line of the Communist Party was, in the words of Emir Sader, in Without Fear
of Being Happy: Lula, the Workers’ Party, and Brazil "formally wedded to
Goulart’s government." The left’s tiresome exercise in self-destruction alienated any
potential followers among affluent groups except for militant students and academics, and
the country slid into military dictatorship after the 1964 coup.

Brazilians were just learning how to deal with open elections in a multiparty structure
when the door slammed shut. Military rule, especially after the term of Humberto Castelo
Branco, who (unlike those who followed him) showed a human face to the generals, hardened.
Left-wing militants led by Carlos Marighella, who had quit the Communist Party in disgust,
launched guerrilla resistance to the regime, a tactic that resulted not only in its being
crushed but in repression for thousands of moderates and liberals not connected in any way
to the radical left. Under Chief of State General Emílio Garrastazu Médici, every branch
of the armed forces perfected its own kidnapping and torture apparatus. A later military
president, the ill-tempered General João Figueiredo, admitted that he preferred the smell
of horses to the stink of the povo, and an equestrian photograph of him on
horseback jumping over a prone subordinate was distributed widely. A few courageous
individuals spoke out against the regime, including Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns of São
Paulo, a soft-spoken Franciscan who went to army bases and prisons and demanded
information about prisoners, and Heráclito Sobral Pinto, a civil rights lawyer who
defended persons charged with subversion. Most opposition was stifled by the blanket of
authoritarian rule. Despite promises for democratization as early as the mid-1970s, the
first direct election for the presidency since 1960 did not take place until November 15,

The bleak military years saw dramatic economic growth at the cost of human rights and
meaningful civil participation in government, especially between 1969 and 1984. Strikes
were suppressed and labor unions kept under surveillance or completely disbanded.
Businessmen and industrialists welcomed the government’s role and referred to Brazil’s
"economic miracle." Opponents called it the triumph of "savage
capitalism," the victory of technocrats who combined countercyclical investment
policies with exchange controls, subsidies, negative rates of interest, and the deliberate
creation of monetary disequilibrium to achieve a forced transition from backwardness to
modernity. The results benefited the wealthy and the powerful to the detriment of other
Brazilians. Income concentration increased substantially during the period.

After 1985, when civilians readied themselves to return to power, domestic interests
generally prevailed over military preferences, although the military continued to exercise
decisive influence over governmental decision making. During the transitory period of
"decompression," as it was called, during the late 1970s and the early 1980s,
when civilians began to be reintegrated into political leadership, the old forms of
political behavior resurfaced. Despite some talk on the part of individual high armed
forces officers that Brazil should not return to its old political ways, clientelism
survived, especially at the local level. This arrangement, by which officeholders and
others in power distributed favors in direct exchange for political support, had dominated
the political arena from the 1930s through 1964. Clientelism was especially dominant in
the rural interior and in slum districts in the cities. The military’s seizure of power,
however, bent the rules of the game if it did not change them entirely, adapting
clientelism to a political arena inhabited by powerful new players, most notably the
television screen and, on the political left, the Workers’ Party (PT). Lower-class
Brazilians, however, rather than flocking to the PT’s banners, responded to the
advertising blitz and defeated the candidate who spoke for them.

More than anything else, the new atmosphere reflected new resistance to the
authoritarian regime. Professional middle-class groups raised their voices, as did some
members of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, especially in São Paulo. New
neighborhood associations, no longer tools of incumbent machines, began to organize and to
join in statewide federations. The PT, which was founded in 1979, was led by intellectuals
but emphasized a grassroots membership base. That political style proved very resilient,
and it has survived well into the 1990s. Illustrating this is the example of Vila Brasil,
a favela an hour’s bus ride west of downtown Rio de Janeiro. Vila Brasil, founded
in 1946, now was crowded, with many houses gaining new second stories because of lack of
space to expand laterally. It was small for a mature favela, with 524 residences
housing a total population of about 2,700. Although poverty-stricken, especially at its
center, by 1986 it boasted running water, electricity, and paved roads and alleyways. Vila
Brasil achieved this, Robert Gay asserts, through successful clientelistic negotiations on
the part of the new president and directorate of the dweller association, first elected in
1979. Clientelism, in other words, may leave a bad taste in the mouth for purists, but for
Vila Brasil’s residents it was a valuable resource, a vehicle through which the favela’s
needs could be realized.

The arrangement worked through the alliance forged between the favela association
and a local politician, for whom Vila Brasil’s president worked as a political organizer (cabo
eleitoral). The politician, Jorge Leite, spent most of his time cultivating a
"network of personal relationships that [were] sustained through the trafficking of
favors and the promise of favors." It paid off in 1982 for both sides, on the
occasion of the first election for federal legislators permitted under the military
regime. Leite received Vila Brasil’s support and in turn saw that the favela’s
roads and alleyways were paved in the eight days leading up the November 15 elections.
Leite also sent lorry loads of sand and cement to assist in the reconstruction of the
association building. He won his election with more than 170,000 votes, by far the most
voted-for candidate in his party. Not only did he come out ahead, but the association
president’s own influence increased enormously. He was credited personally for improving
the lives of "his" favelados, in ways "that had seemed beyond the
realm of possibility before he took office." Because the system had not worked for
the favelados in the past, the president’s success with it made it seem all the
more a case of personal skill and effectiveness. Basking in his success, he was quoted as
saying that politicians were "all thieves," but that he was "a much better
thief than any of them." They are unconcerned with anything but personal power, he
said; they manipulate the poor as a source of cheap votes. He expressed no allegiance to
any political party or group: he simply extracted the best deal he could for his
community. He expressed absolutely no loyalty to Leite, whom he had supported off and on
for nearly five years.

When Leite decided to run for mayor in 1985, he promised Vila Brasil’s president cash
and patronage jobs for his children if elected. He lost, however, receiving only 8.6
percent of the vote. The favela’s leadership was now open to offers from other
candidates. In the gubernatorial election of 1986, Vila Brasil’s president, receiving at
least one call a day from candidates seeking to purchase the community’s vote, finally
made a deal with five of them, telling each one that the first to help complete the second
story of the association building would receive his support. The asking price, however,
was too high, and all of the candidates balked. Vila Brasil finally settled for the
construction of two bathrooms in the building. Ten days before the election, the candidate
showed up with a check for the agreed amount. He was immediately endorsed as the
"president’s candidate" and taken from door to door to greet his new followers.

The new practice of favelados using votes as leverage to gain favors was only a
small part of the system. Favela associations, in fact, not only had to deal with
elected and appointed officials, but with other latter-day coronéis, most notably
numbers bosses and drug dealers (estimated to number 6,500 in Rio de Janeiro alone) using
the favelas as sanctuaries or as institutional sources of power. Among the broader
urban population, another category of coronéis, the cartolas, have held
commanding influence for decades. Cartolas ("top hats," the men who
control soccer clubs, federations, and their resources) amassed tremendous power when
professional soccer emerged in the 1930s as Brazil’s national passion. Indirectly (or
directly) tapped into the patronage system, these men often commanded empires of fans,
benefactors, players, and the media, holding more lasting power in local settings than
more transitory elected officials.

Political alliances continued to operate through the networking system of the panelinha.
Unlike the United States, where political ties are usually to a home district or
locality, or to certain interest groups (the defense industry, or agriculture, or inner
city residents), connections in Brazil usually follow personal business interests or other
private agendas based on friendship or allegiances with inside people. Orestes Quércia, a
veteran São Paulo politician and later governor, used his claimed lack of establishment panelinha
ties to defend himself as an outsider discriminated against by the

He was implicated in a corruption scandal when he was candidate for governor in 1986.
Quércia, formerly a small-time local politician, declared, "What is being flung
against me," he said, "is prejudice: I’m a businessman, I come from the
interior, and I’m not connected to the university. Elitism is what is being used against
me." Quércia, Maluf, and scores of other self-described "outsider"
politicians thrived through the use of alliances bought with patronage and donations. As
governor, Maluf personally sent ambulances to every município in the state of São
Paulo, with the implicit message that more such plums would come in exchange for support.
Clientelism remained alive and well despite the political changes that emerged in the
1980s. Vila Brasil’s voting-age residents, nearly 60 percent of whom had not completed the
first grade, put their trust in their association president to make the best deal. By
1986, he had become skilled enough to win gifts from more than one candidate (one sent two
sets of soccer shirts to the favela, although in the end he was not supported).
Vila Brasil’s president, through pragmatism, good negotiating skills, and a single-minded
determination to get things for his constituency, emerged as a kind of modern-day coronel,
a power broker of sorts lacking any power or influence himself except for the value of
the votes of his fellow favelados. The truth is, however, that he did not win jobs
or schools, and except for the soccer shirts and bathrooms for its association building,
Vila Brasil gained nothing through him but the paved roads that the municipality should
have provided in the first place.

For the country as a whole, the slow pace of the restoration of democracy during the
mid-1980s had brought widespread disillusionment. This was felt most keenly in the 1984
Diretas Já campaign seeking the direct election of the president. Under pressure from the
military, Congress refused, despite overwhelming public support. Popular pressure for
change then led to the election, by indirect vote, of Tancredo Neves, a civilian who had
mildly opposed the military regime. His victory generated even higher levels of euphoria,
but he died on the eve of his inauguration after being stricken unexpectedly. His death
ushered in the opportunistic government of José Sarney, a Maranhão-based hardliner who
had firmly backed the military government previously.

Sarney’s five-year term (1985-1990) not only dampened the hopes of electors who had
hoped for a sharp break with the civilian hardliners who had supported the military
dictatorship, but saw Sarney, as president, use gross political bartering and payoffs to
retain power, as a result crippling the federal government and fanning inflationary fires.
The 1988 Constitution removed the literacy requirement and empowered sixteen-year-olds to
vote. More than half of the population were now registered voters.

Robert M. Levine has chaired the Columbia University Seminar on Brazil and is past
chair of the Committee on Brazilian Studies of the Conference on Latin America History. He
is director of Latin American Studies at the University of Miami, Coral Gables, a
corresponding member of the Instituto Geográfico e Histórico in Rio de Janeiro, and the
co-editor of the Luso-Brazilian Review. He has published 16 books on Latin America.

Excerpted from Brazilian Legacies by Robert M. Levine, M. E. Sharpe,
1997, 212 pp

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