In a new series, I'll be profiling issues that affect the day-to-day of many Brazilians, and are an important part of the adaptation process for gringos interested in living in Brazil. Foreign companies that operate in Brazil often refer to local problems and obstacles as the "Brazil cost," but I'll refer to this series as Brazil Challenges.
Bureaucracy is an issue that affects nearly every area of life in Brazil, and is a constant headache for both Brazilians and foreigners. A legacy of the Portuguese crown during the colonial period, it's something of a self-perpetuating monster that has resulted in constant paperwork, fees, and taxes for citizens and a lucrative system for the government and cartórios, or public notary offices. It's also created something of an interest group for despachantes, people who are hired to deal with bureaucracy and other official unpleasant, time-consuming tasks. In a way, it's akin to the American health insurance system, in that doesn't make much sense and doesn't benefit citizens.
In an attempt to tackle the bureaucracy problem, a lawyer named Helio Beltrão led a government ministry called the Ministry of Debureaucratization from 1979 to 1986. While it seems paradoxical to create a new government agency to cut back on red tape, the agency managed a few small successes, but were later shut down, and similar projects were nixed ever since.
A recurring theme in dealing with bureaucracy in Brazil is proving you are who you say you are. This perceived distrust means people have to spend a lot of time proving their identities through tons of notarizations - notarized signatures, notarized copies, notarized forms...the list goes on. Another theme is that despite the endless rules and regulations that dictate bureaucracy, things can quite often depend on the person you are dealing with. Even if you're prepared, you never quite know how easy or difficult a bureaucratic chore will turn out to be. Essentially, you have to develop a lot of patience, and learn to take things in stride.
Here are a few of the areas involving bureaucracy in Brazil.
Law, Economy & Trade
In a September cover story on Brazilian bureaucracy, VEJA magazine described some of the legal aspects of bureauracy. In the past twenty years, 4.2 million laws were created in Brazil at the federal, state, and municipal level. The article, while in a right-leaning magazine, clearly vents frustrations: entitled "Enough to make you go crazy," it contains a section that says:
"The root of the excessive number of laws--and the abundance of stupid laws--is the distortion of the role of the Brazilian legislator who erroneously views himself as a nanny that needs to prevent the citizen-baby from getting into trouble. This infantilization derives from the denial of free will and the ability for individuals to make their own decisions."
Another article in the issue discusses the business aspects of bureaucracy. A Brazilian lawyer, fed up with the tax system, created a book containing every single tax law in decree from 1988 to 2006. He ended up with 18,000 laws, 43,215 pages, and a book weighing nearly 7 tons. Tax laws are so confusing that big companies employ dozens or even hundreds of specialists to figure out how to pay taxes and fill out the ncessary forms. According to VEJA, 17% of Brazil's GDP per capita is lost to bureaucracy, and bureaucracy consumes R$48 billion a year. Companies must keep paper copies of everything from contracts to receipts on file for at least five years, but some end up keeping them longer in case they need them for legal reasons.
Some areas of trade involve more bureaucratic headaches than others. Ports create lots of paperwork--any time a ship comes to port, 112 documents must be sent to 28 government agencies, including 14 ministries. Each ship must provide nearly 1,000 pieces of information to the authorities. Yet 95% of Brazilian foreign trade is shipped by boat. In a supremely odd rule, when the government confiscates pirated CDs or DVDs, it is the victim company's responsibility to deal with the merchandise. The government doesn't allow for the pirated merchandise to be destroyed right away (it usually takes 3 years), and some state attorneys require each individual CD to be evaluated. It means that some companies have millions of pirated CDs sitting in warehouses, at their own expense.
For Brazilians, bureaucracy can even be a part of their civic duty. Since voting is mandatory, if you miss an election, you're charged a fee, and if you don't pay, you risk losing basic rights, like to get a passport or take a civil service exam. In order to settle the fine, the voter must either send a letter to the election court with a justification for his absence during the election or go to the regional electoral office to pay the fine. At this office, an official prints out a form for a R$3.50 (US$1.86) fine, which can only be paid at Banco do Brasil--not at the electoral office. So once the voter has gone to the bank, he must return to the electoral office with the receipt--for R$3.50.
Foreigners in Brazil
Visas & Customs
For foreigners in Brazil, doing anything through official means requires superhuman patience levels and the ability to see beyond the absurd. As one foreign correspondent discovered, if you bring furniture and large items with you when moving to Brazil, you'll be taxed on all of those items when you leave--even if you don't want them or already gave them away. Cultural authorities are required to inspect paintings to ensure they're not "misappropriated cultural patrimony." The journalist also described his experience with paying fees:
To pay $70 in consular fees, I had to buy dollars that were not stained or folded and did not belong to the 1998 or 2008 series. When I could only find twenty-dollar bills in those specifications, leaving me with $80, the bank refused to complete the transaction, perhaps giving new meaning to the phrase "exact change."
Foreigners often encounter bureaucratic hurdles about their names or their parents names. Another reader, an American living in Rio, had this issue when he was applying for his visa.
The Federal Police made me get a notarized document from the US consulate stating that my father's name was indeed his name, even though it is on my birth certificate. (He has a middle inicial "E" which stands for nothing, but which confused them). The US consulate then said they don't do that. But I begged and pleaded and paid about US$60. It took a few days, but that seemed to please the PF. I think these things just depend on the mood that the person behind the glass is in.
For those moving to Brazil to work or as permanent residents, there's quite a lot of bureaucracy to get through once you're in Brazil: registering your visa, getting a CPF, and maybe, if you're very lucky, a carteira assinada, which can take years to get.
Journalist Seth Kugel wrote a very funny explanation of how he opened a Brazilian bank account, which he achieved in only 70+ steps. Here's a short excerpt:
– Be called to an agent. Be informed that you cannot have an account with just the protocol. Call over the pleasant man, who is no longer as pleasant. Have him tell you it was “absurd” that the person at the other branch told you that you could open an account with a protocol.
– On way home and in significant despair, note an Itau branch near your apartment. Wait five minutes in line to go in because a woman cannot figure out what in her purse is making the revolving door metal detector block the door every time she goes through.
– Talk to a very, very pleasant agent who says, yes, Itau does accept the protocol. Consider hugging her, but resist.
– Hand over all your documents. Yes, your CPF is fine. Yes, your proof of residence with its colorfully sealed recognized signature is fine. Yes, your passport with its fancy Rectification will do ... oh, no it won’t. It does not list your mother’s and father’s names?
– Consider slugging her, but resist.
To get married in Brazil, you need to get several documents from your home consulate, including a certificate of being single and a "name document" if you or your parents names have initials on your birth certificate. You also need your birth certificate translated by an official translator and stamped by a Brazilian consular officer in your home country, and then the original birth certificate and translated birth certificate must be certified by a city licensing office. The actual marriage requires two rounds of paperwork, and the two witnesses at the marriage must submit a certified copy of their identification. You really need to be in love.
It's harder when you get married in a small city, as one reader, an American in a rural town in Bahia discovered, when a local bureaucrat suggested he return to Illinois to have his birth certificate changed.
Getting divorced is a pain, too. One reader, a Brazilian living in the States, found out the hard way. She registered her marriage with a cartório, as well as the Brazilian consulate in the U.S., in case she and her husband ever decided to move to Brazil. But when she later filed for divorce, she discovered it wasn't going to be easy to file in Brazil, too. She explained:
"To register the divorce papers at the same cartório, I had to get a letter from my ex, with a notarized signature, stating that he agreed that the divorce would be registered in Brazil. This letter had to be 're-notarized' by the consulate stating that the American notary's signature was real. I had to have all these papers translated and had to hire a lawyer because these cases have to go to the Superior Court in Brasília where the judge decides that the American papers are indeed valid. When that happens I will get a document by the Brazilian government stating that indeed my divorce is real. The lawyer cost me more than my whole divorce!"