article from June 20, 2011
by Julie R Butler
Most people are probably aware that living in Latin America involves dealing with some level of corruption. But what does this mean, exactly? To what extent are countries corrupt, and how does this affect people’s daily lives?
The standard definition of corruption is “the abuse of entrusted power for personal gain.” From the responses to the disastrous 2010 earthquake to the recent headlines coming out of Buenos Aires about the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, the issue of the corruption in aid efforts is particularly enraging. Not only does this affect the needy who are denied help and the donors who are betrayed, but it appears as the tip of the iceberg that is the larger problem that affects everybody, pointing to such problems as lack of oversight, nepotism and favoritism, and a culture of corruption that can mean a potentially dangerous erosion of the rule of law.
The good news is that, according to Transparency International, not all Latin American nations score poorly in their Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). In fact, Chile and Uruguay are in the neighborhood with the UK, Belgium, the US, and France in the 2010 index. Among the better-ranking Latin American countries in the index are Costa Rica, Brazil, Cuba, and El Salvador, whereas Honduras, Haiti, Paraguay, and Venezuela rank lowest (in that order). The index is based on perceptions, which are likely to fluctuate wildly from year to year, depending on political climates – for example, Chile will probably fall in the 2011 index in parallel with President Piñera’s fall from grace, although the country will still rate highly among Latin American nations.
Of course, corruption varies greatly in nature and degree. It encompasses such issues as bribery, extortion, kickback schemes, and embezzlement, as well as transparency, accountability, and effectiveness. It ranges in scope from the local to the regional to the national and even the international levels of government and their dealings with private entities.
Its results also vary from the annoyance of wasted time and money spent greasing wheels to get things done in life, to victimization by crimes without having anywhere to turn to for justice.
The major expat communities of the world are somewhat removed from areas and situations that are physically dangerous, even in such notorious countries as Mexico and Colombia. But it is a given that living in most places in Latin America means taking your personal security into your own hands, because the police are either corrupt, incompetent, or both. Sensible safety precautions must be taken while traveling, there are known places to be avoided, and homes can be protected to some extent by having a few dogs or perhaps hired security. One may also be able to live in a gated community or a more secure neighborhood. Speaking at least some level of Spanish is also a kind of protective measure, because you may be able to talk your way out of sticky situations or stand up for yourself, when necessary.
Beyond the lack of a police presence that many see as a part of a freer life with “less government” regulating their lives, high-level political corruption is easy to brush aside as having little to do with everyday life. Yet it has everything to do with establishing a culture of corruption at all levels, and it affects the quality of life for everybody in society.
This kind of corruption can mean that the head of the country’s immigration makes it difficult for you to become legalized, while allowing criminals or slave laborers into the country in exchange for big payoffs, as was recently the case in Panama. Or corruption can be like that which exists in Venezuela, where the government is currently laying the blame for horrible mismanagement of the electrical system of the country on the users, applying a 200% “overuse” surcharge on electric bills that it deems to be too high. And the ongoing and always dramatic scandals that arise whenever someone is caught with their hand in the till of public funds only causes more cynicism toward governments that are elected on their promises of popular reform. Anyone who lives in Buenos Aires can attest to the difficulties caused by the constant clamor of street protests calling for social justice and government accountability in a city that is already plagued with major traffic problems, not to mention a constant shortage of small change and other banking issues that inject a measure of chaos to everyday life.
Government corruption is a concern that is not often discussed in terms of what to expect when living in a foreign country, like dealing with poverty. It is something that people learn to live with throughout the world, taking it in stride as a part of the culture or a social evil that can only be addressed with the patience of slow political progress. Everyone deals with their own situations differently, but the important thing is to be prepared to have to deal with being extorted by a traffic officer or some government official in a dank office who holds the power of his stamp over you. It is a paradox of living the “simple life” that things seem to be far more complicated than they should. Pero eso es la vida.
Julie R Butler is a writer, journalist, editor, and author of several books, including Nine Months in Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). She is a contributor to Speakout at Truthout.org, and her current blog is Connectively Speaking.
email: julierbutler [at] yahoo [dot] com, Twitter: @JulieRButler