Ciao to Tchau

Ava Hoffman - Brazil

April 4, 2013

In the words of political scientist Joseph LaPalombara, it is a “society in which a narrow circle of families control most of the wealth and much of the political power. While universal suffrage and mass-base parties have brought democracy…they have not unseated…the ruling political class” (111).

Guess what country I am talking about?


Seeing as I’ve been living in Brazil for the past six months, the logical answer is Brazil. Right?

As it turns out, if you answered Brazil, you’re incorrect. I omitted a key phrase in LaPalombara’s quote: “…democracy to ordinary Italians…”. Those of you who know me well are probably thinking at this point: Ava is in Brazil and she is STILL obsessed with everything Italian?”

Well, living in Brazil, and moreover participating in an abroad program, I’m constantly tempted to compare my experience here with the experience that I had participating in School Year Abroad Italy during my junior year of high school. While I do my best to maintain an open mind, regarding my experiences separately in order to fully appreciate my current abroad experience, I can’t help but identify similarities—and differences—between the two nations and their cultures, languages, and traditions. Aside from the common Latin roots of Portuguese and Italian, and the shared cultural obsession with soccer and coffee, the most striking analogy that I’ve perceived in my experience is the parallel between Brazilian and Italian political environments—including the penchant for corruption and impunity in the realm of public affairs. Two ensuing social consequences, applicable to both Brazilian and Italian societies, are extreme regional disparity and the frequent neglect of democratic principles in favor of clientelistic ones. In this blog, I draw attention to similarities and differences between the two systems, and discuss the role and importance of civil society in Brazil and Italy, respectively, in a globalizing world.


Primarily, one congruent aspect of the Italian and Brazilian political systems is “power permanence”—the presence of a network of select individuals who maintain such significant authority over the state and its resources as to be capable of making policies in selfish interest (Fabbrini). Often times, in both Italian and Brazilian governments, these select individuals share not only elite status but share family ties. In Brazil on the Rise, author Larry Rohter describes the Brazilian political system as “a family affair even today.” Rohter writes that Former President José Sarney, “who for more than 40 years has been the political boss of the northeastern state of Maranhão” perhaps best exemplifies this paternalistic tradition. Fernando Sarney, the former president’s eldest son, is responsible for “the family conglomerate of television and radio stations” and was appointed “a vice president of the Brazilian Soccer Confederation, posts he continues to hold after he and his wife were indicted in 2009 for racketeering, money laundering, influence trafficking, making false statements under oath, and falsifying documents” (47). In reading the preceding description, one name rings a bell in my mind: Berlusconi. You may recall the former Italian prime minister who in addition to being the owner of Italian soccer team A.C. Milan and the largest shareholder of media conglomerate Mediaset, the politician who led Italy for three nonconsecutive terms has padded his political resumé with allegations including tax evasion, mafia involvement, soliciting minors for sex, fraud, and bribery. His seventeen-year presence in the political arena even coined the term “Berlusconismo”—used to describe the corruption characteristic of Berlusconi’s tenure. Returning to the topic of the Sarney dynasty in Brazil, Fernando’s sister Roseana “has served three terms as governor of the state and also has been elected twice to Congress, while his younger brother, José Sarney Jr., has been a cabinet minister and now, after changing party three times, serves in the lower house of Congress” (Rohter 47). Clientelism, “a vertical chain of subordination and favors,” plagues both Italian and Brazilian politics from the top down (Rohter 256).

Not only do Italy and Brazil share clientelistic politics and widespread corruption, but the two systems also share a political culture of impunity. Both political cultures bear a political framework that is centered on a social framework—and by social framework, I mean a family framework. Italians and Brazilians both have distinct views on the way to behave in the public sphere (the strada or rua) and in the private sphere (the casa). Yet, corruption tends to occur when familial norms overpower public norms thus allowing the public sphere to be shaped by the social framework. This causes the public arena, including access to jobs and social services, to be defined by “family ties, political affiliations and…string-pulling recommendations” (“No Italian”). Reliance upon “family and clan loyalties and the informal sector” infiltrates the entire social hierarchy, creating an impenetrable cycle of corruption and impunity (Parola).

The two societies also share an affinity for loopholes. In the words of Joseph LaPalombara, “Italians value ambiguity…Asked how things are going, an Italian may reply, si tira avanti—“life goes on.’ And how are problems solved? Ci arrangiamo—‘we improvise’” (104). The idea of “improvising” is remarkably similar to a Brazilian concept known as the jeito. Literally meaning a knack, the jeito is often used to describe “a way around” a rule. The jeito can be as relatively “harmless” as using a personal connection to expedite a wait in line, but also is used to justify informal and illegal activity, for example bribery. One famous Italian (Neapolitan) proverb goes:  “Fatta la legge, trovato l’inganno,” meaning “Made the law, found the loophole” (LaPalombara 117). Accordingly, a well-known Brazilian saying goes, “Aos meus amigos, tudo, aos meus inimigos o rigor da lei,” meaning, “To my friends, everything, to my enemies the rigor of the law” (Rohter 47).

Civil society is a necessary term to understand political ambiances in these two countries. Civil society is a concept that has been largely developed by American political scientist Robert Putnam. Putnam defines civil society as autonomous associations formed by citizens, serving as bridges between the state and the individual. Civil society is comprised of networks of individuals who share a common interest—for example, neighborhood councils, religious groups, or various non-governmental organizations. Through the act of associating, citizens in turn generate trust through building “social capital”—the social “good” that is produced through coordination, cooperation, and communication and through rendering more conscientious, civic-minded citizens.

As I previously mentioned, one social parallel between Italy and Brazil is the extreme diversity among regions.  According to Robert Putnam, “economic, political, and social disparities among the…regions are greater than in virtually any other advanced country in the world” (57). Putnam refers to Italy in the preceding quote yet I would contest that Brazil certainly provides some “competition” considering that Brazil is increasingly gaining international
repute as an “advancing” nation in the least. In Italy, the north is known for its superior political efficacy, compared to the southern, corruption-prone regions. In Brazil, the Northeast is often criticized for its “backwardness” in contrast with the supposedly more progressive South and Southeast.

Putnam attributes the efficacy of Italy’s northern regional governments to the high levels of civic engagement. In the south, the “opposite of civic politics is not no politics, but rather a quasi-feudal type of patron-client politics” (Putnam 66). In regions including Puglia, located in the far south, Putnam discovered that citizens actually did have frequent contact with their political representatives; however, the contacts were “primarily personal matters.” On the other hand, in the most “civic” region, northern Emilglia-Romagna, citizens contacted their representatives primarily in the form of interest aggregation because “leaders are not drawn so exclusively from the traditional ruling classes.”

Putnam grants each region in Italy a level of “civicness,” which when placed on the map, makes Italy look
roughly like Image A (white being not civic and dark grey being highly civic). I would hypothesize that Brazil’s map of “civicness” would look roughly like Image B.

Image A

Image A

Image B

Brazil JPG


Though there are many similar aspects between the Italian and Brazilian political atmospheres, there are notable discrepancies as well. While Putnam’s study in Italy measures associational life, and the level of civic culture, by the act of associating rather than the purpose of association (on the premise that any means of civic interaction generates networks of cooperation), in examining the case of Brazil, I believe it is absolutely necessary to consider the purpose that existing associations serve. Brazil is considered to have an incredibly vibrant civil society in looking at the numbers of associations. However, in my own experience, while it’s undeniable that there are a great number of associations ranging from church groups to residents’ associations to ONG’s (NGO’s), the presence of such groups does not necessarily imply that they are increasing civic engagement. I find that the existence of associational life and its efficacy are disconnected. For example, in the contact that I’ve had with various non-governmental organizations in Salvador, I have found that many organizations present themselves as being very legitimate, professional, and progressive. Yet, such ideals are often conceptual and in reality, many organizations lack the funding, manpower, level of organization or community support to achieve their desired social outcomes.

One considerable difference to consider is that Italy’s main source of political tension an ideological cleavage. Italy, unlike Brazil, is not an ethnically fragmented society. On the contrary, Brazil is extremely racially stratified. In spite of the myth of a racial democracy, Brazil contends with severe racial injustice, and consequently, debilitating social and economic inequalities. Italy is ranked by the GINI Index—a measure of income equality on a scale from 0 (perfectly equally distributed) to 100 (perfectly unequally distributed)—as a 31.9. Brazil, on the other hand, is rated as a 51.9—the 16th most unequal in the world. To give the GINI scale some context, the United States ranks as a 45.0, Scandinavian countries range in the 20’s, and the five most unequal states are African nations ranging from Sierra Leone at 62.9 to Namibia at 70.7 (CIA World Factbook).

Furthermore, Italians and Brazilians have a very different approach to the concept of change. Italy, even in times like these of economic stress and decline, is bound to traditionalism. Many Italians admit that they simply can’t be competitive in the global market, and the best option to keep the economy afloat in the future is continuing to do what they know how to do best—“quality over quantity”. Italians have a negative view of change because throughout history they’ve found that “change has seldom been for the better” (Addio). Italians’ adherence to traditionalism has “in some respects, served them well. It is what explains their superb cuisine, for example. But it is also the root cause of the mess they are in now” (Addio). Brazil, on the other hand, a nation that is “on the rise” in the global sphere, embraces globalization as the key to its growth as a world power.

—What Next?—

Moving forward, I wonder, how can Brazil reconcile the eager attitude for change and the old-fashioned clientelistic political dynamic? Is Brazil’s rapid growth in a globalizing economy coming at the expense of cultural identity? How can Brazil take full advantage of their “vibrant” civil society—and how can Brazil translate their plentiful civil society into positive social outcomes and increased public participation in politics?

In the time I’ve spent in Brazil this year, I haven’t found answers to these questions—rather, the further I probe, the more questions I have about the various benefits and repercussions of Brazil’s development. However, my experience working with NGOs in Bahia has offered some insights into Brazilian civil society. I acknowledge that many citizens feel neglected and feel that politics is confined to a self-serving oligarchic elite, particularly on a regional and local basis—where in theory, leaders should be the most receptive to local needs. I see people who are frustrated with the inefficiencies and shortcomings of their government—yet who feel disempowered as if they lack the means or motivation to get involved and make a difference. At the same time, I can relate to such frustration. Even as a volunteer, I realize that I can’t drive an organization lacking the infrastructure, and moreover the interest and commitment, towards being more “effective” or “efficient” (in my Americanized view of these concepts). For example, I’ve encountered many obstacles in the beginning stages of implementing my Final Community Project, a garden in the backyard of a local cultural center for youth. The organization plays a very powerful role in the community as a place for children to participate in art and music and gain exposure to international cultural exchange. At the same time, the organization has been lacking funding and in trying to actually build the garden, I’m left with broken tools—literally.

Moreover, I believe that these challenges that Brazilian civil society faces reflect some of the challenge that I have personally experienced. I realize that the measure of my own impact is not guaranteed by my mere presence—just like the sole existence of civil organizations won’t necessarily propel the development of democracy in Brazil. Rather, my impact will be measured by how I take advantage of the opportunities that I have, amidst various challenges, in order to make my work the most effective possible.

I’ve seen that despite the vastly different economic, social, and ideological differences between Italy and Brazil, there are remarkable political similarities. Brazil and Italy aren’t at odds—in the scheme of global powers or in my own book.

But…if you are in the mood for some competition, perhaps you better tune in to the real showdown of global prominence on June 22nd at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, the 2013 FIFA Confederation’s Cup soccer match: Italy vs. Brazil.




Addio, Silvio. “The Italian Crisis.” The Economist.  12 November 2011. Web. 28 February 2012.

“Distribution of Family Income—GINI Index.” CIA World Factbook. Web. 3 March 2013.

Fabbrini, Sergio. “Political Change without Institutional Transformation: What Can We Learn from the Italian Crisis of the 1990s.” International Political Science Review. Vol. 21, No. 2 (April 2000), pp. 173-196. Sage Publications, Ltd. JSTOR. Web. 24 January 2012.

LaPalombara, Joseph. “Partitocrazia.” The Wilson Quarterly. Vol. 12, No. 2 (Spring 1988), pp. 98-117. JSTOR. Web. 24 January 2012.

“Outline Transparent Blank World Map.” Image. Web. 11 March 2013.

Parola, Stefano and Luca Rastello. “How Italy is Adjusting.” The New York Times. The New York Times: Op-Ed. 21       August 2011. Web.  28 January 2012.

Putnam, Robert D, Robert Leonardi, Raffaella Y. Nanetti, Franco Pavoncello. “Explaining Institutional Success: The Case of Italian Regional Government.” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 77. No 1 (March 1983) pp. 55-74.The American Political Science Association. JSTOR. Web. 13 February 2012.

Ava Hoffman