Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

I-CONnect Symposium – Peopling Constitutional Law: Revisiting ‘Constitutional Ethnography’ in the Twenty-First Century – Part III. Ethnographic Encounters with Brazil’s Constitutions

Jeffrey Omari, Northern Illinois University, School of Law

Even after transitioning to a constitutional democracy at the end of its military dictatorship in the mid 1980s, Brazil has remained a country with a deep history of socioeconomic inequality. Indeed, during their control of the presidency from January 2003 through August 2016, a primary aim of the progressive Worker’s Party (or PT) was to mitigate the decades of inequality that had plagued Brazil since the era prior to its dictatorship, which began in 1964. While the PT offered federal assistance programs that sought to reduce extreme inequity, they also advanced laws that promoted open and democratic internet regulation. In 2014, under the guidance of former president and PT leader, Dilma Rousseff, the country ratified its foundational internet constitution, known at the Marco Civil da Internet (MCI). The MCI purports to democratize internet governance in Brazil through implementing a right to internet access and protecting net neutrality, among other concerns. Since the MCI’s ratification, the country has also passed a data privacy law, the LGPD, and is considering legislation to curb so-called “fake news.”

Consequently, one of the questions I grapple with in my research is why a country with a history of widespread socioeconomic inequality would attempt to democratize the internet when its real-world democracy is clearly so inequitable. Would a more democratic online experience carry over into the real world, and help make life more just for the disadvantaged? Or would the injustices of the real word bleed into the virtual world and stifle that country’s attempts for democratic internet governance? Such attempts at so-called “technological solutionism” have been critiqued by scholars for the unforeseen effects they may bring to a nation’s politics, culture, and society. These questions, coupled with the fact that Brazil is one of few countries in the world to ratify a democratic, internet constitution, makes it an ideal locale to investigate these concerns.

Professor Kim Lane Scheppele has argued that an urgent issue in constitutional ethnography remains understanding how the experiences of some constitutional settings are helpful for understanding others. With this theory in mind, I’d like to share an ethnographic anecdote from my fieldwork in Brazil. While this anecdote does not speak directly to digital rights or internet governance issues per se, it does illustrate how broader constitutional dilemmas and issues of democratic rights are often experienced by people on the ground. Consistent with recent ethnographic scholarship that demonstrates the precarious nature of Brazilian democracy, this narrative illustrates the inequitable ways in which democratic rights are experienced in Brazil. I suggest that these inequities also bleed into Brazil’s cyberspaces, which destabilize the country’s efforts for democratic internet regulation.

“Brazil is a false bureaucracy!” my Afro-Brazilian friend, Jeff, exclaimed to me in English as we walked down Rua Visconde Pirajá, just a block away from Rio’s Ipanema Beach. Jeff was learning to speak English and he liked to practice his developing language skills when we were together. Jeff was in the process of securing a passport. Since I was familiar with the bureaucratic turmoil that many Brazilians endure when handling any state-related administrative issues, his proclamation that Brazil is a “false bureaucracy” did not quite make sense. “Do you mean false democracy?” I asked curiously. “Yeah, it’s that too!” Jeff said, as he smiled and began to blush. I suspected that he was embarrassed, realizing that he could not clearly express what he meant in English. “No worries,” I said laughingly, “Tell me what you mean in Portuguese.” 

That afternoon, I had stopped at a shoe store in Ipanema where Jeff worked. He was just leaving the store and asked whether I wanted to accompany him to a nearby art gallery. I was free that day and always enjoyed talking to Jeff, so the walk gave us time to chat. Jeff was one of the first people I encountered during my fieldwork in Rio. One day, a few weeks after I arrived in Brazil, I met him when I was looking for comfortable walking shoes. He could tell I was a foreigner and asked where I was from. I told him that I had just moved to Rio from California for research. Jeff spoke to me in broken English, so I knew he was Brazilian. In his early 20s, he dressed with a hip-hop street style that was common in large cities in the U.S. Jeff had grown up with his father in a poor, working-class neighborhood known as Rio Comprido. After he turned 18, he moved in with friends and started taking graphic design classes at the public university in Rio. But Jeff was a b-boy at heart, and dancing was his true passion. His dream was to travel to New York City and find a way to earn a living as a dancer. Thus, he needed a passport.

Like many administrative necessities in Brazil, there is an incredible amount of bureaucracy involved in securing a Brazilian passport. Since Jeff was planning his first visit to the U.S., he had to endure the bureaucratic turmoil of applying for his passport, which led to our discussion that day. On this afternoon in particular, Jeff had just returned from the passport agency, and he was frustrated. He explained to me how Brazil is often touted as a new democratic society. Yet, according to Jeff, certain segments of the population are not treated in a democratic manner. As an example, Jeff summarized his experience with the passport agency by stating that administrative and governmental structures that are supposed to uphold the rights of Brazilian citizenry encumber the process, which ultimately makes life more difficult for certain segments of Brazil’s population. Indeed, Brazil has a long tradition of an institutional bypass, known as the jeitinho brasileiro, which is a type of social hierarchy that the elite often use to avoid rules and get things done. According to Jeff, notions of wealth, privilege, and class play an instrumental role in this longstanding tradition. As stated by Jeff, those, like him, from certain race and class backgrounds had to endure harsh bureaucratic norms while Brazil’s more privileged merely bypassed the frustrating red tape.

Although Jeff grew up in a working-class family, he was from the Rio’s North Zone ––an area historically known as one of Rio’s most poor and disenfranchised–– and as a young Black man he understood the complicated racial and class dynamics of the city. When I asked Jeff which segments of the population experience the brunt of Brazil’s “false democracy”, he told me it was clearly the dark-skinned, the poor, and especially os pobres dos mais pobres (the poorest of the poor).    

Unbeknownst to Jeff, his claim that Brazil is a “false democracy” is similar to numerous anthropological studies, the most recent of which describes Brazilian democracy as “precarious.”  With this scholarship in mind, I found Jeff’s analysis of the trouble with Brazil’s democratic institutions particularly compelling because Jeff was not a scholar. He was simply a working-class, young Black man who provided me with a glimpse into the lived-detail of Brazil’s democratic system through his lens and through the lens of his Afro-Brazilian contemporaries.

Since it is important to understand how the experiences of some constitutional settings are helpful for understanding others, one thing that became increasingly apparent from my fieldwork was how many of the inequities that Jeff discussed with me map onto Brazil’s cyber spaces. Indeed, the correspondence between the inequities of Brazil’s real world constitutional democracy and those of its online spaces is readily apparent. Such online inequities include a remarkable lack of overlap between the social media networks of rich and poor Brazilians, which has been shown to adversely affect the political engagement of disenfranchised. More recent examples include politically sponsored disinformation campaigns, which prey upon Brazil’s poor to gain a voting base in low-income communities. Such online inequities remain salient in our present moment, as the country has just voted out its extremist, right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro.

Injustices in online spaces often hinge upon the historical problems a constitutional system seeks to address. Since the ratification of its constitution in 1988, Brazil’s underlying socioeconomic inequalities have remained intact. In codifying internet laws that purport to advance democracy, the Brazilian government has attempted to use technological governance as a means of mitigating many of the inequalities that have plagued that nation for decades. And while many of those from poor and working-class backgrounds, like Jeff, continue to experience the country’s efforts as eliciting a “false democracy,” the return to PT governance with the January 2023 inauguration of its president-elect, Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva, offers signs of hope.

Suggested citation: Jeffrey Omari, Ethnographic Encounters with Brazil’s Constitutions, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Apr. 26, 2023, at:


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