Costa Rica Graft for Which Every One of Us Pays

Reading a news article regarding the failure of Ukraine's new president, Poroshenko, in addressing the high rate of business and political corruption in that country led me to some statistics regarding the apparent level of graft in Costa Rica.

Hand shake that hides a graft payment
Everyone presumes it happens but are surprised when perpetrators are nabbed

The news there is not good, though Costa Rica citizens might take comfort that surveys show their neighbors, relatively speaking, to be swimming in graft whereas Costa Rica citizens require only hip boots to keep the stink off of them. Here, bribery is referred to as "la mordida" or the bite.

Eye-Opening Cases in 2004

Any delusions that most Costa Ricans carried about the cleanliness of their own government were abruptly shattered in 2004 when not one, but three ex-Presidentes came under investigation for cases of accepting "commissions" or "consulting fees" amounting to millions of dollars in relation to various government contracts in the utilities and healthcare industries. Many underlings, especially in the utility monopoly known as ICE (pronounced EE-say), were swept up in the corruption dragnet also.

How Costa Rica's Corruption Compares

A 2014 survey by Transparency International of public sector corruption gives Costa Rica a hardly respectable 54 out of 100 on their scale (#47 of 175 countries surveyed). Horrible, but certainly better than the 28 received by Nicaragua, and the 37 received by Panamá. 

Color coded graphic of countries' relative public sector corruption
Transparency International 2014 Public Sector Corruption Results

The World Bank Group's index measuring the relative ease of doing business within a particular country, and which includes corruption and regulator environment, ranks Costa Rica 83rd of 186 countries. Nicaragua and Panamá received scores of 119 and 52, respectively, although regionally Costa Rica is #2 behind Panamá.

Effects on Daily Expat Life

In the six years that I've lived in Costa Rica, I only recall one case where I directly paid a bribe. That was to two "off-duty" cops trolling the Pan-American highway up on Cerro de La Muerte on a Sunday afternoon. They caught me speeding on an empty road and I paid them $20 to drop it in accordance to their thinly veiled suggestion.

I'm sure, however, that I, other expats, and the citizenry pay bribes indirectly every single day. Graft, whether it comes in the form of hidden bribes, nepotism or laws favorable to a particular company or individual accounts for much of the governmental and business inefficiency in the country, from which everyone incurs extra costs. It is a significant contributor, for instance, to stratospheric electricity rates in a country that has vast hydroelectric generation.

What Can Be Done?

The current President of the Republic, Luís Guillermo Solís, ran on a platform calling for strong anti-corruption policies, but either he has not made much progress towards that promise yet or I have not been paying close attention. My expectations were low from the beginning, however. A president in Costa Rica only has a 4-year term after which he must wait at least another 4 years to run again. Given how embedded the practices of nepotism and la mordida are throughout the public sector, it's unrealistic to believe that significant changes could be made in that short of time, unless his successor also picks up the banner and runs with it.

I'm certain that if there were an increased rate of bringing both high and low-profile cases to court coupled with trustworthy mechanisms put in place for everyday citizens to report graft that some headway could be made, but it could all fall apart during the next administration. After all, there are structural causes to overcome such as low wages, the tendency to look the other way and the ubiquitous lack of personal accountability.

For now and the foreseeable future, "the bite" is something, though mostly hidden, that expats in most developing countries must learn to live with.

Please feel free to express your experiences and opinions regarding corruption where you live in the comments below.

1 comment:

  1. a little depressing, still probably not as bad as Chicago. The bane of most developing nations.


Thanks so much for your comment! - Casey

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