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Corruption Overseas

Corruption Free?

A reader wrote last week to ask about corruption in countries we report on, wondering why we don’t cover this subject more often and more directly. He referenced Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions report (you can read it here), results in which more than 75% of the countries score lower than 5, indicating a “serious corruption problem.”

The reader in question is looking for a “comfortable, corruption-free life” and wants to know where we’d recommend he go to find it.

I can understand basing your choice for where to relocate overseas on the weather. Or the cost of living. Or even (though I don’t recommend it) the local approach to taxation.

But making your big-picture decision for where to live based on the perceived level of local corruption? Focusing your search this way might lead you somewhere you don’t really want to be.

That aside, to address the issue the reader raises…

No place is corruption-free.

Further, what seems unacceptably corrupt to you might be not a big deal to me…and vice versa. As the name of the survey from Transparency International (TI) indicates, it’s a matter of perception.

I wouldn’t base my perception of corruption or of its impact on my life on a survey. I would (and do) base it on my experience of a place.

In TI’s survey, Panama and Colombia rank lower than Uruguay and Chile…and the United States ranks lower than Chile, too.

Is Chile less corrupt than Panama, Colombia, and the United States? The answer to that depends on who you are and what you think you’d like to do in any of those countries.

The corruption that you encounter anywhere depends on the activities you’re involved in. If your intention is simply to retire to a place, I’d say corruption is likely to be a non-issue for you in most of the countries we write about. Your exposure would likely be limited to interaction with local police and immigration (when processing your residency visa).

If you plan to run a business, you might have a greater concern. If you’ll be dealing with government contracts, you might have a greater concern still.

The most typical potentially corrupt encounter for most of us is the local cop pulling us over because we’ve committed some infraction to do with operating a motor vehicle. We drive too fast. We don’t yield properly. We don’t slow down when passing through a town. Etc.

Lief and I have been pulled over dozens of times in dozens of countries for driving over the speed limit or committing some other traffic violation. Every one of those incidences was an opportunity for us to offer a few dollars to the cop on the scene to encourage him not to write us a ticket. In one case, we were explicitly instructed regarding our options–we could pay a bribe or take the ticket.

We’ve never paid a bribe, and only twice have we actually been issued tickets (including the time when paying a bribe was explicitly presented as an option we didn’t opt for). Pretending not to speak a word of the local language and acting as though you don’t understand what’s going on can be an effective strategy. It has worked for us from Argentina to Montenegro.

On the other hand, a reader, a Panama Circle member, in Panama recently, was pulled over for excessive speeding. He used his cell phone to call our office from the scene.

“What should I do?” he asked Marion, our Panama Circle Member Liaison.

When our reader-friend explained how fast he’d been driving, Marion figured the potential amount of the ticket, which likely would have totaled a few hundred dollars.

The policeman was suggesting that an on-the-spot payment of US$100 could expedite things.

Marion to our reader-friend: “Offer US$50.”

Which our reader-friend did. He was on his way in a matter of minutes (and drove more slowly throughout the remainder of his trip).

Was that the right thing to do?

I don’t try to make those kinds of judgments. I don’t like to pay bribes and don’t. But it’s not for me to say what anyone else should do. Certainly, our reader-friend did the efficient thing.

Bigger picture, is Uruguay less corrupt than Colombia? Probably. Would a retiree on the ground in either country notice a difference between the two? Probably not.

Should you decide where to spend your time based on published reports of local corruption?

I can think of better ways to make that decision.

Kathleen Peddicord

Your New Life In Panama

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