Sunday, April 01, 2007

A culture of bribes

Yesterday El Deber ran this picture of the head of the local Immigration office being hauled off to jail in a big bribery scandal. He is charged with running the highly lucrative business of providing quick turnaround on passports for $300 to $700 at a time when a lot of desperate Bolivians are trying to leave the country to look for work. If you don´t pay the bribes, you have to wait for months to get a passport. He´s smiling probably because he knows he won´t be in jail long. When things cool down he´ll be out.

The pace of bribery picked up recently as April 1 was an important deadline. On that day, Spain would no longer admit Bolivians on tourist visas, the usual way for them to enter the European Community to look for work illegally.
Ironically, the guy going to jail was brought in a few months ago to clean up all of the crooked dealing going on under his predecessor. But there is evidently too much money floating around for anyone to stay clean. One newspaper article mentioned that there was a network of more than 50 travel agencies and an unspecified number of paperwork fixers (tramitadores) involved in this illegal traffic.

Meanwhile, the ruling party of President Evo Morales has shown new levels of audacity in the business of giving jobs to political friends. The old corrupt system was bad, and the new one has taken it to new heights. Under the old system, you had to prove party loyalty to get a government job. Under the new corrupt system of Morales´s party, you also have to pay $500 to $1,000 to the party official who gets you the job. The cash payments are an innovation of the socialist government. When Morales learned of the problem he turned it over to his own party to supposedly clean it up. They charged a couple of low-level sacrificial lambs but all of the ringleaders have escaped any judicial action.

My own experience
I´ve had some visa difficulties of my own with Bolivia´s immigration officials. Let's just say that it helps to know the right people. Meanwhile, the visa that I actually need to be here as a guest university lecturer requires 15 steps, of which I have completed five.

1. It started with an Interpol background check at National Police Headquarters, where I was fingerprinted and photographed. In addition to the legally required fees of 50 bolivianos, I had to pay another 50 bolivianos, a day´s pay, in illegal, undocumented fees for which I was not given receipt. I have a document now that says I´m not an international terrorist or drug smuggler.

2. Center for Tropical Disease Research, 180 bolivianos for blood tests for AIDs and yellow fever; told to return the following day for results. No bribe required.

3. Back to police headquarters to get a certificate of antecedents (show passport to prove I´m an American), required thumbprint, 25 Bs official payment (plus 5 Bs payment, not legal, demanded by clerk), told to come back for document next day.

4. Police headquarters again, proof of residence, also required thumbprint, official payment of 13 Bs (plus 20 Bs illegal payment, demanded by clerk), told to come back for completed document next day.

5. Had photo taken for NIT, national tax ID, downtown atprivate studio, had to come back next day, 15 Bs.

Meanwhile, it´s possible to get your visa extended by anywhere from 30 to 90 days, depending on the whim of the immigration official, by leaving and re-entering the country. I did this once to Peru and once to Chile. It appears that the 15-step visa process will be moot. I´m good through June 18.

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