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Worldwide Corruption

Lessons Learned In 20+ Years Living And Investing Overseas—The Time I Paid A Bribe

We Americans seem to believe that corruption is rampant in much of the world outside our own country. What we Americans can forget is that the United States is not corruption-free. It’s just that corruption has been legitimized in the States. Super PACS, lobby groups, “non-profit” entities—these are all examples of legalized corruption in my view.

Sure, you won’t get tapped for a US$50 bill if you’re pulled over by the highway patrol in most states anymore. The little guy has been squeezed out of making an extra dollar on the side in the United States for the most part…unless you’re the sheriff of a small rural county down South. In other parts of the world, the little guy still can get away with skimming a few bucks here and there.

Two schools of thought exist regarding the idea of paying a bribe to someone like a police officer who has stopped you on the road or a bureaucrat who’s holding up your residency application. The first is that paying the small amount of money to facilitate the process and make your life easier is just the expedient thing to do. Why not?

The other thought is that you should never pay a bribe. It’s just a bad idea. I belong to this second school.

I used to boast that, in all these years of living and investing around the world, I’ve never paid a bribe to anyone anywhere. Then I recently remembered a time when I did. Well, I didn’t actually “pay” the bribe myself, but I gave a US$20 bill to someone who worked for me and told him to go pay a guy off for me.

I was living in Argentina and working for a drilling company. My three-month tourist visa was running out, and the company still hadn’t made any progress on my residency and work permit. I had to leave the country. Fortunately, the office I was setting up for the drilling company was in the far north of Argentina about 30 minutes from the Bolivian border. Making a border run from this part of Argentina to Bolivia at that time (which I did frequently) was like the border runs I used to do from Arizona to Mexico growing up. Living in Arizona, this was common. We’d all go down to Nogales to shop.

In the case of Nogales, it was really just for the fun of crossing a border. I already owned all the Mexican blankets and leather duffle bags I’d ever need. The runs to Bolivia were for things needed at the base camp for the rig workers. However, just as, when making a run from Arizona to Nogales, you weren’t actually “entering” Mexico, neither were you formally entering Bolivia when crossing into the country from Argentina. You didn’t need any documentation to travel to the Bolivian border town to shop for the day, and your passport wasn’t stamped coming or going.

On one of these trips, my three-month tourist visa was about to expire. I needed a new stamp from Argentina. But the Argentine immigration guy wouldn’t give me a new stamp even though I was re-entering the country from Bolivia, because I’d never been processed as actually leaving Argentina and entering Bolivia. Meantime, the Bolivian immigration guy wouldn’t give me a stamp to indicate I’d entered that country unless I was planning on staying at least three days. At least that was the story he told my assistant at the time (my Spanish wasn’t very good back then).

That’s where the US$20 came in. Standing on the Bolivian side of the border discussing my options—which were to stay in Bolivia for three nights or to pay off the immigration guy—money won out over time. Wasting three days in Bolivia wasn’t an option and I knew that continuing to argue with the Bolivian immigration officer was a waste of time.

My Argentine employee was appalled when I suggested we offer the guy a bribe (surprising as Argentina is hardly a corruption-free zone), but he took my passport and the US$20 and headed back to the immigration counter to obtain my stamp. With that stamp indicating that I had entered Bolivia, I was able to re-enter Argentina and get a new three-month tourist visa.

That was my first and only border run.

Maybe I could have extended my tourist visa at the immigration office in Salta, the capital of the province in Argentina where I was living. But, back then, I didn’t even know about that kind of option. Plus, Salta was hours away and likely the fee for extending my stay would have been more than US$20.

But that was many years ago. As I said, I’ve never made a border run nor have I paid another bribe since. Today, I have a no tolerance policy on bribery. For me, adopting this position hasn’t been a moral or an ethical decision but a pragmatic one.

Over the past two decades that I’ve been moving around the world, I’ve been pulled over by traffic police several dozen times in eight or nine countries at least. Each time I get out of the car, smile, and let the cops do their thing. Most of the time, they try to be discrete in their suggestions that, if I pay them a little something, they’d be happy to let me go. I just don’t engage the conversation. It helps not to speak the language, so, even if I do, I pretend that I don’t. Eventually, without fail, they give up and let me go.

Once in Panama, though, the cop stated directly (in Spanish) that I had a choice. He could write me a ticket, or I could pay him US$20. I told him to write the ticket. He did so with an efficiency not often seen in Panama, as he wanted to get back out on the highway in search of a better prospect for his beer money, I guess.

Living, retired, or spending time in a foreign country, you won’t need to worry much about whether or not to pay a bribe. As a typical expat or retiree, you won’t be asked for a bribe often—maybe by traffic cops when driving or by front-line bureaucrats processing paperwork for you. Unless you’re doing business (developing a piece of land, for example, building a factory, or undertaking some other large-scale activity), you aren’t likely to be affected by bigger corruption issues. Regardless, in whatever context the situation arises, my advice is: Don’t pay the bribe. Ever. It may seem efficient at the time, but once you pay, you are marked as a payer. Word will travel fast in the relevant circles, and, from there on out, everyone you encounter or try to do business with will try to extort something from you every step of the way.

Plus (and I’d say that this is the real point to remember), you have to remember that you have no control over anyone you pay a bribe to. How do you know that the guy is going to do what you’re paying him on the side to do? You don’t. And, if he doesn’t, you have no recourse. You can’t go to his boss to say, “I paid that guy under the table to get me a permit, and he didn’t.” Maybe the guy quits, gets fired, or moves to another department before he’s able to follow through for you. Maybe one administration is voted out, and your guy doesn’t have the right connections in the new one. Maybe your guy just takes your money and disappears. You can’t predict or control any of those things, so paying a bribe is a crap shoot.

Unless what you’re trying to accomplish is illegal (in which case, you probably have bigger risks to worry about), it’s not worth it. You can always get done what you need to get done. It may take longer than you’d like it to take, but persistence and a smile are powerful tools.

Lief Simon

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