American historian Robert M. Levine, director of Latin American Studies at the University of Miami, has once commented that Brazilians are a kind of people who “pride themselves on being especially creative in their array and variety of gambit suitable for bending rules.” Actually, they pride it so much that they have even elevated the bending of legal norms to a highly prized institution: the jeito or jeitinho.
A term that can be roughly translated as a “knack” or a “clever dodge”, jeito, explains the historian Joseph A. Page, “is a rapid, improvised, creative response, law, rule, or custom that on its face prevent someone from doing something.” As such, however, it always involves a conscious act of breaking formal rules so as to “personalise a situation ostensibly governed by an impersonal norm”.
According to Fernanda Duarte, jeito “is inherently personalistic. It requires a certain type of ‘technique’ involving the conscious use of culturally valued personal attributes (eg: a smile, a gentle, pleading tone of voice); it seeks short-term benefits; it is explicitly acknowledge and described by Brazilians as part of their cultural identity… So deeply entrenched is this practice in Brazil that it has become intertwined with constructions of Brazilianess”.
One must become aware of the reality of jeito in order to properly understand the Brazilian legal system. Whereas the bending of legal norms to expediency occurs to a certain degree in any country of the world, Brazil has the quite curious peculiarity of having actually institutionalised it. The institution of jeito is therefore the uniquely Brazilian way of achieving a desired result amid the adversities of the formal legal system.
The social mechanism known as jeito can be adopted in many legal and non-legal situations. A jeito can be asked, for instance, when the queue in a bank is too long and a person argues that he cannot wait for his turn. Lawyers can also apply it in the form of a ‘favour’ (legal or illegal) requested to court employees. Finally, it can also be granted by a public inspector who condones the failure of a company to comply with a statutory provision for considering it somehow uneconomic, unjust or unrealistic.
Because of the many instances in which jeito can be applied, the bypassing of legal norms has become more the rule rather than the exception in Brazil. In fact, the bending of laws bears no stigma in the country if it acts as a solution to unfair laws or absurdities of bureaucracy.
Jeito means in this situation figuring out a fair solution over such inconveniences, acting as a tool by which people can avoid the many obstructions and barriers the convoluted legal system places in their path. It is therefore seen by this society as a ‘fair’ solution in the face of the unreasonable barriers created by a highly complex and convoluted legal system.
Although jeito has such understandable justifications, it nevertheless produces very undesirable consequences. There is no doubt that a system that features such an endemic and astonishing level of informality is obviously inimical to the generation of the rule of law.
As law professor Keith S. Rosenn points out: “Once the principle that officials and private citizens may reinterpret or ignore laws they deem overly restrictive or unwise is condoned, its limitation is extremely difficult. Unjust, discriminatory law enforcement and the breakdown of legitimacy may well be the result”.
Although anybody can request a jeito, one might deduce that a rich person has obviously more jeito than a poor person, in the sense that it is far easier to obtain a jeito if one can somehow reward the person who is providing it.
Moreover, jeito often entwines with corruption, because “some civil servants become aware of a law’s uneconomic and unjust aspects only after their palm has been greased.” Bribery is indeed the common recourse to jeitos not otherwise provided by personal acquittance.
According to Robert M. Levine, “jeitos fall halfway between legitimate favours and out-and-out corruption, but at least in popular understanding they lean in the direction of the extralegal. Favours, in addition, imply a measure of reciprocity, a courtesy to be returned. One never pays for a favour, 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.
Unfortunately, the realization of the rule of law requires generality, certainty, and the respect of laws. But when Brazilians ignore laws they deem restrictive or unfair, as Rosenn reminds, “unjust discriminatory law enforcement and breakdown of legitimacy may well be the result.”
The cost of the constant resort to jeito is widespread disregard for the rule of law, because, as law professor Suri Ratnapala explains, “it is not possible to destabilize some rules without affecting others in the system. As rules become frayed through non-observance, people cease to count on them.
“Mistrust of people transfers to mistrust of institutions. People take other precautions. They fortify their homes, keep their children away from the public parks, abandon entire neighbourhoods (which then become more lawless), increase insurance coverage, and begin to stereotype people defensibly. As standards fall, corruption spreads to government”. This wise statement seems to be inspired in the Brazilian reality, for this is precisely what currently takes place in a country like Brazil.
Augusto Zimmermann is a Brazilian Law Professor and the author of the well-known books Teoria Geral do Federalismo Democrático (General Theory of Democratic Federalism – Second Edition, 2005) and Curso de Direito Constitucional (Course on Constitutional Law, Fourth Edition – 2005). His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.