Compadrazgo (Chile)

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Location: Chile
Chile map.png
Author: Larissa Adler Lomnitz
Affiliation: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

Original text: Larissa Adler Lomnitz, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

Compadrazgo is a system of reciprocity in Chilean society, which involves ongoing exchanges of complimentary services (favores – favours) performed and motivated within an ideology of friendship. Such favours are often of a bureaucratic nature and usually involve giving someone preferential treatment and thus compromising the rights and priorities of third parties, or of the community as a whole.

The popular term compadrazgo is a euphemism for this institution, which should not be confused with the ritualistic Catholic institution of God-parenthood which shares the same name. Compadrazgo is typically used to obtain something with greater ease and in less time than it would otherwise take. The desired end is usually legal, though the means may be less so. Such favours are given and received in a spirit of friendship and without apparent guilty feelings. It is important to note that the initial favour is bestowed without any overt thought of a specific reciprocal return. Nevertheless, both parties understand that the beneficiary of the favour is ‘indebted’ to person conferring the favour, meaning the latter can draw on a favour in return when the need arises. An unwritten principle of compadrazgo is contained in the Spanish saying: ‘Hoy por tí. mañana por mí’ (‘For you today, for me tomorrow’).

Bureaucratic favours are the most common use of compadrazgo: acquiring certificates, licenses, permits, transcripts, passports, identity cards, tax clearances, and countless other ‘red tape’ items which would otherwise require many mornings spent queuing and chasing paperwork from one office to another. Compadrazgo may also be used in obtaining special facilities at customs, waiver of military service, granting of import licenses, and other such bureaucratic awards. Pushing a friend or acquaintance to the top of a waiting list for scarce items or services which have long waiting lists is also common: telephone service, buying a car at wholesale price, scholarships and grants, service commissions abroad, and so on.

Job placement is another common use of compadrazgo. President Ibañez (1956-1962) is popularly credited with saying in relation to filling a job position, ‘Between a relative and a friend I prefer the relative; between a friend and a stranger I prefer the friend.’ Lower echelon jobs in the administrative bureaucracy, which are in great demand among a large and relatively unskilled segment of the middle class, are frequently awarded through compadrazgo. The actual process of job hunting consists in mentally reviewing all one's personal connections in order to locate someone who is close to the source of appointments in a given agency. Conversely, finding a person for a job opening involves going over the list of one‘s relatives and friends in the hope of discovering someone suitable. Personal recommendations are vital and represent an important favour to the applicant. Compadrazgo may be regarded as the basic mechanism of job allocation in the irresistible growth of the low-level bureaucracy in Chile. Even highly qualified people do not apply unless they are assured of strong backing through compadrazgo connections.

Credit in Chile is often beyond reach of the middle class because of the high collateral required, but a well-placed friend in a bank or credit association can facilitate matters. A Caja is a credit union operated under the social security system; it is supposed to provide loans, but is chronically short of funds. With the help of compadrazgo, as soon as fresh funds for loans become available the compadre (friend) can be notified ahead of the general public and his application guided to the top of the pile so as to get it processed before the funds are exhausted. The provision of confidential ‘tip-offs’ based on inside information is a typical use of compadrazgo. None of this appears to the practitioner as strictly illegal since (as one responded told the author), ‘no harm is done except to the people waiting in line, every one of whom would have done the same if he'd had the right connection.’

Lawyer informants claim there is no end to the use of compadrazgo in legal matters. Files get conveniently ‘lost’, charges are suspended or sidetracked, witnesses are coached, fines or bail are set at minimal levels. The case of marriage annulments is typical because the legal case hinges on a technicality, e.g. proving that the clerk who performed the wedding had no jurisdiction over the place of residence of the couple. Proof may be furnished by ‘witnesses’ who could be easily discredited unless the judge was willing to go along for the sake of friendship or compadrazgo. Characteristically, the spirit of the law counts for less than the spirit of friendship, as long as the letter of the law has been formally complied with.

What cannot be obtained through compadrazgo? According to informants, anything that goes against the ideology of friendship and ‘decency.’ Sexual advances made by a man as the result of granting a favour to a woman would be regarded as extremely gross behaviour. Any behaviour which infringes middle-class standards: theft, murder, taking advantage of women or vulnerable people, and in general acts against dignity and ‘chivalry.' Such acts would destroy the rationale of friendship by degrading it into downright complicity. Compadrazgo has a moral code which sets boundaries on permissible favours and return payments. However, cheating the Treasury (hacer leso al Fisco) is not regarded as a morally contemptible crime.

In general a feeling of friendship or common liking (simpatia) is considered essential for any compadrazgo relationship. Compadrazgo is essentially a personal relationship between individuals who regard themselves as social equals. They are people who are regarded as peers within the middle class ideology of friendship. Compadrazgo is largely confined to the middle class because its members are best placed to offer favours, i.e. services of a bureaucratic, business, and professional nature. Lower-class individuals could not reciprocate in kind, having only their manual labour to offer, while the superior status of an upper class member would be forfeited through the exchange of such favours, which would amount to a tacit admission of social equality with the middle class. Exchange may still exist between individuals of different social levels, but it lacks the reciprocal elements of favour plus friendship characteristic of compadrazgo.

Fieldwork by the author has revealed that informants are quite ambivalent about their compadrazgo relationships. They tend to feel uncomfortable discussing personal benefits obtained, particularly financial, political or legal benefits. Favours which cut red tape are acknowledged freely, but more important benefits are mentioned sheepishly and accompanied by apologetic explanations. Most informants agree that compadrazgo should not exist in an ideal society, but important individual differences were observed in the degree of rejection. Some rationalised the use of compadrazgo as a response to scarcity and pointed out that it develops positive traits of friendship and mutual assistance. On the one hand, the ideology of friendship and unselfish assistance is viewed as positive and worth preserving at any cost. On the other hand, it is recognised that compadrazgo is unfair to others, and perhaps to society as a whole. Thus the ambivalence of attitudes appears to be based on conflict between the ideology of class solidarity based on friendship and reciprocity, and the liberal ideology of free enterprise and advancement on merit.


Johnson, J J. 1961. ‘The Political Role of the Latin American Middle Sectors.’ Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 334(1): 20-29
Lomnitz, Larissa Adler. 1988. ‘Informal Exchange Networks in Formal Systems: A Theoretical Model’, American Anthropologist, 90(1): 42-55 Lomnitz, Larissa Adler. 1971. ‘Reciprocity of favors in the Middle Class of Chile’ in G. Dalton (ed.), Studies in Economic Anthropology, Washingtonn DC:American Anthropological Association Petras, James. 1970. ‘Negociadores Politicos en Chile.’ Monthly Review, Enero-Febrero