Moving to a new country is invariably daunting. Some places make it more difficult than others. Take Brazil, where The Economist sent me two years ago as a reporter. The bureaucracy there is maddening, my São Paulo-based predecessors warned me. As a byword for administrative complexity, “Brazilian” could vie with “Byzantine”. Red tape perpetuates Portuguese colonisers’ love of stamps – to liberate my belongings from customs, for instance, I needed a stamp for every notarised copy of every page in my passport, covers included. And, as one diplomat later remarked to me, the administrative system has an inflexible (and interminable) chain of command common to military bureaucracies, such as the one honed under the autocratic rule of a string of generals from 1964 to 1985.
Thanks in part to technology, Brazil does have pockets of official excellence (just as Constantinople did). Its electronic-voting system is nothing short of miraculous: in a continent-sized country of 204m people it returns the results of nationwide elections a couple of hours after polling booths close. Except for a loony fringe, no one challenges their validity. Cash-transfer programmes funnel hand-outs directly from the central government to bank accounts set up for millions of poor recipients, bypassing local bosses with a record of skimming for themselves and using their power over disbursements as a source of patronage.
But those are exceptions, I kept hearing. My only consolation was that, coming from a post-communist country like Poland, I was perhaps more inured than my Anglo-Saxon antecedents to the Kafkaesque potential of the public sector. Still, I was bracing myself for a slew of Joseph K moments. So it came as a surprise when my initial encounter seemed to refute my colleagues’ fear-mongering.
To get anywhere in Brazil, you need a tax ID, known as a Natural Persons Register (CPF) – without it you won’t get a mobile number, let alone a bank account. On Brazilian soil, securing it is straightforward enough: it is issued on the spot when you turn up at a tax office. From abroad, not so much. You must file an application at a consulate, which is then dispatched to Brasília in a diplomatic pouch, processed by the revenue service there, and sent back to you (in another pouch, evidently). It can take months.
Aware of this, I applied in September before the planned move in January. Plenty of time, I reasoned. And it would have been, a consular worker helpfully explained, had Brazil’s foreign ministry not recently halved the number of pouches to just one a month (cost-cutting, apparently). Throw in the long Christmas break, and I would be cutting it fine.
Then, a glimmer appeared in her eye. She asked me to wait, before disappearing for 20 minutes. She re-emerged waving a piece of paper. “We generated a CPF for you remotely,” she reported, her voice tinged with disbelief. A new system making this possible had just been installed. I was, she proclaimed proudly, the first person in Britain to take advantage of it.
Rather pleased, I spent lunch debunking the myth of Brazilian bureaucratic torpor to incredulous friends. Later that afternoon I returned to the consulate, where I had arranged to meet a senior diplomat for a chat. He listened patiently as I gushed about my experience. Then came the cold shower: “About that…” he began.
The system was up and running, yes. But for the time being it was reserved for Cuban doctors recruited as part of a scheme to beef up Brazil’s understaffed public hospitals. My freshly minted CPF would be scrapped, the diplomat said apologetically; I must reapply. Given the tight deadlines, it would probably be best to try personally in São Paulo, where I planned a brief visit in October. That should work, he reassured me, with less conviction than I would have liked.
Chastened by my naiveté, a month later I dutifully showed up at a tax office in a dodgy bit of downtown São Paulo, with my assistant-cum-translator in tow. After some inevitable queuing, we were beckoned to a counter. Without going into the details of my predicament, my assistant asked the official to issue me a CPF. With a wimpish smile to evince deference, I proffered my passport. As the bureaucrat began typing in my particulars, her brow furrowed. “But senhor already has a CPF,” she snapped.
Our protestations that I am neither Cuban, nor a doctor, fell on deaf ears. The system had nothing to say on the matter. To this day I use the same CPF. I still don’t know if Brazil’s taxman thinks I am a medic from the Caribbean. What I do know is that Brazilian bureaucracy obstinately refuses to embrace the better version of itself. In that, it is indeed bonkers.